Budgets and boundaries in gift-giving, "lunch buddy" edition
December 18, 2017 9:40 AM   Subscribe

I have the opportunity to give my reading/lunch buddy the big gift on her Christmas list, but should I?

I've been a reading and lunch buddy for three years to a now 10-year-old girl. She has had quite a volatile family situation during this time (shuffled around to different homes to live with relatives, some of whom were unkind; mom is completely out of the picture; dad comes and goes; her temporary guardian last year turned out to have dangerous mental issues; she attended three schools during this time) but things seem to be more stable now - dad is back in town and she sees him every weekend, and she seems to like the aunt she is living with.

She's a sweet and tenacious little kid and I'll admit I have to fight my instinct to spoil her (fairy godmother syndrome). Last year the family she was living with was Jehovah's Witness, so she did not get any gifts for Christmas or her birthday. That doesn't seem to be the case this year, and she gave me a few ideas for Christmas - a mermaid-tail blanket (done), a Barbie house (out of my budget), and a tablet - the actual subject of my question.

I happen to have a three-year-old Samsung tablet that no one in our house is using and I'd like to give it to her, but I'm feeling a bit uncomfortable about it. I guess it is the perception of the expense (although it was given to me through a previous job and didn't cost me anything), and I don't want to make her family feel bad if they aren't able to get her something that feels extravagant. I also am not sure they have internet at home - she mostly texts me on a phone I think she got through Safelink - and worry that she won't be able to use it or she'll bug them for an expense they can't afford.

All of this could be handled in a phone call, of course, except I have no contact with her family. I think they know about me, but we have never met or spoken. I have good relationships with her teacher and the staff at her school, but haven't talked to them about it yet.

I'm interested in folks' reaction to this dilemma - am I over-thinking, or is it best to not give her the tablet?
posted by Sweetie Darling to Human Relations (13 answers total)
I'd vote no. Not just because you don't know if they have internet, but also because they may have Views on tablet usage by kids. We try to limit our daughter's tablet usage because if we don't she'll stare at the thing all day long. That would be made harder if the tablet was "hers", I think. Right now my wife and I claim ownership, so I can say "No, you can't use my tablet any more" and that has some force because it's mine and I get to say how people use my stuff. Saying "No, you can't play with your own toy that you were given" is trickier.

But I don't have any better ideas. Sorry.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 9:46 AM on December 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

Could you use the teacher to get it to her Aunt so Aunt can give it to her? Include a note explaining you got it from work for free, thought she would like it, but felt it seemed like too big a gift for your role in her life.

Getting it from a relative would help strengthen her family bonds, whereas getting it from an outsider would slightly weaken her family bonds. Stronger family bonds are an even better gift than a tablet.

And also mention in your note that if Aunt prefers, she can sell the tablet (let her know roughly how much it's worth on Craigslist) and use the cash for a different gift, or return it to you, whatever feels right to her.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 9:46 AM on December 18, 2017 [33 favorites]

I would probably mention it to the student's teacher to see what they think. They probably have more context on the home situation and might even be able to put you in touch with the parents.

My other concern would be if this is through an official school activity (which I'm guessing it might be given that you say this is reading-oriented and you know all the school people but not the parents). They might be wary of some lunch buddies giving high-value gifts to students while others don't or aren't able to. It seems like this could potentially create imbalance/jealousy among the kids if some are bringing home expensive gifts from school while others aren't. If this is not a formal school program, obviously feel free to ignore this piece of the advice! But it's something I'd be aware of when talking to teachers if it does apply.
posted by rainbowbrite at 9:51 AM on December 18, 2017 [5 favorites]

I'd be pretty wary of giving a child a tablet where I don't know the parents/aunt/guardian. It's not a self-contained gift; it opens the child up to all kinds of things via the Internet and requires a whole bunch of decisions and supports. My MIL lives with us, and gave my 6 year old her old tablet, and it's kind of been a bit of a nightmare from there.

I like the idea of asking the aunt via the teacher. The concern rainbowbrite raised about the equity issue is also a good one to think about.

I personally would simplify the whole thing and recommend just sticking with the blanket, and continuing to provide her with what she really needs which is ongoing support, rather than trying to buy into the Christmas Dreams Come True thing.
posted by warriorqueen at 10:17 AM on December 18, 2017 [7 favorites]

Can you set up the tablet so it doesn't require internet.. pre-load it with games, educational apps, things to read?
posted by fritillary at 10:20 AM on December 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

I would also ask the teacher but only because it may have repercussions with other kids in the program. I do think it would be enriching for her, at least socially. What a tough life for a child - an awesome present like this could really lift her up among her peers and continue to show her that good people exist in the world. I strongly doubt the aunt in question has Views on tablet usage since she allowed her niece to be run through the CPS system for years. I also wouldn't give it to the aunt for the same reason and DEFINITELY do not say she can sell it on Craigslist. Kids are resourceful and I bet your buddy can find wifi in lots of places so that wouldn't be a concern personally.

Good on you for being a great lunch buddy whether you give it to her or not.
posted by tatiana wishbone at 10:31 AM on December 18, 2017 [5 favorites]

Since you're reading buddies, how about an age-appropriate mermaid (or other) book to go with the mermaid blanket? She might enjoy having a book of her very own.
posted by elphaba at 10:38 AM on December 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

I like the idea of going teacher>aunt. Especially if you don't mind the aunt just saying it came from her; essentially, by going through her, you are letting her decide if the child gets a tablet, so in a sense it is coming from the aunt.

I also think that the concerns people raise about it are legit - and if you are unsure that it's a good gift, you could listen to that internal voice. The mermaid blanket sounds great!
posted by Lawn Beaver at 11:16 AM on December 18, 2017

The internet question may or may not matter depending on why she wants a tablet. Equally, it's possible that when she says "tablet" she means "iPad with that game all my friends play", so I would definitely try and find out more about what she wants so she doesn't get a big valuable gift that is absolutely wrong.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 12:59 PM on December 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

When I was 10, well-off friends of our family gave us a ZX Spectrum 48k computer for Christmas. My parents could never have afforded it. I'm sure the people who gave it to us thought we'd use it for nothing more than playing games, but having access to my own computer was literally life changing. I taught myself to code on it and developed a love for computers that led to my degree and subsequent career path. Things like the Internet weren't a concern back then but I think it's definitely worth exploring with the teachers and staff at school.
posted by IanMorr at 1:43 PM on December 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

When I was a Big Sister ten years ago, gifts were somewhat frowned upon. I can't remember the exact reason, but I think it was along the lines that a Big isn't a wish machine. I agree though that it is really tempting to give big gifts, but check with the program first.
posted by Calzephyr at 3:53 PM on December 18, 2017

As someone who works at an elementary school with 600 kiddos, many of whom are low income, I would say that giving this child a tablet is not a good idea. There are all the reasons you state- costs associated with running it etc. But there is also the fact that by law most apps and internet sites ask that users be 12 or older. There is also the fact that there is so much that can not be unseen on the internet. I think of the child mostly in that situation, but also the trouble that you might get yourself in if something bad comes to pass. There is also the piece about not trying to be a savior to the child- it is so easy to fall into this trap- I have so many times as an educator. Your consistent relationship is a huge gift to the child, and that should be your focus. I think a book with the blanket is a wonderful idea.
posted by momochan at 6:48 PM on December 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone who weighed in. You confirmed my reticence and also gave me some other considerations I hadn't thought of. I've put the tablet back in the drawer and bought a book (she gets lots of books from me). We have her birthday and 5th grade "graduation" coming up, so if I'm able to establish a relationship with her family in the next six months I will revisit the tablet question directly with them. Thanks again!
posted by Sweetie Darling at 4:34 AM on December 19, 2017

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