Lessons on giving and receiving

It was Nolan’s birthday last week. I hesitated telling Jiang because I didn’t want her to feel like she had to buy him a gift. But, I think these kinds of worries are ones only shared by my family. My ever rational husband wondered why I wouldn’t just let her decide if she wants to get him something or not. So I pointed to March 1 on the calendar and pointed to Nolan and said, “birthday, one.” She smiled and nodded and said, “shēngrì kuàilè” which I took to be happy birthday since happy new year is “xīnnián kuàilè”. I’m really getting good at Mandarin.

So, on February 28, Jiang comes in with gifts. I’m not sure if it is customary to bring gifts the day before a birthday or if this is another case of lost in translation. I also am unclear whether both gifts were intended for Nolan, or if knowing how a 2.5 year old can be about other people’s birthdays, she decided to get Hunter something too. And before I go any further, I will say, with all sincerity, I am hugely appreciative that we have such a thoughtful Ayi, who every day shows me, she really loves my kids. This was the first gift.


You pull a string and it makes the pink thing in the carriage spin around and blow the little white balls in the air. (And out of a tiny whole somewhere, all over the floor, in the not so expertly designed toy.) Perfect for curious toddlers who love to put EVERYTHING in the mouths. The string also propels the wheels forward (sort of) so it moves, albeit more like a broken down, crippled carriage more fit for ugly step sisters instead of Cinderella.

The second gift is bigger and she was more excited to give it. She waited until the excitement from gift one subsided, then drew the boys in close and ceremoniously helped them pull the bag off of…


The AK 3388. Speechless? I was too.

While she fumbled with the packaging, I took advantage of the language barrier and quickly tried to teach Hunter that this was just a toy and that he didn’t have to play with it if he didn’t want to but he should say thank you anyway.

As if it wasn’t bad enough in the packaging, once opened, it got worse. It is LOUD. It sounds like a real gun and, when you pull the trigger, a spirited man bellows out what I assume is some national anthem. Either that or a battle song about warring with all those democratic softies.

Then, God bless her, she started showing Hunter the proper way to hold it and hung it around Nolan’s neck. I had to walk away.

I’m sure she hasn’t heard of Newtown, CT, or if she has, only knows the details a headline could capture. (We were on the plane home Dec. 14 so I don’t know what kind of media coverage it received here but when we got back Jan. 10, there was no mention of it.) I’m guessing she knows the prevalence of guns in American movies and maybe that freedom loving Americans love their guns. So why wouldn’t you get rough and tumble young boys a toy gun? But to see my sweet, innocent little boys holding a gun is…nauseating.

Luckily, Nolan isn’t really interested and after me saying, “that sounds scary,” Hunter now presses the buttons and runs away yelling, “scary!” He laughs and thinks it’s a game but luckily doesn’t wield it around like a mini Rambo. Really, I’ve just tried to ignore it as much as possible. I keep it up on the table, mostly out of sight and out of reach. If he asks about it or wants to play with it, I let him but I don’t play with him or react to it. I try to make it as boring as possible. We refer to it as “Jiang’s toy.” I don’t want her to feel like we are unappreciative of her gift so I don’t feel like I can get rid of it. If I could communicate my concerns to her I would but I’m just not sure how to do that without offending her or making her feel bad.

The day he got it or maybe the day after, there was an article in the Huffington Post. (You know how when something is called to your attention, you seem to then find references to that thing everywhere…?) The article was written by a mother of two boys who wrote about how she felt it was good for her boys to play, unsupervised with whatever kind of toys they wanted. They should be allowed to play with toy guns, spears, sticks and “roughhouse.” She said it’s important for them to learn, on their own, when they’ve crossed a line. She sited an instance when her older boy got a little too rough with his younger brother who started crying. Instead of jumping in to settle things, she let them work it out and the older boy realized he couldn’t play that rough, apologized and comforted his brother. Her boys need to learn to navigate peacefully but assertively in the world without her and the lessons they learn playing as children will help them figure it out. I agreed with a lot of what she wrote. She made me rethink my uneasiness with this gift. Am I being too alarmist? Too nervous? We live in a world with guns…maybe this is a teachable moment, how to use guns responsibly?

So I did a little research to try to gauge my reaction to other parents’ feelings on toy guns. In the past five years, the sale of toy guns has grown dramatically. On the other hand, prepare for your kid to be shunned if he brings one of these toy guns to the playground. And if he even pretends to point his hand like a gun and say “pow pow” to another kid at school, hire a lawyer. (Really, hundreds of cases where a zero-tolerance policy at school has resulted in some absurd cases.) One expert, who was of the philosophy, let them play shoot ’em up games said, “play is play. Violence is violence.” I think this is the equivalent of “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Another expert said that kids who are exposed to more violent images, tend to act more violently. So, like all parenting issues, don’t bother polling other parents, because everyone has an opinion and everyone likes to judge those who are not in agreement with their opinion.

Instead, I will take my cues from my innocent, curious, gentle boys. I am going to have to address the complicated issue of guns at some point but not now. Just as I don’t let them play with toy switch blades, toy explosives and toy whips, I don’t want them playing with toy guns, even if they don’t quite “get it”. I do believe that violent video games eventually desensitize kids to violence, and princesses eventually destroy the self images of girls, toy guns will eventually warp my kids’ sense real power of a gun. And I also believe that gender specific toys are damaging to kids’ perception of gender roles. But the reality of our world is that I cannot ignore video games, princesses or guns as much as I may want to. And I hope to someday have a good answer to the question, “why can’t boys play with Barbies?”

For as uncomfortable as I am having my kids play with a toy gun, I am also a little uncomfortable making a big deal of it out of fear that it might just peak their interest. I’d rather have them learn to appreciate the kind gesture of someone who loves them and accept gifts, however big or small (or arguably inappropriate), with gratitude. (And keep my fingers crossed that they remained a little scared and uninterested!)

3 thoughts on “Lessons on giving and receiving”

  1. I believe that you have the right answer to the delimma of appropriate/unappropriate gifts and your last paragraph expressed it beautifully. wish I could have said it so well. Can’t we find a publisher? love ma


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