The XX Factor

The 4-year-old and the Gift Card

I really, really hope my aunt doesn’t read this-because I just found the gift cards she gave my kids for Christmas last year in my glove compartment. Then 8, 5, 4 and 3, they quickly forgot about the cards, and I, harkening back to our horrible experience with them the year before, somehow managed to put them out of mind as well. We skipped, then, the dramatic visit to the store in question, filled with angst from the child unable to find anything she truly wants for that amount of money, but clutching something that costs just a few dollars more close to her heart. Avoided the cries of the child who doesn’t get why her brother’s card will buy him two tiny cars but her only one toy mobile phone. Bypassed the moral dilemma of the child whose allowance enhanced savings can be added to the gift card while the children too young to receive an allowance have no such advantage, and the explanation of why some things cost what it says on the price tag, and some things are 50% off.

I know gift cards are, once again, among the most popular gifts out there for 2010 . Dan Kadlec, from the Bank of Dad” blog on CBS Moneywatch, even names them as one of the top gifts for teaching kids about money. In the abstract, that makes perfect sense. So how can something that seems to bring so many other families such practical pleasure end up offering me, at least, so much pain that I’m apparently willing to add $80 to someone else’s bottom line rather than spending it?

My advice to myself, on solid reflection, is not to require the now 9-year-old to expend his card on the same visit as his excited younger siblings. He understands money and can benefit from comparing prices and waiting to make a purchase. For the youngest of them, I’ll allow plenty of time for a shopping visit, instead of squeezing the toy aisle into a busy trip. I’ll take deep breaths. I’ll remember the joy, when you’ve very small, of choosing something you really want.

My advice to the giver of gift cards, though, would be to consider what you’re really giving. A bookstore gift card can mean “anything in the store,” while the same kid in Wal-mart has to understand that she can’t use the card on a bike. That’s a great lesson for a six-year-old that may only mean tears to a preschooler, and tears are probably not the present you had in mind. It’s also worth noting that up to a quarter of all gift cards are still (like ours) unused a year later, resulting in another unintentional gift-to the retailer. So, a final piece of advice to anyone who wants a friend or relative to know she remembered the kids this holiday season, but doesn’t know what to slip into the envelope: one single dollar can buy a thrilled three-year-old anything she wants in the grocery store check-out lane.