Don’t buy my book for Fathers Day
Fathers Day - or in our house Feathrs or Farthers day depending upon the cards I received last year - is nearly upon the kids. Last year I got lots of cards - approximately 8 by my count. I don’t have that many children nor did I discover I had some I didn’t know about. Instead my known children were extremely productive; to the tune of 2.67 cards per child. What is more, they were all self-made.
We now have a rule at home that Hallmark holidays should mean that no money should be spent that would go anywhere near Hallmark. That means everything is made.
Not only did I get the cards but several paintings and a treasure hunt. The last one was imaginative but, ultimately fast, because my then 6 year old son organised the whole thing but didn’t have the patience to wait for me to decipher his clues and took me straight to the treasure.
That is just as well because without some form of Da Vinci Code codex the mystery would have stood for a millennium.
Of course, as an economist I have to point out that this exercise saves neither expense nor stress; both of which are borne by the other parent in spades. It is much easier to pop out and buy something. Herding the children into doing something is much, much harder. And when they get enthusiastic managing them down is virtually impossible.
That said, when it comes down to it, Fathers Day shouldn’t be about the father, but the child. In this respect, our inefficient drive towards self-produced gifts is part of a broader learning drive. In our case, it is not about the joy of giving as much as about the costs of doing so and the meaningfulness of them.
When face a similar dilemma when it comes to parental birthdays. It used to be that coming up with a birthday present for one’s spouse was a stressful but ultimately useful exercise in the demonstration of true love. It is something I have handled with distinction, if I do say so myself.
But nowadays, it is all complicated by the necessity for the children to give their parents a present. And it should be clear, the purpose of that exercise is for the children to show just how much they love the said parent concerned. Last year, my son’s choice of birthday present for me at least was dubious. Reminiscent of an old episode of The Simpsons (probably from 17 years ago) where Homer struggles to find a birthday gift for Marge and buys her a bowling ball (even though she doesn’t bowl), he gave my a DVD of Happy Feet.
He did much better for his mother’s birthday that year. He was convinced that she wanted something to use in cooking and that it had to be purple. Suffice it to say, she ended up with not one but two sets of salad tongs that were various shades of purple. They at least had the quality that it was not obvious that they were things he wanted. Let’s face it, he doesn’t usually eat salad.
Mothers Day, this year, involved a reversion to arts and crafts. This involved dismissing a suggestion by my son that he play with Lego and see what comes of it. Instead, we needed ‘real’ and ‘planned’ art projects. Those are both time consuming and messy. They also require a ton of thought; especially on my part.
To be clear, in this situation it is the role of the other parent to ensure that the children understand the point of the exercise. However, what one quickly finds is that, if the point is to demonstrate their love, the role of the other parent quickly becomes one of hiding the truth of the matter. Suffice it to say, you don’t want to find out how little your children love you; especially on your birthday.
Now the whole exercise takes some doing. For instance, in conversation with my now 7 year old son, the concept of “effort” was lost:
“Why don’t we just order something over the Internet?”
“Well, you need to think about what would be appropriate. It is the thought that really counts.”
“OK, I THINK we should order something over the Internet.”
“That really isn’t much thought. You need to think more.”
“How long do I have to think for?” (As if he is being forced to play outside or something)
“As long as it takes to come up with something that your mother will really want.”
(5 minutes pass)
“OK, I have thought about it. I REALLY think Mummy would want something bought on the Internet.”
And so on.
In the end, some art appeared and forced demonstration of love was achieved.
Which brings me to my point. Fathers Day, like Mothers Day, is not about the presents but the lessons for the children. It is about ensuring the other parent suffers for at least a week in sole responsibility for that endeavour thereby serving as a reminder of why you actually need the other one.
So given all of this, I urge you not to just go out and buy recent book Parentonomics just because you think Dad will like it (although he will). Engage in the tortured task of encouraging self-made gifts. Only in that way can you give someone a lasting memory. Like the inscription on the card I received last year from my 8 year old daughter: “Dad, we will never forget you.” It was a nice send off.
Joshua Gans is an economics professor at Melbourne Business School and a father of three. His new book Parentonomics (published by New South) is available in all good bookstores.
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