Slate’s advice columnist, Dear (p)Rudence, has been doing “web chats” for a while along with the regular letters column. I have yet to actually bother to connect to one in real time, but the transcripts provided are usually pretty entertaining, and evidence that Ol’ Rudie (at least the current one) doesn’t quite have a good handle on what’s rude or not when it comes to politeness advice.

My bone of contention comes in with her advice regarding someone who continually gives the “gift” to someone of a donation to charity in their name.

D.C. Metro: I have a family member who sends a gift of some animal to the Heifer fund as a Christmas present to us every year. Every year I get more and more offended, as this is not a “gift” to anyone except themselves, as they get a tax deduction. My kids understand about giving to charity, but I cannot explain how this is a “gift” to us. I would like to tell this person to please stop sending these donations as “gifts” and only a card is fine.

[Ol’ Rudie]: What a good lesson for the kids! A family member makes a contribution in your family’s name to a wonderful cause, and you want your children to understand this isn’t really a gift but a tax deduction, and you want to demand a refund from the giver…

My first objection, however minor, is that Ol’ Rudence immediately misconstrues the position of the writer. They aren’t asking for a “refund”, simply that the giver refrain from such a “gift.” They aren’t even asking for a gift of any sort – a simple greeting card would suffice, as they write.

When challenged, Rudence responds with an even snarkier attack:

[Ol’ Rudie]: Clarksville, I hope everyone on your list knows you’d rather get a puce scarf from the sale rack than a donation to a worthy cause in your name.

The larger problem I have with this idea is that “giving to charity in someone’s name” is a rather smug, self-serving gift. When done unbidden, the social message it sends could well be that the “giftee” is a person who wouldn’t think to give to charity on their own and thus, the “gift” from the “giver” is making up for their moral shortfall. Or the social message, depending on choice of charity, is “I gave to them, you should be giving too.”

The little cards saying “Hey, I gave $XX to Charity Y in your name” have all the social tact of a card saying “Merry Christmas! By the way, if you didn’t donate to Charity Y you’re a terrible person, but don’t worry, I got you covered.”

Now this isn’t always the case. If there is an adult who has a specific connection to a charity, or has requested that people give in their name for instance, it’s probably fine. For example, a monetary donation to a local soup kitchen where your friend or family member regularly volunteers would probably be a wonderful thing, or a donation to an animal shelter or Humane Society/SPCA for an animal lover who has expressed a desire to support those organizations (and might not have financial wherewithal to make a donation of their own), would probably be taken as a truly thoughtful gift.

On the other hand, to do it to a kid? First of all, most children (the younger, the worse in this regard) do not have the mental ability to make that kind of connection. The abstract “I gave to someone in your name”, in a kid’s mind, is going to degenerate into “I gave your gift to somebody else.” Second of all, making the choice of which charity to give to yourself, rather than giving the “giftee” that option, adds the pressure of socially trying to force the person into some public acknowledgement of the “goodness” of the charity. While the charity in question may indeed be noble, people have a tendency to rebel against such a pressure.

Especially in the case of a kid, there are many better ways to handle such a thing. You want it to be as direct as possible. If you’re going to give to an animal shelter, take the kid to an animal shelter, have them make the donation in person, and maybe volunteer some of your time helping to clean up or exercise/feed the animals. If you’re going to give to a childrens’ hospital, have the kid visit some of the sick kids there (like in the cancer ward) and make some new friends to write letters or email to. If you’re giving long-range? Well, bite the bullet and send a real gift, at least until the kid’s reached the age of 10, and then ask them what kind of a charity they’d like to give to.

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5 Responses to Dear Rudie’s Fake Gifts

  1. PeterW says:

    It’s funny how adults have problems trying to directly combat this moral-superiority social signaling (objecting to charity makes you a bad person!) but kids, in their own way, see right through it.

  2. PeterW says:

    More to the point it is astonishing to me that Prudie misses the entire signaling aspect of this encounter. She never seems to get beyond “Charity is good, objecting to charity is bad.”

  3. Peter says:

    I’ve got a suspicion that most of these donations go to charities which the donors support, with the donors not being overly concerned with whether the recipients share their views.

  4. stone says:

    I read that too, and thought the same thing. Prudie seemed to completely ignore the self-centered aspect of the tax-writeoff for the gift-giver.

  5. trumwill says:

    Unless the gift was for a huge amount of money, I don’t think the tax-writeoff was an issue. I think smug-satisfaction played a role. I also think that Peter may have it backwards… one of the goals is to get the recipient to share their view.

    I like Prudie a lot, but sometimes she’s off-base. This is one of those times.

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