No More Handprint Mugs

This Holiday Season, Just Say No

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Or it would be, could be, if we could just let go of some of the insane expectations placed on mothers during the holidays. As a former teacher, I’m here to assure you: I don’t want your child’s handprint on a mug. And I’m betting you don’t really want to take the time to make one.

For some of you, that might sound harsh. I have an image in my mind of you, dear reader, glancing gleefully over at your newly purchased blank mugs and primary colored paints. So, let me say, right from the beginning, that if you are determined to give your child’s teacher a “handmade gift,” I cannot stand in your way. I know your crafts will be received with polite good humor.

All I can tell you is that at every school I ever worked at, some of the teachers opened their gifts over the trash can, discarding as they found appropriate before leaving to start their break. Your mug may not even make it out of the classroom.

I was not quite that pragmatic. Over my 10 years of teaching, I turned my spare room in my Brooklyn apartment into what I called the Depository of Misplaced Affections. There lived a dozen hand-printed mugs; several lavishly framed canvases covered in expensive daubs of oil paints with a child’s “signature” amended by a parent at the bottom; an apron, covered in tiny gold feet; one of the worst photos ever taken of me next to a child, turned into a mousepad; and, the coupe de grace, a tile trivet with a baked-in self-portrait by a child whose name I could no longer remember, although the large yellow blob she used to represent herself seems familiar. All of these gifts gathered dust until I moved three years ago, when they left their stay in limbo for the trash pile.

There are caveats, of course. Allowances can be made. Perhaps you are an award-winning artist, who would like to collaborate with your child. This happened to me once, actually; the mother painted a gorgeous photo frame and the daughter provided a small piece of artwork. After an appropriate interval of time, I replaced the artwork with a photo of my Godchildren, and the frame is still in use in my home. A truly lovely gift.

Or perhaps you are certain that your child is deeply special to the teacher and you have some sort of proof of this, preferably along the lines of the teacher pulling you aside on multiple occasions to say “Your child is deeply special to me!” If so, that teacher would probably love a gift made by your child.

We should also give a pass to those devoted crafters who insist on making gifts for everyone they have ever met. You are stalwart folks who, having spent days making a gift know the heart-crushing feeling that arises when its recipient says, “Thanks. It’s… nice.” You have lived with the fact that you have never seen your gift since. You know what to say to your child when they ask what happened to it. You know pain. If you wish to embrace it again, we salute you.

Otherwise, no. Stop. Don’t do it. There are two main reasons why not. First, as you probably already understand, giving a teacher a handmade gift is a cultural imperative, not an intrinsic expression of value. If you open an issue of many home and women’s magazines or scroll through Pinterest at this time of year, you’ll see dozens of self-proclaimed “great gifts to make for teachers.” Let’s be clear: these ideas have not been gathered from teachers. They have been dreamt up by people whose full-time job it is to make up stuff for moms to do. They create a need and then tell you how to fill you it. They give you an itch and then tell you how you must scratch. They put forth the idea that hand-made means more, is more impressive, holds the key to your child’s place in his teacher’s heart. They expect you to dredge up some semblance of craftiness when you are not a crafty person.

This is not fair, by the way. It assumes that not only do you have endless time to parent, but that you also have large blocks of time to take care of tasks that are, at best, adjacent to parenting. But you probably don’t. Because you have a job and/or other kids and/or aging parents and/or a myriad other demands on your time. What you might have is a free 45 minutes at the end of the day, time when you might like to read a book, watch TV or even talk to the other adults who live with you. You do not need to supplant that time with a session of crafting. This is the magazine’s idea of a need, not yours. Doing so won’t help your child. Or you.

Of course, this has nothing to do with teachers. These articles are feeding on mother’s anxiety about image, adding to the ever-growing list of things you must do in order to be considered competent. This is a shame, not only because you should feel good about your parenting skills as is, but also because the gift serves no purpose except to proclaim to the teacher, “I am the kind of mom who feels obliged to give you a homemade gift, without concern about who you really are, what you do and what you might actually want.” Your uneasiness about the whole business is justified; you know that this isn’t right.

Which leads me to my second point about why you shouldn’t give your child’s teacher a mug with her handprint on it. You’re confusing your child’s relationship with her teacher and your child’s relationship with her grandparents, godparents, devoted family friends, aunts, uncles, and so on. Teachers are not relatives. They do not love your child the same way you can reasonably expect any of those other folks to love your child. Stick with me, here, I’m about to get radical: It is your child’s teacher’s job to teach her.

Which means that while your child’s teacher may love him – and I certainly loved all of my students with varying degrees of vigor – they do not love only him or mostly him. They do not, cannot, love him in the same way his grandparents do. The teacher likely has at least 15 other kids – possibly many more – to teach, and while you may perceive your child as the most important in the class, his teacher does not. Learning to share things, including beloved adults’ attention, is part of the point of school. This is a good thing!

A grandparent can be reasonably expected to adore and proudly show off a handprint mug. A teacher, who has taught 30 kids a year for the last 20 years, cannot be reasonably expected to line 300 handprint mugs on meager desk space.

Well then, I am sure you are asking, what should I give? Group gifts are nice, and a gift for the classroom – a 12 pack of tissues, a giant bottle of hand santizer, extra child-size scissors– is usually a good idea. A classroom aide might be able to suggest something if you don’t want to ask the teacher himself. To be more personal, I suggest you look to the teacher to tell you. Does she carry a coffee cup into the classroom every morning? A gift card to the nearest coffee shop would be appreciated. Does he mention, frequently, his affection for the local sports team? How about a gift card to their store? You might be able to sense my theme already: gift cards. They’re always good. I don’t even drink coffee, but I still liked getting a gift card to the coffee shop closest to my school: I could get a round for my co-teachers or pick up a muffin when I was running late. Even a card from an office supply store does the trick; you’d be amazed how much schools do not supply.

I see you easing back to the mugs. You’re thinking “An office supply gift card? So impersonal!” Wait! Don’t cave! It’s totally possible to make a gift of money or a gift card more meaningful.

What I loved to receive, and what every single teacher I ever knew absolutely loved, too, was a note from my students. When I taught preschool, I would cry when I opened the card and read a mom’s careful penmanship, taking dictation on my charms: “Shannon reads books that I like, thank you, Shannon.” When I taught high school, I wept at the notes I received directly from my students. Some of them were dashed down on notebook paper and shoved at me as the last bell of the year rang, a true, spontaneous expression of holiday cheer. When I emptied out the Depository, it was the box of notes that I kept and carried into my new apartment. Those are the gifts that touched my heart.

Please know: your child’s words, put down on paper, is gift enough. Attached to a gift card is nice, too.

And the grandparents will love that mug, right?

This piece previously appeared in MUTHA Magazine: Exploring real-life motherhood, from every angle, at every stage.

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