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Gift Giving for the Littlest Graduates
Posted on May 24, 2013 by Teresa Palagano

With spring comes graduation ceremonies and the question of appropriate gift giving for graduates of all ages. Any milestone is a good time to think about investing in the future. Here’s help for grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends make good gift-giving decisions when it comes to those special moments in the youngest graduate’s life.


On Aidan’s first day of kindergarten, he walked hand-in-hand with his grandmother to the schoolyard where he fidgeted with his new Spider-Man backpack and waited to meet the mysterious Ms. Comer—the teacher he had heard so much about at summer’s end. “I remember being very nervous for him,” says his grandmother Rosie Knaub. “He was so shy. He stared at the ground and it was as if I could feel those butterflies flutter in his stomach.”


Just the other day, as Aidan barreled out the door for a before-the-bell game of four-square, he proudly announced that there were just three weeks left of class. “I can’t believe he’ll be off to middle school next year,” says Knaub, who watches Aidan three days a week for his working parents. During this time of year, as kids line up for cap-and-gown ceremonies, the how-time-flies wonderment is a widespread sentiment. But how the occasion is celebrated is much more split. Does a grade-school graduation warrant a big party or a Popsicle? Is a present appropriate? If it is, what do you get the little grad? To get a read on how people are marking grade-school or middle-school graduation, we talked to etiquette experts, combed Web posts and interviewed moms who’ve been there, done that.


Surprisingly, those interviewed have very strong feelings about what’s appropriate when it comes to this childhood milestone. “I watched Aidan go from singing the ABC’s to acquiring an intense interest in renewable energy sources,” says Knaub. “This was a big, important chunk of his childhood and I think a party and gifts are a good thing.”


Then there are those who believe these smaller milestones stir the pernicious influence of consumerism in their offspring, that expensive gifts and prom-styled parties send the wrong message. After all, we’re not yet sending grade-schoolers out to conquer the world; at most we’re sending them out to conquer the politics of the middle-school lunch room and these celebrations have a tendency to get overblown, says Collen Cooper, a Tenafly, N.J. mom of three. “If every day is super special with a gift or a prize then that’s what becomes ‘normal’ and the value of true achievement is lost.” A more reasonable way to celebrate the day might be to have an ice cream and check in on your little one’s college funds. How’s the kitty coming and are you saving appropriately?


Etiquette experts tend to meet somewhere in the middle. “There are opportunities in people’s life at milestone events where it is very appropriate to offer words of encouragement and wisdom and challenge. One such is graduation,” says Cindy Haygood, the Training Director at The Etiquette & Leadership Institute. How you celebrate is “truly a financial consideration: upper middle class, lower income families, the needs of the recipient.”


In general, people are spending slightly more on graduation gifts then they have in the past, according to the latest 2010 consumer survey by the National Retail Federation. The most popular gift is cash with 58 percent, followed by gift cards at 32 percent.


To determine how much is appropriate, consider things like your relationship to the graduate; what you can afford and what you have given to other friends and family members in the past. In general, if you are close to the parent but not the child, $20 is appropriate. For a distant family member, $30 is a good amount while $50 is generous for close family members. If you are invited to a formal, catered graduation party, etiquette dictates that you cover your meal plus a bit more.


“A cash gift is always a wonderful present when you do not know the likes and dislikes of the recipient,” says Haygood. “I always think it best to accompany a note on personal stationery and offer congratulations and perhaps some words of personal wisdom. Keep in mind that the best gifts always come with some personal significance… and when giving cash we have to guard against it being impersonal.”


For those who agree that a $20 bill in a card can seem a bit cold, you can ask if the graduate is saving for anything special—a laptop, a European vacation, a smartphone or even (gasp!) college. It’s a wonderful opportunity for moms to help their children create a special wish list—then suggest a portion of this and future gifts goes to the “wish” and another portion to a college fund.


Asked about the prospect of marking this milestone with investing in her grandson’s (Adian’s) future, Knaub sighs. “College, that’s just around the corner, isn’t it?