The Christmas rush has begun – ludicrously early, in my view, but it’s definitely underway!

Photo courtesy of ©123RF/Koosen

Photo courtesy of ©123RF/Koosen

So, as our minds turn to buying Christmas presents, I was put in mind of a dilemma that occurs when young people try to give us something back…

What to do when a young person offers you a gift…

I have an Eminem CD. Those who know me (and my penchant for music of a different variety) will know that I’m not an Eminem kind of guy. Really.
In fact, having my teeth done without anaesthesia would be preferable. It’s just not me. But I value this CD because a young person gave it to me.
My partner-who also works with troubled kids-has a mirror made out of a Cheerios packet. It was a gift from a lad she worked with in therapy.
I know, because she values it highly and always smiles when she mentions it.

When is a dilemma not a dilemma?…

When agencies make a mountain out of a mole-hill and ban the accepting of gifts from young people.
A friend of mine once offered to pay for a meal we’d had. When I politely tried to refuse, he said, “It’s an insult to refuse a gift…”
I spoke to a colleague recently who said her agency had a blanket non-acceptance of gifts policy. You just can’t do it. She went on to describe a young person trying to give a worker something he had made specially. The worker refused.
I think that’s an insult. Here’s why:

  • One way traffic – it says to the young person, “I can help you, but you can’t give anything back to me.”
  • Relationship. Really? – it calls into question the relational nature of your connection. Young people can be left wondering whether the friendliness and care are genuine – or are you just doing your job? This matters alot!
  • Dismissive – it fails to acknowledge the value of what’s being offered. This is nothing to do with money. It’s to do with communicating that we value what they’ve offered, and the time/cost they’ve invested in it.
  • Thanks, but no thanks – to turn down a gift, however politely, is just plain rude. And if someone is rude to me, I remember it. It affects me. More importantly, it affects my view of them…

[callout]”In short, the refusal of a gift sincerely offered, is to de-value the effort, investment and status of the giver.” Jonny Matthew[/callout]
This can be even more the case when the power gap between giver and intended recipient is wide.
Despite our best efforts to empower young people, we still hold most of the power most of the time. Refusing a gift underlines this, unnecessarily in my view.
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The power of gratitude…

Let’s consider what the acceptance of a gift communicates:

  • I value you – acceptance of something offered says, “I value this because you gave me it.” When young people give gifts it’s because they want to. That’s valuable. Accepting it acknowledges this.
  • I’m human – receiving something gratefully says, “I’m normal, I like receiving gifts.” Despite our status as professionals, young people need to know us a little too. Saying “thanks” communicates this.
  • Two-way traffic – all good working relationships are two-way things. Accepting a gift from a young person transfers a sense of power and beneficence to those who are more normally on the receiving end.
  • You have value to offer the world – when we accept and appreciate a gift, we implicitly acknowledge that this young person has something to give. Not just presents, but in life! This is an essential lesson for troubled young people.

I’ve written before about the value of empathy in engaging young people. What could be more axiomatic of this than appreciating the effort, cost and vulnerability of holding out a gift to someone? What could be less empathic and more insensitive than to refuse it?
[callout]”The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy…” Meryl Streep.[/callout]

Defensible decision-making…

As with any area of practice that is accountable, good recording and openness is key to all this. When I’ve been offered gifts by young people, here’s my approach:

  • Accept it gratefully – always. (I’ve not yet been offered a monetarily valuable gift!)
  • Say what the gift means – “I love this because…” or “Thanks for doing this for me!” or “You made my day with this.” Let the gratitude show in your face!
  • Record the event in the file – write a narrative account of what occurred. Give details of the gift. Say what the conversation entailed, including your “use” of the situation to encourage and build-up the young person. Get your manager to counter-sign it.
  • Maintain due diligence – ensure that you don’t alter your stance towards the young person. This is not about compromising on our professional responsibilities. It’s about expanding the working relationship to embrace the young person’s desire to give back.

If we do these things, I can see no remotely credible reason for ever refusing a gift.
But I can see that it might strengthen trust, deepen engagement and enhance the chances of achieving successful outcomes for young people…
[callout]”Being “professional” and jumping through all the organisational hoops will always be limited in their achievements. Unless we have empathy!” Jonny Matthew[/callout]


  • Why do you think we have reservations about receiving gifts from young people? How can we overcome these without compromising our professional integrity?

Please let me know – join the conversation by leaving a comment below or by clicking here.

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© Jonny Matthew 2014