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The Meaning of the Gift

Updated: Dec 10, 2019

Volume XVI, Number 2 Summer 2019

At times we all have to make sense of things that happen to us. One of the most useful questions in thinking through a transition or event is “what is the meaning you have given to this?” Understanding what that meaning is and how you developed it can illuminate your life, can help you organize it, and can even cause you to evolve. When a transition, event or gift impacts our lives, whether by accident or other’s design, usually we are on our own to discover and assign meaning to it. In the case of an impact by design, as with a gift, it is most helpful to know the intent of the giver, to be better equipped to understand it and put it to constructive use.

Recently, a colleague, Darwin Toll, told me he was preparing for a meeting in which grandparents wanted to tell their young-adult grandchildren about upcoming gifts and to convey their intentions with their gifts. They knew how valuable a clear explanation can be. It is a simple objective, yet worthy of soul-searching preparation. In most wealthy families there are resources coming at these young adults, which can impact them for better or for worse.

The first task is to sort out what you intend to be the meaning of the gift. You will have your own intentions, of course, and some additional popular ideas are: to strengthen the lives of rising generations; to facilitate learning and education; to initiate stewardship; to give resources without restriction; to give resources to be held for a certain purpose, for instance, health; to promote philanthropy and understanding of the joy of helping others; to give freedom that parents and/or grandparents never had; to work around taxes as much as possible; and to test. Each one of these ideas needs further illumination, so this is the reason for the soul-searching preparation. Take time to define your meaning so that you can communicate it clearly to those young adults who will be the recipients of your gifts. Many of your family members will take note of what you said.

An easy place to begin is by keeping the family stories alive, provided you have a willing storyteller or two. In thinking about where we came from, at first we all naturally start with telling any stories we can recall. This usually primes the pump and we begin to remember more stories. Then we can choose stories that exemplify family strengths. And in a sophisticated step we can progress to the full range: the good, the bad, the ugly, all of it. Where are we vulnerable? Is there a story that shows this? Make sure your offspring know their heritage. Repeat the stories from both sides, mom’s and dad’s, because it takes review of the full range to really get all of the subtleties of the collective memories. This is a great mission for older family members, usually the ones who know the most stories. If there is a book or written account to read, or a video to watch, revisit these together with your younger family members and then discuss. Ask them, “What did you learn from that?” “What values do you see in our family?” “How have you benefitted from our family history?” “How can you apply what you have learned?”

Topics and questions to highlight:

1. The family stories, what has made our family strong, what values sustain us, and how they have passed down the generations.

2. What we have learned about work.

3. What we have learned about marriage, parenting and children.

4. What the consequences of entitlement and arrogance are. What the benefits of humility and acceptance are.

5. What we have learned about money and wealth.

6. The purpose of the family foundation.

7. The best use of trusts in our family.

8. Grandparents’ hopes and dreams for rising generations.

If there is to be one meeting only, let it be the stories. If there are to be more meetings on the meaning of the gift, choose one topic per meeting. Darwin added, “I think there is an art to the ‘bite size’ — enough content to be worth the effort of the meeting but not so much as to be numbing.” This is an excellent guideline. Keep it simple and to the point. Say less, not more.

We all know that gifts can be misunderstood. Most of us can manage this pretty well at gift-giving holidays like birthdays. But what about much bigger gifts? Is it possible to look at the message of the gift from the point of view of the recipient? The gift can say more about the giver than it says about the recipient. Is this a gift out of obligation? Is it meant to make the giver look important? Will it be experienced as a seal of disappointment in offspring? To this point Darwin added, “Kind of a classic example is parents giving married adult children their annual exclusion gift without explanation and the son-in-law thinking it’s their subtle way of indicating that he is not providing enough, so they’re helping out.”

I have heard many stories of gifts being misunderstood. There was one of a son’s admittance to an ivy league university enabled by dad’s multi-million-dollar gift, reminiscent of the recent college admissions scandals. The son, who made his way to me twenty years later, was hindered by what he considered an insult to his intelligence by his father, and ongoing anger he still experienced every day. This gift had never been discussed. Assumptions were made. Other examples are substantial sums given for the purchase of a car or education, but never used for that purpose. Again, assumptions made and negative effects on relationships all around. In the absence of not being told, confusion and pain can be the main result.

On the other hand, the value of being told the intent by the gift giver is a tremendous vote of confidence and can be empowering and strengthening.

The annual exclusion gift, made by many wealthy families, is a great place to practice the meaning of the gift. Rather than simply transferring the money, tell what you intend with this gift. If you care how it is used, say so. You can suggest or instruct with the gift. If you don’t care how it is used, say so. From Darwin, “I was working with a family that for the first time, gave the young adult children half of the cash outright and the balance went, as usual, into a trust for each. They very carefully said, ‘Use this money this year’ and explained the savings that had been going on and would continue. The parents’ point was that they were at a place where $14,000 could make a nice difference and they didn’t think it would warp their sensibilities.”

Give your intention. Explain your gift. You may or may not be willing to discuss details with recipients but at least say what you intend. Reveal the meaning of the gift and your gift will be far more than dollars.

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