The Gift That Matters

“If we have the opportunity to be generous with our hearts, ourselves, we have no idea of the depth and breadth of love’s reach.” ~Margaret Cho

 From a very young age, my oldest daughter has been a gift giver. Like most children, her offerings consisted of items that adults wouldn’t ordinarily classify as gifts. Broken seashells, traumatized frogs, dying weeds, and misshapen rocks were often presented in small, dirt-laden hands beneath a wide smile. In the past two years my child’s gift giving practices have moved up a notch. Gifts are no longer found in nature; they are found in our home. Yes, it’s re-gifting at its best—wrapping barely-used items and presenting them with great love.

I must be honest; I used to cringe at the sight of my child tearing through our (multiple) junk drawers looking for the perfect gift. When she found it, she would beam at the “treasure” as if she just knew the recipient was going to love it. Then without delay, she’d get straight to wrapping.

Although highly practical and earth-friendly, this gift-giving practice brought to mind words like “tacky” and “cheap.” But for some reason, the control freak in me kept her mouth shut. Miraculously I had enough sense to stand aside and let my child give as her heart felt lead.

Last Christmas, my daughter spent hours wrapping barely-used bottles of lotion, tiny hotel shampoos, and gently-used books. She then declared she wanted to distribute the colorful packages to homeless people in the downtown area on Christmas Eve. Her very first recipient was a frail, elderly woman with sad eyes who clutched her life possessions in a ripped trash bag. It wasn’t until I watched this woman’s face completely transform by the mere sight my pint-sized-gift-bearer that I got over myself.

Shortly thereafter, my child thought it would be nice to create a care package for a family in India with whom we had connected through Samaritan’s Purse. On top of the new pajamas, packaged toothbrushes, and pristine white socks, she placed two hairbrushes that she and her sister had used for almost a month. She was adamant that the brushes must be included. It wasn’t until we received a thank you note with this picture that I vowed I would never cringe at her gift-giving practices again.

And last Valentine’s Day when we learned that one of my mother’s friends had lost her husband of 47 years, I suggested that we send flowers. My daughter assured me a handmade Valentine, created by her, would be the perfect gift. In response to my daughter’s card, the 80-year-old widow wrote:

“Thank you for the Valentine. I thought I was not going to get one this year for the first time in many, many years. It made me sad, but now I feel better because I no longer have to worry about being forgotten. Always remember that some people have the ability to smile on the outside when they are hurting on the inside. These are the people who may need your gift of kindness the most. I know this for a fact because I am one of them.”

As I read the dear woman’s note, my idea of a “proper gift” flew right out the window. And I began looking at my daughter’s gift giving practice with awe rather than embarrassment.

In fact, when the mood strikes and a present is needed, I actually look forward to the moment my daughter reveals the ideal gift she found at the bottom of her messy closet. Because I am now quite certain there is something magical in the way my daughter gives—in the way all children give. Perhaps you’ve noticed, too.

And if I had to give a name to such heartfelt gift giving, I would call it “Hands Free” gift giving:

Letting go of societal standards …

Letting go of monetary expectations …

Letting go of Pinterest perfection …

Letting go of consumer pressure …

Letting go of the need to out-do … to impress … to check off the list …

Letting go in order to give the gift that matters.

Through my observations as a parent and as an educator, I’ve summarized what makes the way children give so meaningful. I plan to refer to this list throughout the holiday season and hopefully for the rest of my life. My hope is that you will, too.

A “Hands Free” Guide to Gift Giving 

1. Give with open eyes and a willing heart.

Not only do children see opportunities to give, but they seize opportunities to give. I’ll never forget that day in Pike Place Market when my daughter walked by the disabled homeless man in a dingy pink cast. She stopped in her tracks and said, “I feel like I need to give that man some money.” So she did. She didn’t concern herself with the fact he was missing a leg, that there was no money cup next to his wheelchair, or that it was her last $5 bill … she just walked straight up, looked him in the eye, and offered her blessings.

This season, don’t walk by despair; if your heart tells you to stop, then do it. Look for the overlooked, the underappreciated, and the easily forgotten and then show them you see them—show them they matter.

2. Give with no reservations and no hesitation  

Have you ever noticed children cannot wait to give their gift? It never fails. Each year, my daughters go to their school holiday shop armed with a few dollars to pick out family gifts. But alas, they never can wait until December 25th. I must open the gift now. And because the best part of the gift is the expression on her face as I rave about what she chose for me, I oblige.

This season, who says you have to wait until the proper day, a grand occasion, or the perfect moment to express how you feel about someone? If you wish to bestow a gift of love on another person perhaps there is no better time than the present.

3. Give with no hidden agenda and no expectations

Children give because they want to express their love and appreciation – not because they feel like they have to or expect something in return. I’ll never forget when my daughters set Easter baskets out for the trash collector and mail carrier.

As soon as they got home from school they scoured the area like professional detectives. When they squealed with delight, I thought perhaps something had been left for them. But I was wrong. When my oldest child called out, “Yep! They got ‘em!” I realized they were expressing happiness solely because their gift had been received.

Truth be told, that is the day I stopped looking for my thank you note or reciprocated favor when I helped someone or gave a gift. My children showed me that one of the greatest joys in life comes from giving with no strings attached.

This season, focus on the true spirit of giving: bringing happiness to another human. Period. After all, exhibiting love and kindness toward someone else without expecting anything in return is a generous and content way to live.

4. Give what you can    

Children give what they have – it may cost money or it may not. It may have lovely wrapping; it may not. Children don’t get caught up in how a gift looks or its price or whether it is “good enough.” I thought of this fact recently when I was at a rest stop that had a bathroom attendant. Although it was late and she’d probably been on her feet all day, she was making those sinks shine like diamonds and offered a warm smile to every weary traveler who entered.

Before exiting my stall, I suddenly felt compelled to look inside my wallet. I found a crumbled $10 bill and a few singles. Normally I would have thought that was not enough to make a difference and walked out. But when I thought of our children holding their precious hands open with whatever they have to give – be it a penny, a rock, or a paper heart – I was inspired to give what I had. After drying my hands, I held out the wad of bills and said, “I wish I had more.” With eyes that glimmered with happy tears the woman whispered, “This is more than enough. More than enough.”

This season, remember that it is often the mere gesture, the thought, the effort – not the actual gift itself – that makes a profound impact on a person in need of a little kindness.


I’ve often said that living “Hands Free” may require making choices that don’t align with the values and standards of mainstream society. But eventually there is confirmation for these unconventional choices—confirmation that these choices are in deed bringing us closer to the meaningful life we are striving to live. Well, as I drafted this post, I received such confirmation to embrace this child-like, heartfelt way of giving.

My daughter’s best friend became suddenly ill with the flu. Within minutes of hearing the news, a card was made by my daughter and a bracelet from her drawer was lovingly wrapped. Briefly relapsing into my old ways, I felt slightly relieved that the price tag was still on the bracelet. But I was quickly reminded that the price tag meant nothing.

The next day, the child’s mother told me how much my daughter’s gift meant to her daughter. And when the mother recounted what her child said, I could not hold back my tears.

With sincerity her daughter said: “I bet a lot of people heard I was sick. And after they said, ‘That’s too bad,’ they just went on with their life. But not Natalie. She stopped what she was doing to show me she cared about me. She is the best friend anyone could have.”

Which brings us to guideline #5, and possibly the most important one on the list.

5. Give when the rest of the world keeps on going

As my daughter’s friend and all our children show us on a daily basis, our most precious gift is when we stop in the midst of our busy lives and give a piece of ourselves … our attention, a listening ear, a lingering embrace, a word of encouragement, meaningful eye contact, snuggles in bed, one-on-one time, or a helping hand.

In order to give our most precious commodity – the gift of ourselves – we must let go of all that distracts us from what truly matters.

Perhaps the perfect gift is not in the getting, but rather in the letting go.

This season, rather than spending hours at the mall shopping for the “perfect gift” realize what your loved ones most want this year is you—your attention and your love. Set aside the distractions of the modern age, let go of the need for the holiday décor to look perfect, forgo the barrage of social gatherings and instead simply be available – heart, mind, body, and soul.

It’s what you call the gift that matters … and you can’t put a price on that.

Just ask a child.


As you go through the days and weeks ahead, I challenge you to think about gift giving through the eyes and hands of a child. Perhaps this perspective will enable you to shift your money, time, energy, and attention from the distractions of the modern age to connection and memory making. Let’s make it a “Hands Free” holiday, shall we? I can’t think of a more meaningful way to conclude 2012 and bring in 2013.

“You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.” -Kahlil Gibran

I’m grateful to share this life-changing journey with you, my friends of The Hands Free Revolution. Thank you for reading and sharing my messages — perhaps the thought of a “Hands Free” holiday is just what someone out there needs today. 



  1. 1


    What a perfect post. Just perfect. I have been watching my son rush around these past few days, wrapping the items in our home (that we already own) with a big goofy grin on my face. Children just get it. I’m not sure at what point in our lives us adults forget what really matters, but thank goodness we have our children around to remind us.

  2. 3


    Beautiful. I’m married to a wonderful gifter (from the heart) and have three kids who have been secretly making gifts for our family (scraps of paper with drawings on them, craft inventions, snow globes) for weeks. It is an eye-opening and wonderful thing for someone like me to see, especially having grown up in a very different environment. It’s impossible to feel jaded amongst such sweetness. All the best to you. I love your blog!

    • 4


      Thank you, Susie. It is lovely to know that you were already aware that you were blessed by heartfelt gift givers. Awareness can make a life-changing difference! Have a wonderful holiday with your generous dear ones.

  3. 5


    With tears a loud Amen! Children teach us so much..if we are really paying attention we can learn something new every day…actually it’s relearning those things we once knew as children but some how we forget along the way these important life lessons. I absolutely love the beauty of children! Thank you for this post! Blessings to you and yours and all your readers as we all relearn these beautiful wise truths from our childhoods.

    • 6


      What a powerful point you make, Lori. I love to think that I am re-learning rather than learning something totally new — that gives me hope that I can catch on a little more quickly by going back to my “roots.” Thank you for sharing!

  4. 11

    Rhonda says

    Rachel, I thank you for the most wonderful gifts this year! You may not be able to see them, but I can feel them. You have been a true blessing to me. I can’t thank you enough! A very merry Christmas to you and your family <3

    • 12


      It has been an honor to share this journey with you, friend. I will never forget that first message you sent me. I am so inspired by the changes you have made and your commitment to living “Hands Free.” It has been a real gift to hear from you today. Many blessings to you in the new year.

      • 13

        Rhonda says

        I am so happy that you continue to share YOUR gift with us. I feel you write about certain subjects when we all need it most. Your writings lift the fog in my life and allow me to see clearly. It puts a joy in my heart and inspires me to do more, to feel more to love more. You are an amazing woman!

  5. 14

    Karen says

    Thank you for this – it was just beautiful, and something that I strive for on a daily basis. I have been reading your posts for weeks now, love your writing – very inspirational!
    Along the lines of your #4 above, I also think that while children don’t pay attention to the actual gift itself, they clearly watch (sometimes with unbrideled anticipation) for *your reaction* to their gift. Watch your child next time she presents you with a new treasure – her eyes are on YOU, not the gift!
    My son is only 1.5 years old but I see how happy it makes him when I eat (with gusto) his discarded cheerios, or play with his toys after he hands them to me, as if they were the best thing in the world. That look on his face is just priceless and warms my heart :)
    Keep it up and happy holidays!

    • 15


      Oh you have touched on something so important, Karen! Yes, our reaction to our children’s gifts is SO important. I love to watch my daughter’s faces just as you mentioned! I make a point to make eye contact and express my appreciation for their thoughtfulness and kindness. I really appreciate you taking the time to share your insights. It is wonderful to have you along on this journey!

      • 16


        As I read through this string of comments, a different kind of reaction came to mind. Often, the things that children give are very meaningful to them. Yet they give them knowing that it will be welcomed warmly and create a stronger affection.

        In reaction, do we reciprocate enough? Could our relationships with our children be improved by giving more?

        One bit of affirmative evidence from my psychology of video game research; surprises leave the greatest emotional and psychological effect. The potpourri of hormones and chemicals induced by surprises greatly enhances learning and happiness. It’s a neurological goldmine and I wonder if we take advantage of it enough to improve our relationships?

        • 17


          Thank you, Seamus. You make a very insightful and powerful point. Through your eloquent words, you have heightened my awareness. I love what you say about the element of surprise and how we can use it to strengthen our personal relationships. What you say is so true when I think about the reaction of my daughters when I surprise them for lunch at school. The joy on their face is indescribable. And for my husband’s 40th I gave him a book of notes/memories from 40 people from his past. He was so surprised and so touched. It was the best gift I could have given him — to know how others feel about you and the impact you have made on their life is truly a gift. Thank you for your thoughtful comments. It is truly a honor to read your wisdom.

  6. 21


    Once again you have inspired me and reminded me of something important, as you so often do with your posts. My oldest daughter is also a gift giver and coincidentally also named Natalie. She gives me little gifts so often that I will admit that I’ve started to almost dismiss them, especially when she tries to hand me a drawing or a craft as I’m making dinner or trying to wrangle her baby sister into her car seat. But the other day as I was working early in the morning, I came across a card she had made for me during school. It said, three times over in her kindergarten handwriting, “I love you Mom.” Just seeing that made me want to run upstairs and get her out of bed so I could hug her and tell her how much I appreciated that even during school while she was surrounded by all her friends, she was thinking about me. Next time she gives me a little gift, I’m going to try to honor it with the reaction it deserves. Even if I’m in the middle of making dinner.

    • 22


      Thank you for sharing, Karoline. Your Natalie sounds like a thoughtful and loving soul. I loved hearing the details of her giving. How wonderful that you see her generosity as a gift . I feel inspired by your vow to stop and savor her gift even when it not at a “convenient” time. I have found that those particular times are when I most am in need of a moment to pause and reflect on what it really important.

      Thank you for your kind words about my writing. It means so much.

  7. 23


    A lovely message Rachel! My 2 young boys are frequent gift givers of their toys and household odds and ends, and this message has encouraged me to receive these gifts more thoughtfully – thank you! Your message has also helped me to recognize that my boys are also givers of other gifts: the gift of exploration, of pretending, or artistic expression, of love, of togetherness, and of fun! I will move forward with this message on my heart and receive all of the wonderful gifts they give.

    • 24


      Oh that is so lovely, Susan! What a great point about our children’s “gifts” — the non-material ones need reflection and appreciation today, too. Thank you! I adore your perspective and thoughtful comments.

  8. 25

    Jackie says

    A beautiful post! Thank you. I loved the reminder that there are some people who can smile on the outside when they are hurting on the inside. We need to remember that these ones who may need our gifts the most. Whatever our ‘gifts’ may be.

  9. 29


    You know, I always find this interesting about people and psychology. If society didn’t impose it’s self, our own nature would know what to do. Evolution has ingrained the instincts to make society purposeful. However, it is the expectations of society that often forces us to be something else.

    Sometimes this is good. Especially when it might lead to violence. Most times, it causes us to create an avatar of our own bodies. One that behaves how we think society expects us to, not how we truly feel. A disconnect between action (body) and spirit (self) that makes us hollow and dissatisfied with life.

    This taint is learned meaning that children are free of it. Psychological research has shown that money can buy happiness; if it puts a smile on the face of someone else. That many little things have a dramatic effect on happiness, confidence, will power, energy and health. Don’t think so? Look at how happy children are when they follow their instincts.

    Investigating our gift giving practices is important. However, my challenge is a bit different. My challenge is to not be so focused on teaching your kids, that you don’t let them teach you. Regularly observe your children. Because you never know when they will present an opportunity to reconnect with your truly human nature.

  10. 32

    Sharon Curtis says

    Once again your beautiful writing brings out the tears in me. What a beautiful sentiment for the holiday season and one to remember. Your children show such innocent and sincere gestures – ones we can all learn from.

  11. 33


    Thank you, again. Yet another needed reminder eloquently and gently given from your heart to ours. To really appreciate what matters, we must have the eyes of a child and notice what they show us. “He called a little child and had him stand among them. And He said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3, 4)


Leave a Reply