‘Tis better to give than it is to etcetera.

7 12 2010

It’s that time of year. When we’re all freezing, our skin is dry, our heating bills are through the roof, but we’re still in kind of a good mood. (Most of us.) And people tend to be just a little more giving.

Trust me. My roommate is a kindergarten teacher. During the holiday season, she receives a year’s supply of scented body lotion and winter gloves. Not to mention the fact that we can decorate our apartment with Christmas tchotchkes and not have to pay for a single one.

Watch out. Santa and the bear are fighting for village domination.

We know teachers are innundated with these gifts. It’s part of the job. But it happens to social workers as well. Clients get to know you, (sometimes) they like you, no matter what you’re a part of their lives. At times like Christmas, or when a case is being closed, they might want to bring you a little something.

And I recall what I was taught in Tim Burton’s social work school. “I am a professional, not your friend, and as such I cannot accept. Thank you.” Or, “What is the meaning behind this gift? Let’s process your transference in our next session. Perhaps you see me as a mother figure.”

Ugh. Right?

Gifts are a fine line. Some could be inappropriate. I’ve never had a client try to give me booze, but if it ever happens I hope I’ll have to fortitude to turn it down. (I probably won’t.) I had an elderly man try to give me perfume when I was an intern. (If you’re ever looking for an example of ‘awkward,’ I’ll be doing that as a watercolor series.)

But sometimes, it’s ok. No, my clients are not my friends. I am a professional, and they are people that I serve. But we are all humans. (Except for the dinosaurs in clever human costumes, but we’ll get to them another time.)

Some occasions call for gifts, in normal human interactions. An eight year old girl who I saw for counseling for six months had her mom buy me play-doh, something we always used in sessions, when her case was closed. I said thanks. I suspect my casework professor got an urge to throw herself out a window, and didn’t know why. Ah, well.

Kids are notorious for this. I was recently strong armed by a three year old into taking the subway back to work with this.

The kid was giving everyone in the family huge, plastic hibiscus, and simply would not hear of me leaving without any. And those of you wondering why I didn’t throw it out on my way to the train–you really should be ashamed.

I was not permitted to turn down these sweet Silly Bandz (from the marine life edition.) I managed to get the kid to take some of my Batman bands in exchange, though.

It also works the other way around. One of my clients recently had a baby, and I went to see them when they came home from the hospital.

You don’t go see a new baby and not bring a gift. It simply isn’t done. So I went to the Children’s Place, fought the urge to buy every adorable, tiny thing I saw, and spent $12 on onesies.

Poppable collars, because infants can be preppy too.

A kid is a big deal, and I felt that it was right that the fact was acknowledged by the social worker.

My elderly clients always wanted to give me tea and cookies when I did home visits. They didn’t get a lot of visitors, and wanted to treat me like a guest. A kid is never prouder than when someone takes their gift, carefully selected from Family Dollar, and puts it on display like it’s the greatest thing in the world.

I had been taught that I was always supposed to say “no,” and sometimes you do have to. Elderly perfume? No. A mother taking from her food budget to buy her worker jewelry? Unlikely, and I’m sure we’d all turn that down. But sometimes that rejection is damaging. We’ve all learned from Hallmark and Lifetime movies that giving really makes the giver feel good.

In case anyone was wondering why my cubicle is decorated with children’s drawings, school photos, and a strangely oversized fake flower.

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13 responses

7 12 2010
mjfrombuffalo

Gifts? I was never offered any from my clients. BUT. I learned you never, ever, ever refuse food or drink offered to you in a client’s home. In many cultures, and especially with elderly clients, it is insulting and rude and all sorts of bad to not accept a cup of tea, glass of water, little wedge of coffee cake, what have you.

I forgot once when I was visiting a Dominican grandmother. Her home care aide was present to translate for us and asked “Would you like a piece of cake?” Knowing the very old woman was not well off, and having had lunch already, I said “Oh, no thank you.” The aide leaned over and said very quietly, “She sent me out to get that for you special. You need to take a piece.” I did, the grandmother beamed, and we had a delightful visit.

It’s a strange thing, going into people’s homes for non-social reasons, and people want to normalize it by doing what they would do with other visitors. To say no can be read as not trusting them or their housekeeping, hurting their pride by implying you think they are too poor to be hospitable, in a hurry to leave, etc. If it makes you uncomfortable, accept on the first visit and when you’re scheduling the second visit, say something about refreshments not being necessary or the agency’s policy against it or whatever. But at least the first time, let them have pride in welcoming you to their home, even if they’re not really sure they want you there 😉

7 12 2010
socialjerk

Nicely said. Definitely agree. Turning down sweets from a grandmother is more than my life is worth.

7 12 2010
Fos

I plan my visits around who is going to give me tea & biscuits, and who isn’t. Joking. Sort of.

I had one of my foster carers make me stay for dinner after an evening meeting at their house. Who am I to refuse when it’s 7pm and I haven’t eaten all day?

Some carers don’t offer me anything, and that’s fine too. They just won’t get my attention so quickly. Joking. Sort of.

I have a “weird” feeling about Xmas. I’m hoping my carers keep it simple with a card, or chocolates tops. I know some of them will feel obliged to give me gifts and hey, I’m ok with that. 😉

7 12 2010
socialjerk

I have nothing but respect for the way you work. (And I had to google “chocolate tops” because I thought you were talking about shirts) 🙂

8 12 2010
cb

We have quite a strict gift acceptance policy – we do have LOTS of boxes of chocolates knocking around the office this time of year. Generally things we can share with the team rather than keep for ourselves are acceptable! We do have to declare everything we are given though..

A couple of years ago, a family sent me (to the office) a £20 gift card for some shop and I sent that back – no thought of doing anything otherwise but it was a kind of weird letter to write trying to think how to put things without offending and acknowledging the kindness of the thought.
Chocolates is the usual default position because we can take them back to the office to share.
Been offered wine, gin and whiskey, that’s quite easy to turn down actually because you can cite policies about it. Chocolate though…

8 12 2010
socialjerk

I think the sharing policy tends to be a good one. That came in handy especially with seniors who had bought six packages of cookies because they were on sale, and wanted me to take some, or after they celebrated a milestone birthday and had tons of flowers sent.
Another one of my roommates is a nurse, and she apparently has people trying to slip her money all the time! I was pretty surprised to hear that.

8 12 2010
cb

That just reminded me of one of my more comical presents. An elderly man who had been to the market and got some extra soap powder (I think it was 2 for the price of 1) and he insisted I take a packet..

9 12 2010
socialjerk

I love that! So cute. I got a lot of smart shopping advice when I worked with the elderly. They did love their coupons.

8 12 2010
Carolyn (from Canada)

One of the most meaningful gifts I ever received was from a mum whose child I was doing supervised visits with. She knew I was always taking notes, writing down assignments, etc. So she went to the dollar store and purchased a coil bound notebook (costing, yes $1.00) for me so that I would always have enough paper. How could I say no?! (Shame about the alcholism and the jerky boyfriend).

8 12 2010
mjfrombuffalo

That was an incredibly sweet gesture.

8 12 2010
socialjerk

That’s great! That’s kind of what the play-doh was like for me. Very thoughtful.

10 12 2010
njsmyth

It’s a difficult policy–there are good reasons for it, but it really isn’t realistic or even good practice all the time.

The last non-profit addiction clinic I worked at had such a policy. When I was leaving the job, a man that I had worked with for a very long time brought in a large arrangement of flowers for me. The clinic policy would have allowed me to accept this type of gift on behalf of the clinic, but not myself. This man–a recovering alcoholic who had grown up in a abusive family–had taken a long time to trust me, until he was able to trust enough to do the therapy work. He would have been crushed if he came back to the clinic after I was gone and have found that I didn’t take the flowers with me.

My boss was a former Navy man, also in recovery…a bit crusty. But he surprised me with his sensitivity and understanding of the situation. And his solution was: “hey, you don’t work here anymore, so you can take the flowers with you.”

11 12 2010
socialjerk

That is really sweet–about your client and your boss.

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