BOSTON — There's a story I tell myself every fall, when I see Christmas merchandise appearing in shops and I start making notes of gift ideas. It's the story of Ian's first drum set.
This son showed an early aptitude for music. He started taking Suzuki piano lessons at age five, and within about a year he was playing simple minuets and composing his own pieces. But it was soon clear that the drums were his instrument of choice.
One day my husband's friend gave Ian a pair of drumsticks (used by a real drummer!) and practice pad. With these sticks he discovered percussive possibilities in every corner of the house.
Gradually he assembled a wonderfully inventive drum set. It consisted of a plastic bottle wedged in a chair on its side, assorted cans, an empty joint-compound pail and other miscellaneous objects which, when struck, were pleasing to Ian's ear. The cymbals were the best: a pot lid hung from the ceiling, an aluminum pie plate with dimes in it, a metal lampshade held up by a bottle of carpenter's glue, and a pair of circular saw blades on a dowel to simulate a hi-hat. I think he derived as much enjoyment from creating the set as he did from playing it.
After about a year of diligently playing these "drums" to James Taylor and other recordings, Ian received an electronic drum pad from a sympathetic aunt and uncle. Delighted, he placed it in the center of his homemade set and spent countless afternoons exploring what he could do with it. Another year went by, and he bought himself a snare drum. At this point he had had one drum lesson months earlier, but he was practicing every day. Finally, when he was 10, we gave him a used, kid-quality drum set. This is how Ian later wrote about that Christmas morning:
"I remember standing there, just looking at [the set], not moving an inch, not breathing a breath, and not even thinking a thought.... Gradually I realized that this was a real drum set! I could play it today! It would be there tomorrow, and many days after that. It was all for ME!!... I guess my dad expected me to be screaming or laughing, but I wasn't. I was feeling such a tremendous amount of joy that I didn't feel like laughing... I couldn't really express my full appreciation."
Ian added years' worth of wear to that old set before trading it in for one better matched to his growing ability. At 17, he is an accomplished drummer and a serious musician.
What would have happened if we had given our son what he most wanted the first year he showed an interest in drums? It would have been a legitimate gift. He had already demonstrated a genuine interest in playing and a willingness to practice. But had we given him the set early on, its value for him would never have had a chance to grow.
What he got instead was the fun of being creative and resourceful; patience; the opportunity to earn something he wanted; and the self-respect that goes with that. We also left room for other members of our extended family to give him something that would be specially appreciated.
It's so easy to get caught up in the craze of holiday shopping. I am as guilty of overindulgence as anyone. But my children have taught me that they are happier with a minimum of wisely-chosen and wisely-timed gifts - gifts from the heart that value things unseen.