Graduation and Gift Giving – to Parents

Graduation and Gift Giving – to Parents


I am becoming more and more enamored of certain aspects of Asian culture. Of course, the term “Asian” comprises many countries, cultures, and customs, but there are some broad similarities that I find appealing, such as the nearly universal regard for education, deep respect for one’s elders, and profound regard for humility.

In Sunday’s New York Times, I read the article “Parents Deserve a College Graduation Present, Too,” which describes a custom that many Asian families practice: using their first paycheck to buy their parents a gift–or even turning over the paycheck itself.

I know that sounds radical. It doesn’t fit with the American ethos of self-absorption and the culture of “You’re worth it!”

But it certainly fits with the idea of honoring one’s parents (see the Fifth Commandment). Similar customs are practiced by West Indians and others. It’s an acknowledgment that you didn’t succeed on your own, that your parents sacrificed so you could succeed.

I also see thanking parents with a tangible gift as a kind of passing of the baton. The kids are no longer just recipients but can now be givers as well–a mark of adulthood.

The whole article is worth reading. We get you started with an excerpt here:

At this time of year, college graduates start their new lives and tally up their gifts. A personalized flask, perhaps. A newspaper subscription. Maybe something strong to drink after reading this summer’s mind-boggling headlines.

A message to those graduates: You ought to be buying gifts, too – for your parents.

Nobody ever told me this, not even my mother, the retired Neiman Marcus personal shopper who never met an occasion that did not call for a gift and helped scores of people buy them for others over the decades.

Instead, I picked up the parent present idea from Korean-American friends. In their families, handing over a gift on the occasion of receiving their first paycheck (or, in some cases, handing over the paycheck itself) is practically compulsory.

But it’s also a source of great pride for both the giver and the recipient, a chance to express gratitude at the end of what has often been a long journey. And given the price of college (or the work that is necessary to get into one that will give you a full ride), what parents wouldn’t want a pat on the back for the role they played?

The tradition of the parent gift may not have its roots in South Korea, for many other Asian and Asian-American children hand out presents or take their parents and their friends out for dinner when they first earn some money. One Confucian text, the Classic of Filial Piety, makes it crystal clear that delivering the “utmost pleasure” unto one’s parents is something that you just do, lest you be a rebel against virtue and propriety.

After the Korean War, for reasons that are not completely clear, it became common for young adults to buy their parents red thermal underwear. Korean studies scholars suggest a number of possible explanations.

Read more at the New York Times.