Who is the ice cream for? (some thoughts on giving)


Giving presents is a talent; to know what a person wants,

to know when and how to get it, to give it lovingly and well…”

~ Pamela Glenconner

Giving is the most natural thing in the world (well, for some at least). It is also very tricky business. People need the same basic things yet their needs are quite different. To complicate matters further, some people consistently need what others don’t always notice is missing. How then can we make sense of all this? I’m thinking to try with an example of differences in taste as a straightforward analogy for needs.

My younger son does not, for reasons I can’t possibly comprehend, like chocolate ice-cream. His favorites are mint chip, mango mochi treats, and in a bind, vanilla. I love chocolate ice cream, but can’t stand mint, and prefer the green tea mochi to any other flavor.

When my son asked me for ice cream the other night, my first reaction was to grab the best thing I could think of out of the freezer, namely the jar of Talenti double dark chocolate gelato I bought that day. Yet  if I would have handed him two scoops of this delightful treat by MY standards (instead of two scoops of the frozen toothpaste HE enjoys), I would have ended up not with a smile from ear to ear, not with a kid licking the spoon and asking for seconds, but with a polite “thank you mom, but no thank you” and a very disappointed face.

Most of us grew up with the advice that we should “treat others as we’d like to be treated”. But this can be misleading. Yes, we are all similar in that we would like to be treated with basic love, respect and kindness, etc. However, the manifestations of love, respect and kindness differ, and missing the mark often leads to misunderstandings, creates frustration or outright conflict.

So…understanding what others need is key to nurturing healthy, rewarding relationships. Yes, good intentions count for a lot, which is why many of our “mistakes” end up being so endearing. When my son brought me a scoop of “mint toothpaste” so that I too would get to enjoy the ice cream he loves, I was beside myself with gratitude and pride at his thoughtfulness. On the other hand, if an adult who knows me were to wake me up at 6 am on a Saturday with even the best croissant imaginable, I’d kick them (not because of the croissant, but because of the 6 am thing).

Obviously, everyone must be willing to accommodate others and adjust their own needs so as to avoid complete chaos. Part of growing up and learning to play nicely with others is about learning to be less selfish. But in the long run, and in close proximity, our flexibility, selflessness and good intentions must be paired with an awareness of how other people’s needs (and preferences) are different from our own. When we seek to give love, offer support, cheer someone up and in general, make someone happy, are we offering this person something HE/SHE needs and in the ways HE/SHE needs it? Or are we giving according to what WE would want and need?

Point #1 –people’s basic needs come in different ‘flavors’…so strive for accuracy

In addition to differences in flavor, we must also consider quantity and importance. My idea of dessert, if I’m going to bother making one, involves creating something out of ice cream, fudge and whipped cream that could pass for a small building. My 8 year old would get sick if he tried to eat that much, and my teenager would ask: “that’s all there is?”.

Point #2 – people need different amounts of the same thing…so strive for balance

What to someone is just right, to someone else may be a bit much, and to yet another is too little. So let’s try to balance it out…be willing to give a bit more at times, take a little less at other times…you know, tweak it. It’s really not that hard.

And, we must also consider the unthinkable…that not everyone craves ice cream, thus if ice cream isn’t available, they may not even notice. This doesn’t mean it’s ok to always forget to buy ice cream for others! Forgetting on occasion can pass for an honest mistake…but as a habit? It’s called selfishness, and who wants that on their resume?

Point #3 – people prioritize needs differently…so be considerate

Some suggest that instead of doing all this work, we should just go with the concept of “unconditional giving”, because giving is its own reward: when we give from the heart, the reaction we get doesn’t (or shouldn’t) matter, and if someone doesn’t appreciate what we’ve given, well, screw them.

To me, this sounds too much like a cop-out and excuse for laziness. In the context of a relationship, everyone gives with the intention (hopefully!) of maintaining and growing an existing connection. What happens in the end matters a lot, unlike in cases where we might engage in anonymous/random acts of kindness towards strangers who will not likely end up being part of our daily lives in the same way our closest friends, partners or family members are.

We all make mistakes…we don’t do enough, we overdo, we forget. And that’s ok, as long as we remember that love is not about blindly doing what we think is best based solely on our standards, but also about recognizing other people’s standards and striving to give them what they need, not only what we think they might or should need. If we pay attention, we’ll discover both common ground and differences. The common ground unites us in love and respect for one another, and the differences allow for us to exercise our minds and grow.

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