by Dr. Linda Phillips-Jones
With all the December holidays at hand, it’s a good time to consider the topic of gift-giving between mentors and mentees. What’s appropriate, and what isn’t?
We don’t make the rules on this topic, but we have some suggestions based on the mentors and mentees we’ve interacted with over the years.
Markers Are Important
Mentoring relationships are among the most important and unique relationships of life. When they’re effective, mentees grow…often significantly. Psychologists and others have found that marking significant passages and events even with simple tangible items tends to have a positive impact.
Markers act to help freeze-frame those events and milestones in our minds. When we later see the items, we feel a rush of feelings that bring back the memories and reinforce what we enjoyed and perhaps learned at the time.
Mentoring is itself a very generous gift. In fact, it’s arguably the most generous gift next to parenting. Most mentees agree that mentors don’t need to give a tangible present in addition to the time, attention, and other help they give their mentees. Mentors equally point out that seeing a mentee blossom and develop is “payment” enough. Nothing more is expected or wanted. Some even maintain that giving a gift tarnishes or muddies up the purity of the exchange.
Nevertheless, mentors and/or mentees often take the step of giving the other some concrete show of appreciation and encouragement. They might do this for birthdays and/or holidays (especially Hanukah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa), and/or they often give a present near the end of their relationships in formal mentoring initiatives just to say thanks.
As you know, cultures vary greatly in the frequency and size of gifts given to honor or show appreciation. When I taught and mentored in Vietnam, I was overwhelmed with gifts from my students and mentees. No amount of protest on my part stopped the flow of beautiful Vietnamese arts and crafts, flowers, food, and offers to help me in every aspect of my life. I dared not admire something in front of my mentees for fear it would soon arrive as a gift.
When my spouse and I taught in China, the gestures were similar and often expensive sacrifices on the part of the gift-givers. When traveling in New Zealand, we were constantly offered gifts from strangers we barely met ranging from dinner to free use of their “caravans” or camping trailers. And we weren’t even mentors!
What’s Clearly Inappropriate?
In the majority U.S. culture, it’s not considered appropriate for a mentor or mentee to give the other person something very personal such as cologne, articles of clothing, or jewelry, especially if the pair is mixed gender (a male and female). Those personal gifts, as rule, signal a closeness and intimacy not recommended in mentoring.
Money is also inappropriate. Expensive gifts aren’t a good idea. Coming from either the mentor or the mentee, such extravagance communicates a message that can be misinterpreted or be cause for distress and embarrassment as the other person feels pressure to reciprocate.
Is Anything Acceptable?
Yes, with cautions. Mentors and mentees should observe their mentoring partners for signs of what these individuals do with others. A mentor recently told me: “I saw my mentee giving everyone she knew a present for this and that. She loved doing it, and I knew I was next on her list.”
It’s probably kindest to discuss the topic in advance to allow the other person to be prepared (with or without his/her own to give). “Hanukah is coming, and I have a very small token I want to give you at our lunch next week.” Or: “For Christmas, would you be interested in exchanging cards, small gifts, or nothing at all?” Or: “I’m not sure what to do about gifts for _____. Can we be honest with each other about what we’d prefer to do?” Mentors should usually take the lead on this discussion and can use it as a teaching and learning opportunity, especially on cultural expectations and differences.
What Others Have Given
Here are some mentor or mentee “gifts” that are likely to please and not put pressure on the recipient.
- A carefully chosen card (humorous or serious) with at least one hand-written sentence thanking or complimenting the other person for something specific.
- An inexpensive item that conveys something meaningful. For example,
- desk ornament that reflects the person’s interests
- photo of the pair
- framed saying which reinforces a point discussed in mentoring sessions
- an item from either’s culture (such as a small Kwanza figure) to show a desire to share and learn
- book of interest to the person
Think carefully about these gestures and the positive or negative impact they could have, including for the spouses or significant others of the recipients. When in doubt, think of what would be appropriate for a student to give a teacher.