The Great Graduation Gift List

Lisa writes: It is graduation time in my house, times two. And, Mary Dell’s family is rejoicing in a commencement as well. While we have been here before with our older kids we were stumped for ideas of gifts and reached out to our band of experienced moms for some wonderful suggestions to create this graduation gift guide.

graduation, cap toss

We have included gifts for both high school and college, for both young women and men. We have covered a broad array of price points and tried to include both the practical and the frivolous. Have a friend with a grad this year? Please share this post with them.  And, if you have more great ideas to add to our list,  we would love to see your suggestions in the comments. 

The number one gift for graduates is money. It is what they ask for most often and what is proffered. As a nation we will give about $5 billion in graduation gifts and 58% of this will be in cash. But if money is not on your list, or you are looking for a more creative way to offer it, here are 38 suggestions from our friends and family.

1. Tuck a Check Inside Do Your Laundry or You’ll Die Alone: Advice Your Mom Would Give if She Thought You Were Listening by Becky Blades, and you’ll be giving your grad what she wants but doesn’t know she needs: her mother’s loving counsel. The beautifully illustrated book covers topics from laundry to forgiveness to creative living. Directed predominantly at young women, my college boys laughed out loud and read it cover to cover. The best part: pages to personalize.

Do Your Laundry or You’ll Die Alone, available here at Amazon.


Do Your Laundry, Becky Blades

2. And for Help with that Laundry. We love this suggestion from Bespoke Custom Gifts. A personalized laundry bag with instructions and the meaning of those tricky laundry symbols printed right outside. Any mother who has received a phone call from a laundromat knows the value of this great idea. We ordered one as soon as we saw them.

3. Monogrammed Towels or Towel Wraps. Now that they are setting their own laundry schedule, kids can never have too many towels. Monogrammed towels will not get nabbed in the dorm laundry or city laundromat.

laundry bag, Bespoke Custom Gifts

4. Who Are We Kidding? Tuition, room and board, spending money for four years…that was the gift.

5. Dorm Essentials. At some point every high school grad seems to find themselves in The Container Store, Bed, Bath and Beyond, or Target searching out XL sheets and an array of storage items. Gift certificates from these national retailers will get them on their way. Items can be ordered at your local store to be picked up later in the store closest to your child’s college campus.

6. Wheels. College grads moving to cities with limited public transportation will rejoice over any help with car insurance, payments, or money towards a car lease. For some, those days of walking are over.

7. Two Wheels. College kids on bicycles is an idyllic image, but not if your kid’s bicycle was the small one they got for the holidays in sixth grade. If they are going to attend a university that is suited to a bike, and most are, this may be the single most useful gift you can give.

8. $50 in Quarters. Think of it as a year’s worth of laundry without wandering the dorm every week or two looking to see who can change a couple of dollars. But we did hear something about a quarter drinking game….

9. It’s Always Coffee Time. College kids pushing though late night studying or graduates who are now waking early will appreciate their own single serving coffee maker. Keurig makes all different size machines for any dorm room or apartment and a favorite of ours is the Keurig K60/K65 Special Edition Single Serve Coffee Maker. They even make them with college logos. This is a gift that saves time and money. If your graduate is a tea drinker a small electric kettle is just the thing, here is a $58 version that comes in four colors, including lime green.

10. Money Disguised. If handing over a fist full of dollars is not what you had in mind, turn that cash into silver coins or a mint set from the year your graduate was born. The coins are commemorative, can be save and cherished, or turned right back into needed cash.

11. Overnight bag. It might be time to stop using grocery bags as luggage. A small canvas duffel or tote, like this one, Filson Men’s Medium Duffel Bag, Navy, One Size will come in handy on visits home, away for weekends or traveling to, hopefully, job interviews.

Filson bag, duffle bag

12. Help with Student Loans. A full 70% of college students graduate with debt and the average loan burden approaches $30,000. Any and all help with those payments is truly a graduation gift.

13. The Party. Graduations are a time for families to gather and celebrate. They are milestones of great meaning and joy, but that doesn’t mean the festivities are free. As parents,  the party can be a gift to our kids they will never forget.

14. A Journal. A beautiful blank book, given in advance of a graduation party, can be passed among the guests. The real gifts are the thoughts and bits of advice that family and friends can record, making this a gift both deeply personal and meaningful.

15. A Beautiful Piece of Jewelry. Graduations are one of life’s big milestones and, as such, perhaps a moment for a first piece of real jewelry. A set of pearl earrings or subtle gold necklace can be worn on special occasions or taken out for job interviews.

16. Let the Tailgating Begin. A small portable grill, like this one Weber 10020 Smokey Joe Silver Charcoal Grill, Blackworks either outside the stadium or on an apartment rooftop. Grill tools need to be part of this package.

17. Unbreakable Cups. Tervis makes 329 unbreakable mugs, with school logos, like this one
Thermoserv University of Texas 24-Ounce Rings Tumbler from a favorite school of ours! College kids are not the most careful with their possessions, so heavy emphasis on the unbreakable.

18. Gift Cards for Local Eateries. For many kids graduation means a new city, either for college or a job. Gift cards from local restaurants will be a great treat in the new neighborhood.

19. Personalized Belts. Smathers & Branson, a luxury retailer of needlepoint goods, will make a personalized belt with meaning for your grad. They also sell wallets, key fobs, hats, flasks and coasters all embroidered with Collegiate or Greek Logos.


20. Get Rid of the Backpack. For kids facing their first real job, a brief case, good handbag or okay, an upmarket backpack, might be the thing to send them on their way. Quality leather goods do not come cheap, but the last for years to come.

21. Fleece blankets, with Monograms or Photos. One of my friends gave fleece throws in college colors with their embroidered monograms to our kids and all their friends. With drafty dorm rooms or extra friends spending the night, this is a gift that will get used. Shutterfly will put your photos on a machine-washable blanket for $43.

22. Gym Membership. For those leaving the college campus the days of free exercise facilities might be over. Give the gift of health and fitness, or at least a place to de-stress after a long day at the office.

23. Wallet or Business Card Case. Something everyone needs and it can be upped with a gift card inside.

24. Campus Gifts.  For high school or college grads, sweatshirts or other item from their to-be alma mater or for high school grads, a gift certificate to the college bookstore are classics.

25. Manners Never go out of Style. Personalized stationery may not make them jump for joy but they will never again have the excuse, “I had nothing to write a thank you note on, so I sent an email (or worse, a text!)” A box of these note cards from Crane, Crane & Co. Navy Hand Engraved Thank You Cards (CT3116) are  an elegant way to express gratitude…for any of us!

stationery, note cards

26. J. Crew. We are pretty sure that it is not possible to have too many J. Crew gift cards. College grads need clothes for the world of work and high school grads may need warm weather gear now that they will be doing much more walking.

27. Experiences, Not Things. Tickets to concerts or shows, or if your budget stretches to accommodate it, a trip. Many parents mentioned the lasting joy of a post-graduation trip if it fits into the family finances.

28. Money Lei. Feeling crafty? Take those dollar bills and make a traditional lei. One part origami, one part Hawaiian necklace. a quick search on Pinterest will show you a 100 different styles with instructions.

29. Tools of the Trade. Unassembled furniture? A hinge that is coming loose? A small but well equipped tool box like this one,  Black & Decker 51-904 38-Piece Home Project Kit might just be what your grad needs. 

30. The Classics. You can never go wrong with these tried and trues. Watches and pearls might go to the office the first week of the new job, or be tucked away for the first special occasion, but this is the gift that lasts a lifetime.

31. Family Photos. They may have snapshots of the family in their phones, but that is not the same as a beautiful professional photo for their wall or desk. Consider a family photo shoot, complete with family dog, before the kids leave home.

32. Lean in for Graduates. Sheryl Sandberg has rewritten her manifesto, Lean In for Graduates for women’s empowerment for the 20-something set. For any young women just starting out, here is a road map.

33. A Picture is Worth….iPhoto, Shutterfly and WeMontage all offer parents an easy way to create a book of memories. Our computers are jam-packed with photos waiting to be liberated. We can pull them off our kids’ Facebook pages and upload them into a perfect keepsake.

34. Time to Make a Home. Think about vouchers from  The Container Store, Ikea, West Elm, Crate and Barrel, Design WIthin Reach or Sleepy’s. Credit at any of these stores, or many others, will be appreciated by anyone with an empty new apartment.

35. Their Life on the Page. What are you going to do with all those old report cards and iffy school photos? Here is a chance to put their lives on paper and make a scrapbook with mementos you have saved for years. This is not a last-minute job, but more like a suggestion for parents of juniors.

36. Cookies. Who wouldn’t love a voucher from mom for baked goods that will be sent the following year?

chocolate chip cookies

37. Family Memento. Grandparents looking for gifts might consider some of the family mementos or jewelry that their grandchildren can treasure forever. Passing on family heirlooms (and we use this term broadly) is a moment with meaning for both generations.

38. Steal a Little Time. Finally, one of our wonderful readers suggested something that tugged at my heart. For kids graduating college with jobs, the days and weeks after graduation will be one of the last extended periods of time they will have. A one-on-one parent and child trip, even just an overnight, is an opportunity that will not soon arise again. There really is nothing like the gift of memories.

Early Decision: Based on a True Frenzy, a Conversation with Lacy Crawford

Lisa writes: Lacy Crawford is the author of the wonderful new book, Early Decision: A Novel(William Morrow.) For fifteen years she served as a discreet college admissions counselor to the super rich, shepherding their children through the maze of applications and essays. From August until acceptance, two or three times a week, she worked with students helping them research schools and draft, rewrite and polish their essays. While Lacy was employed by parents to guide their children, it is clear that those who hired her were in great need of her help as well. (BTW, Lacy can be reached via twitter at @Lacy_Crawford)

Early Decision, Lacy Crawford

After years of working with high school seniors Lacy faced an even more daunting task, filling out applications for nursery school for her own baby. “I’d been secretly judging these parents for ten years,” Lacy recalled in an interview with The Daily Beast. “But there I was, ready to step on the same moving walkway, and I thought, ‘I know how this ends.’ This ends with me hiring someone like me to get my kid into college.” It was then that she began to take the notes that would turn her very real experiences into a superb work of fiction.

Mary Dell and I met Lacy at the book salon of the incomparable Aidan Donnelley Rowley and, while I politely bought the book as I love to support authors, I had no intention of opening its cover, or even taking it out of the bag.

As the parent of a high school senior, I feared Lacy’s book would be like touching the third rail, an act so foolish and painful that I would instantly regret it. Yet one night I mustered up the courage to peek inside and then could not set her volume down. I grabbed it as I left for a flight to London and read my way right through the night and across the Atlantic. Don’t get me wrong, there was more than one moment of painful, excruciating recognition, as I saw my parenting self in the beautiful fictional narrative of five sets of parents tangoing through the harrowing college process with their beloved 17 year olds. But still I turned the pages.

We were lucky enough to get the chance to ask Lacy some questions about her experiences in college admissions, working with teens, and becoming a highly successful novelist.

Lacy Crawford, Early Decision

G&F: Is it possible for parents to face the fall semester of senior year without losing your mind? You ask, it may be rhetorical, but for parents out there staring into the jaws of high school, how do you do it?

Lacy: Short answer: no, not really. You’re going to feel a little bit crazy, but that’s good: your child’s future matters to you, and the stakes are high, and you care. Good for you. And wonderful—truly, wonderful—that you’ve raised a child to the point of considering excellent four-year colleges, that you’ve made that possibility a reality. As the mom of toddlers, I salute and admire every single parent facing down that college cannon.

However, there are good choices and bad choices, and when a student reaches senior fall, her parents have one year left before they’re packing her up and dropping her off in a dorm somewhere, and for heaven’s sake, one wants it to be a good year. How to do that?
Play the long game.

When your child is 30, 35, 40, you aren’t going to care what diploma’s on her wall. You’re going to want her to be deep into a vibrant career she loves, devoted to a partner, healthy and strong, with or without a family, whatever—but really engaged in her life. Not slogging away at a job she took because it seemed like the next “right” thing to do, or having a nervous breakdown in her custody battle with the wrong person who seemed like the “right” one. If you’re already in the position to be sweating which four-year college your child will attend, you’ve already secured for her a certain set of privileges that will translate in the job market. What matters now, and will matter forever, is that your child has the courage of her own conviction: the ability to imagine her own future and take concrete steps toward building it. Honor this, and let the chips fall where they may. She will remember that you supported her, and it will make her stronger.

Day by day, in practice, during that most difficult season, a parent must get out of the comparative register. Because someone’s kid will commit to an Ivy for soccer or badminton or whatever, and someone else’s kid will have a godmother who’s a trustee, and someone else’s kid will have been born on Mars, and it will seem, some days, that there is no way to make your wonderful, exceptional child stand out, and that is crazy-making. But it is only crazy-making if you consider a certain college or set of colleges the end game. That way lies madness, whether the child is admitted or not. Trust me on this; it does. The real prize is your child’s developing character: courage, confidence, resilience, curiosity, the willingness to dream, the willingness to work. You’re in it for the long haul, here; you are present at the beginning of a long and rich life. So work on the application, yes, but then let it go. Luck has a very heavy hand in this process. Your child’s folder may come up for discussion at just the wrong time in the admissions office. Someone has the stomach flu, someone else with your child’s name was just admitted or not admitted, Mercury is retrograde, who knows? When the numbers are so steep, fate is fickle. We can’t control these things. But if you pile on, and believe that the decision handed down is the end (or the beginning) of the world, then you’re giving your child a value proposition that is really dangerous. Because then your child’s future is out of her hands, has already been determined, in one direction or another. And this is ludicrous. The world is just opening up.

The people I most admire in life, the ones who are, to me, most successful and most worthy of respect, are the ones who figured out early on that institutions can be terrifically powerful in society, but that they are imperfect systems, and for the individual they cannot confer success. You get a diploma and you still have to go make a life. Is it helpful to have the Harvard network at your fingertips, the Harvard name? Sure it is; use it all you can. But you’re going to be up against kids who have less entitlement and more willingness to fail, kids who have distinguished themselves in other, more varied pools, kids with different experiences to bring to bear. Competition is a fact of life. There is no getting around that; there is no safe perch, no way to coast. We make a good life by determining what we love and what we need, and trying to build in that direction.

You describe a world in which rich parents disable their kids over decades with tutors and paid assistance at every step of the way. How, in the final stretches of their time at home, was Anne (your fictional college counselor) supposed undo a lifetime of damage and help her students stand on their own two feet?

That “learned passivity” that Anne cites, and that children can exhibit when they’ve been tutored and coached in every aspect of their lives, doesn’t usually come from ill will—it’s the long-term result of parents wanting to help raise their children up, to make them competitive and successful, to ensure them good lives. Things we all want for our children. The problem, I think, lies in sending the steady, implicit message that the results are more important than the child. We must help our children to be diligent, yes, and teach them discipline and focus, and often success will follow. But not always. I believe that the child who is never supported through failure will not learn to build his own life. For Anne, the first task with her students is to reverse the message they’ve been raised with: to say, I don’t care where you get in, I only care about you. If you’ve made an honest, authentic application, then you’ve succeeded, no matter what happens next. Does this mean that you stand back and let an unengaged child torpedo his future? No, of course not. But you engage a young person by accompanying them through their process, not leading them down the path. With Hunter, for example, a character who has significant motivation problems, it would be exactly the wrong approach for Anne to pile on and tell him how much she cares about his college career. Paradoxically, what he needs is for everyone else to stop being anxious on his behalf, so he has a chance to feel some anxiety of his own. So first thing, Anne tells him she doesn’t much care whether he goes to college at all. Hearing Anne’s lack of investment in his success gives him a chance to get a toehold on his own hopes and ambitions.

Over and over again, I found this successful in beginning work with a young person. Thereafter, I listened carefully and closely. And students began to talk. It’s not magic. We are all built this way, I think. If you care to help people grow, back off of your own desires for them, and listen well to their own desires for themselves.

For years you worked with kids as an independent college admissions counselor. In the New York Post you described yourself “as working under the radar, a hired gun who slipped in and out of penthouse apartments and jogged up the side steps of brownstones like someone’s mistress.” Why did the parents who hire you want so much secrecy?

To preserve the shared fantasy that college admissions is a meritocracy, of course. To the public, one says, “He did it all on his own!” And inside the home, one says, “Tutor’s coming at five.”

Your book contains full-blown college essays, what was your thinking in composing and including these in a book of fiction?

I love the way teenagers sound, and when I was working with high school students, I marveled at how they could write their way into a better understanding of their own desires—how, once they learned to understand what a dead sentence looked like (the ones they wrote by rote, the ones they imagined their English teachers would like) and ignored those for the sake of the real, live ideas, they could discover feelings and hopes that had gone largely unacknowledged in their days. A lot of the work I did with young people happened on the page, between drafts, and it wasn’t about punctuation, it was about helping a student to learn to hear her own voice. I don’t mean “voice” in sole terms of some written quality, a female or a male voice, etc., but in terms of the clear, authentic impulse to thought and logic that makes good writing possible. A student who is busy trying to impress someone, or who has been corrected at every turn by overbearing parents or endless tutors, won’t dare to reveal this true self. But anything else leads to hollow writing, however polished. I wanted to dramatize this process of coming-to-hear in the book. In order to do that, I needed to show the evolution of essay drafts. A significant part of the work of characterization was done in the essays themselves. Also I hoped they would provide a little variation in the prose, some modulation of form and tone that would add to the storytelling.

How did the students feel about their parents hiring Anne to work with them and do you think it has any lasting impact?

Each student in the book has a different response to Anne’s guidance. But it’s safe to say that no one is surprised; their parents’ bringing in outside help is further evidence of each parenting approach (over-involved, under-involved, whatever). Those are deliberate choices in the book, for the sake of the story.

In real life, what interests and upsets me is the very common phenomenon of a college counselor’s retention (often at exorbitant rates) reinforcing for a student that outcome is more important than process. In other words, parents seem to be saying, Where you go is exceptionally important, but how we get there doesn’t matter—we’ll do whatever it takes, no matter the price, to you or to us. This happens, and it can be very cruel. For a student, there’s a short emotional step to take from “my parents don’t care what it takes to get me in, as long as I’m in” to “my parents only care about where I go, and not who I am.”

Your book is set among the urban super wealthy, a group seemingly willing to spend almost anything to help their children gain entrance to the college of their choice. On the one hand you have said that over 10 years your success rate (as defined by a child gaining admission to the school of their choice) was 90%, on the other hand you implicitly recoil from a system that so tilts the playing field. Do private college counselors really make a difference and, if they do, isn’t that a problem?

Yes and yes.

Tomorrow look for Part 2 of our conversation with Lacy Crawford, author,Early Decision: A Novel (William Morrow.)

Never Again Will I…

Lisa writes: My youngest son heads off to college sometime in August. When he finally slams the screen door, he will be emptying the nest my husband and I began to fill 22 years ago. With his departure, I reflect on a few things that, frankly, I am more than a little ready to let go. While everyone I know is already sick of hearing how much I will miss him, here are a few things that I will never have to do again:

sons, family, brothers

Sit in a car outside a school, gym or private home, waiting. In my car, in the dark, by myself.

Quiz anyone on vocabulary words. My husband has all the words he needs.

Worry about who is in whose bedroom, which door is opened or closed, and what other parents’ rules are for their kids who are in my home. Once you have lived out from under our roof, your personal life is your own.

Eat meals, often once, sometimes twice and, on a bad day, three times, in my car. If humans were meant to eat in cars, God would have installed tray tables in the steering wheel.

Ask anyone how their day was. My husband tells me good news and bad, unbidden. Only teenagers need to have information extracted like teeth.

Buy a new television set. I was good with 25 inches of low-def, and even okay with medium def, and I am pretty sure I will never see a reason to upgrade from 60 inches of pore-magnifying clarity. I might have said this about dial-up Internet.

I will never again utter the words, “Do you have homework?” “Why aren’t you doing your homework?” “When are you going to do your homework?” “I don’t see you doing your homework.” “You call that doing your homework?” My nagging days are over and that is a wholly good thing.

Spend so much money at the grocery store that, even though the cashier recognizes my face from my five trips a week over the last 11 years, the manager needs to okay the transaction.

I will never make plans with another mother. One thing that I could never have anticipated about parenthood was the deep and abiding friendships that often devolved out of constant convoluted arrangements for our kids.

Sleep on the family room couch with one eye propped open listening for sounds on the driveway.

There is a better than even chance that I will never cook dinner again, there is precedent for this in the 1980’s.

I will never again fill out the twenty forms required per each child per year which, as far as I can tell, simply said my kids are healthy, my cell phone is unchanged and go ahead and give them Advil if they have a headache.

I will never speak to a teacher again. This is both good and bad news.

As my youngest stands on the edge of our threshold, with one foot almost out the door, I can either begin my empty nest lifetime of grieving (a possibility that, I will be honest, I have considered) or simply focus on the fact that three wonderful young adults have entered my life.

College Admissions: Don’t Go It Alone

Mary Dell writes: Dear Moms, We feel for you, we really do. Since your kid entered kindergarten, you have probably heard that nothing in parenting compares to the stress of college admissions. Few of you have arrived at this stage without feeling a degree of anxiety now that it is your child who has begun to think about life after high school.

college admissions

Lisa and I are two moms with five kids between our families. Our youngest are high school seniors who have the end in sight. “The end” is not only college application season, but also their high school years and childhood in general. Letting them go is part of the college process and one reason why it feels so painful. In fact, we could sit right down and weep between now and graduation but, instead, we want to throw an arm around your shoulder knowing that it is you who needs support right now. So we offer advice, a digital hug, from two moms to you:

Looking for colleges is a family matter.

Do not feel remotely guilty being involved, despite experts who may tell you to let your child “own the process.” It is their search, but parents should be there to lend an ear, a hand, and a credit card as needed.

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Getting Kids to Work Harder in School: A New York Times Motherlode Rebuttal

Lisa writes: This week on the New York Times Motherlode parenting blog, author/teacher/parent Jessica Lahey* wrote her regular Parent-Teacher Conference column on the question “How Can You Make a Student Care Enough to Work Harder?” The post argues that parents of an unmotivated high school student who has failed a midterm exam should “back off” and allow the student to feel the natural consequences of his poor performance.  While it is an intriguing question, I find myself in sharp disagreement with Jessica, and the many experts who appear in the New York Times column alongside her, about getting kids to work harder in school.


school, motivating students


Most of the commenters seemed to disagree with the educators as well. Many parents deal with this issue at one time or another and struggle to know what is best. We would love to hear from readers about their experiences.

1. Do kids care about school and does that matter?

The first problem lies in the question. It would be great if kids cared about school. It is pure joy to see your child find a subject or teacher who captivates him and then watch his immersion into a new field of learning. Although we cannot force our kids to be interested in something or make them care about a certain subject or class, we can make them care about doing well. And sometimes, that will just need to be enough.

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