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
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
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
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
- desk ornament that reflects the person’s interests
- photo of the pair
- framed saying which reinforces a point discussed in mentoring
- 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.
For more ideas on effective mentoring, check our Products