“The Gift That Needs Forgiving” was the title of a recent Wall Street Journal (12/15/09) piece. Giving gifts in the right way is always tricky. Many years ago someone gave us the whole set of a certain series of Jewish books. We put them back in the two large boxes they came in and wrapped them up for Chanukah. Our young children eagerly anticipated opening these large gifts. But their excitement turned to very real disappointment when all they found inside were educational books! We were young parents and had clearly misread the desires of our family. That was our first “gift that needed forgiving.”

I can’t say we never made the mistake again but we never forgot that incident. And we certainly learned that giving gifts appropriately requires serious thought in advance.

It seems obvious (although not when you read of some of the disastrous adventures) that the gift should be something the recipient wants. (And equally obvious that it should not be something the giver wants!)

This presupposes the giver knows what is desired. Here comes an important point for women: don’t count on your husband to read your mind or pick up on hints and then break down in tears when he doesn’t get you what you wanted. Tell him. This will save a lot of marital strife and lead to greater happiness all around.

Women seem to be harder to shop for than man, but one thing everyone agrees on (according to the author of the WSJ piece and our common sense) is that women do NOT want a utilitarian present -- no vacuum cleaners, kitchen pots, or, as my husband got for me one year, bread machines.

Appropriate gift giving requires real sensitivity and thought. My husband knows that I like cookbooks, so when he found one he thought I didn’t have (not an easy feat given the size of my collection) while on an out-of-town trip a few years ago, he eagerly purchased it. He was shocked to discover that “Man Eating Bugs” with its recipes for meal worm spaghetti and stink bug pâté and accompanying (revolting) pictures was not a present that warmed my heart. Of course he knew it wasn’t kosher; he just thought I would find it humorous. He was wrong. And this is another point the WSJ article raises: Don’t give “funny” presents; this is serious business.

If you listen and pay attention, you shouldn't have a problem getting those a gift they'd enjoy.

The article also offers some important shopping tips in addition to the sagest advice of all: Listen to the words of the intended recipient. Pay attention to them. If we do, we should all have little trouble getting those we care about a gift they would enjoy. Even if they don’t spell it out for us!

Their tips, particularly for shopping for women, include: “When in doubt, go down in size.” We’d rather return it than receive something labeled large or extra-large. No, we don’t think of it as cozy and it is unlikely to create further closeness between the giver and recipient.

“Never give a gift that suggests your spouse is not perfect.” We’ll buy our own anti-aging creams, thank you very much. And exercise equipment should be given upon request only. For my 39th birthday (a long time ago now), my husband got me a treadmill. “Was he hinting something?” inquired a helpful family member. “No, it was actually what I asked for!”

And let’s put an end to the old canard that “It’s the thought that counts.” It all depends on the thought! It depends on the effort. It depends on the consideration.

It may not depend on the money spent but it does depend on how closely the gift responds to the desires of the intended recipient.

For busy mothers, home-made gift certificates offering babysitting time, a night where someone else makes dinner, cleaning help, may be great. You need to know the needs of your spouse/parent/child/friend.

It’s unfortunate that the very thing that’s supposed to bring pleasure – giving to others – is all too frequently the unwitting source of pain. It’s unfortunate -- and needless as well. All it takes is a little thought and a lot of listening. And removing the focus from ourselves to others. That’s easy enough, isn’t it?