What To Do When Gifts Cause a Rift In Your Family

When my son was little he had a mild addiction to Thomas the Train collectibles. Those things were everywhere! Then it was monster trucks. Now, Legos are all the rage.

And what about these new Legos? When I was a kid you could buy a ton of plastic Legos blocks for cheap. They came in four colors – red, blue, green and yellow. Now, a larger Star Wars Lego set runs about $99, and includes hundreds of tiny pieces and 37-step instructions for assembly! I digress.

You see a pattern developing here? My son, like many kids, goes from one greatest thing to the next. Individually, these things are not that expensive (save the aforementioned Star Wars Lego sets), but collectively they can add up.

In addition to being expensive for parents, they do have a cost for kids, too. And I’m not just referring to toys’ way of eating into allowance savings.

Too many toys usually means too many distractions. Between the television, the Wii, the computer, the buckets of army men, trucks, Legos, etc, etc. there is little time to devote to things like books, and outside play.

I’m certainly not advocating getting rid of all toys. In fact, some toys can be quite educational. Others can be incorporated into outside play (my kids love the game Hyper Dash). But often toys are played with a while and then tossed aside, collecting dust and taking up space in the kids’ closets and toy boxes.

The number of toys accumulating never seems to diminish, nor does our kids’ appetite for more of them. Are kids born with a consumer gene?

Hey Mom and Dad – Make Sure You Don’t Own Too Many Toys

Kids learn much from the behavior modeled for them by their parents. Many parents are guilty of buying too many toys themselves. And many of us fall for the same toy fads that kids do, although our “toys” are often much more expensive.

Need evidence? Just hang out around a Best Buy store the morning Apple releases a new product – any product. I’m quite certain most people in line for the iPhone 4 already owned a phone – maybe even an iPhone 3. But they had to have the latest and greatest.

Kids notice this stuff. Maybe Dad buys a new pickup truck every two years. Mom picks up a new laptop with the first hint of a problem with the one she just bought 6 months ago. And both parents are always buying new shoes, new clothes, new jewelry and watches, etc.

Allow Kids to Buy Their Own Toys…At Least a Few of Them

At around age 5 we started giving our kids an allowance. Over the years we’ve gone back and forth on whether or not this allowance should be tied to chores. A final compromise was to identify a set of basic chores to be performed throughout the week that must be completed as a contributing member of the household. Additional chores could be performed to earn extra money, or not, depending on school schedules, motivation, etc.

We encourage the kids to use a portion of their allowance for spending, a portion for saving and some for giving. With their spending allotment, they usually pick up something small during weekly grocery/household supply trips – a magazine, a CD, a movie, a game, etc.

Of course, we still buy them a few things all along (I rarely turn down a request for a new book), and don’t expect them to pay for things like clothing (not yet, at least) and basic supplies. Eventually, as they mature, I’d like to increase their budget and include more spending categories for which they are responsible.

We’ve noticed that the kids are much more selective about what they buy, and often fret over “spending all their dollars” on a new game – leaving them with an empty wallet for another week.

I’m not unlike any other parent. I want my kids to have things better than I did. I want them to have more. I want them to have the best. But I also want them to grasp the connection between having nice things and the sacrifice required to earn them. I want them to be able to say “no” to themselves; to avoid the trappings of debt and consumerism as they grow older. Maybe they will avoid some of the mistakes I made along the way, or at least be prepared to learn from the ones they are bound to make themselves.

What To Do When Gifts Cause a Rift In Your Family

Many of us who limit the amount of toys our children own aren’t solely motivated by the desire to save money. Toys are expensive but the real goal is to raise children who aren’t focused on material things, who take care and pride in what they do have and who value quality over quantity. It can be frustrating when well meaning relatives ignore our desires  and give our children mountains of flashy toys that don’t fit into the lessons we are trying to teach.

Even trickier is when one child or children in the family are favored above the rest and you are left trying to deal with questions about why Suzy got more or why Timmy gets less.  What’s more, whatever the issue is surrounding gifts in your family, chances are good that it’s complicated by feelings from the past and current power struggles.

If you’re experiencing conflict over extended families and gifts, here are a few points to keep in mind to help resolve the problems in the best possible way for all involved.

Sometimes it’s best to just let it go

If the problem is just that your family members are giving your child too many gifts or aren’t buying the kinds of gifts you prefer (for example loud, plastic toys over simple, wooden ones) it might just be better to let the matter drop and choose to feel grateful that your child has so many  people that love them. This is not to say that it’s not annoying that your wishes are being annoyed, just that it’s not worth the time to feel angry over something that is not that big of a deal in the long run.

You can always put away some or most of the toys and bring them out for rainy days so that they are not cluttering your house. Don’t worry about your child become spoiled because they get too many birthday or Christmas presents, as long as you are giving them a good example every day of a frugal, sustainable lifestyle they’ll get the message.

Be Proactive in Offering Gift Suggestions

Nobody wants to been seen as greedy or a gift-grubber, but sometimes it’s best to be direct about asking for what you want on behalf of your kids. You can’t control what other people do, but if you give helpful suggestions with solid reasons why you think it’s a good idea, there is a chance that they might do what you want.

Don’t be offended if they balk at the idea or insist their idea is better. After all, you think your ideas are better, too! Sometimes people need to feel like their point of view has been acknowledged and respected before they concede so don’t turn it into a power struggle. Instead respond with grace and tact and you might find that they change their mind and do as you suggest after all.

Try Not to Focus on the Past

Often dealing with these kinds of gifting issues can be surprisingly painful. Seeing your own child showered with gifts by grandparents that never visit can remind you of how you wished your own parents would spend more time with you. Or, if you were the odd child out, seeing your sibling’s children get more gifts and attention than your own can bring up feelings of rage and resentment that you thought had been buried years ago.

Your feelings are valid, but it’s important to remember that you are an adult now and your children don’t deserve to be saddled with your baggage. Do go to your spouse and friends for a supportive ear but be careful of what you say in your children’s earshot. Keep all discussions focused on the here and now rather than using it as an opportunity to bring up hurts from the past.

When to Speak Up

While sometimes it’s better to just say nothing and chalk things up to family weirdness, sometimes speaking up is necessary.

  • When relatives are constantly giving your child things that are not age appropriate or go completely opposite your values or give items that present serious safety issues. Scale your response to the seriousness of the offense – giving an infant preschool toys might only require a gentle reminder to check the ages on the package while constantly giving your children who are being raised Jewish Christian themed items is a good call for a firm discussion on boundaries.
  • If the discrepancy between gifts that the grandchildren receive is large and noticeable to all concerned, it’s important to take action so that relationships between family members are not permanently damaged. It might become necessary to avoid family gatherings to protect your children’s feelings. Ideally, these discussions should take place between the blood relations to avoid adding tension to relationships between in-laws.
  • If family members are involved in the everyday care of your child and you feel that bad habits are being established. There is a large difference between getting spoiled rotten a few weekends out of the year and every day over-indulgence. Remember to show your appreciation for all the love your family member has for your children and be ready with suggestions of things that they can do to bond with your children that won’t cause issues with materialism or entitlement down the line.

Other Suggestions:

  • Ask family members to buy things that provide value all year long, such as a zoo or museum membership rather than buying more toys. Point out all of the educational and social opportunities that this will give your child to make it extra attractive and promise lots of pictures.
  • Suggest that family members draw names or buy family gifts for major holidays rather than buying for each person.  Family members might see this as a welcome relief from the stress and expense of buying for so many people.
  • Let grandparents and Aunts and Uncles know that your child would treasure some one on one time with them more than a gift on their birthday. A lunch date and the movies would be a treat for both.
  • It’s fine to ask for a gift receipt if your child is truly not able to use the toy because it’s age inappropriate or unsafe.
  • Make sure that you give your child great lessons about money, consumer culture and the value of spending time together as a family on a daily basis. No matter what, you are your child’s best and most influential teacher.