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My mother, who is very well meaning, spoils my daughters, who are ages 2 and 3. Last year on Christmas Eve it was the most evident. The piles of presents were excessive and were all labeled “From Santa.” We received so many gifts that I still have some toys and clothes downstairs in our basement that the girls have never used.
Other family members have commented on it and then I started feeling guilty that “Santa” (a.k.a. Mom and Dad) only got them a few gifts under the tree on Christmas morning. To top it off, my mom is not financially stable and is always lamenting about how she doesn’t have the money to pay her bills.
I have tried to discuss it with her, first from a financial perspective. That didn’t go well. Then I tried to explain to her that my husband and I don’t want our girls to have everything and anything they want, because that’s not how we choose to raise them. We would rather family members donate money to the effort to rebuild our local playground, or spend time with the girls, or go on an outing. Whenever I broach the subject, she gets very defensive and we end up fighting.
I’m at the point now that I’m so fed up that I may just tell her to take some of the toys and clothes back, or that we will donate them to charity. Any advice?
Looking A Gift Horse in the Mouth
You have every right to raise your kids with the values you and your partner seek to impart! On the other hand, your mother should be able to establish her own relationship with your kids. Those two basic agendas are in conflict here. There’s no easy answer.
For the record, my wife and I have struggled with some of the same issues. We have talked with both sets of grandparents (and a few uncles) about not giving the kids gifts of which we don’t approve: toy guns, electronic devices, etc. And we’ve tried to make clear that we want holidays, especially Christmas and Channukah, to center around emotional expressions of love, not material ones.
But you try telling that to children who are naturally eager for gifts, or grandparents who — having survived the trial of raising their own brood — very much want to spoil their grandkids. It’s no easy sell.
I do think you should try talking to your mother again, but in a way that acknowledges, first and foremost, that you respect her desire to have an independent relationship with her grandkids. I say this because it sounds like previous talks have devolved into an unspoken, but clearly felt, power struggle. She needs to understand that you’re not trying to trample her rights as a grandma. Once she hears that she may be amenable to cutting back on the volume of gifts.
But if she’s not, you can always try the approach we’ve taken, which is simply to leave some of the gifts at her house. You may not have this problem, but our home is simply too small to accommodate all the stuff the kids get. It just becomes junk. So we leave a bunch with the grandparents.
You might think about two more dynamics that play into all this. First, the notion that your mom’s more private and painful financial worries are actually what cause her to give so many gifts. After all, bestowing holiday gifts is a public expression of economic power. As she struggles with the shame and fear of facing money troubles, especially late in life, she may need to project the image to her children and grandchildren (and to herself) that she has more than enough money — as signified by more than enough gifts.
What matters most here isn’t who showers your girls with loot in late December. It’s that you and your husband give them plenty of love, and the proper limits, year round.
On the other side of this, it’s noteworthy that other family members commented on all the gifts “from Santa” and that your reaction was to feel guilty that you’re not giving as many presents as your mom. This competitive impulse buys into the very value system — quantity of gifts equals quality of love — that you and your husband consciously abhor. The fact that you feel shown up in this way suggests that some of your mom’s anxieties live inside of you, as well.
To which I say: welcome to the club! The truth is, as much as we try to disguise or suppress our doubts and fears, our kids pick up on and internalize them. That doesn’t mean that they’re doomed to struggle with the same issues you and your mom do. But it does mean that you should be honest with yourself about why her efforts to spoil your kids get under your skin so much, even if she can’t do the same thing.
What matters most here isn’t who showers your girls with loot in late December. It’s that you and your husband give them plenty of love, and the proper limits, year round. That’s not as glamorous as playing Santa. But it’s a heck of a lot more important and enduring.
Wishing you a very happy holiday,
Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.
Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football."