giving: guidelines, gatekeeping, and gratitude.

November 27, 2019

In today’s New York Times Parenting Newsletter, Ron Lieber, author of The Opposite of Spoiled, says regarding gift giving that “It’s sort of hopeless to try to control the relatives. So forget that.”

Control is one of those words that gets a bad rap. Framed in this light it can sound commandeering, domineering, an effort made by someone too high- strung or Scrooge-like to value the magic of holiday gift giving. Attempts to reign in gift giving, and deemphasize the consumerism of the season don’t have to be strict or strident, but I see real value in them being clear.

Every year, I receive countless requests, mostly from parents of young children, for advice on navigating the abundance of the holiday season with little kids. I’ve included a few past pieces I’ve written on the subject at the end of this piece, and here, I’m sharing the three central tenets I’ve distilled over the past five years of navigating holiday gifts and kids.

Guidelines:

I agree with conventional thinking that it’s impossible to dictate every aspect of your parenting hopes and dreams to your extended family and have them understand them. This is true of parenting generally, of course, and it can become especially poignant around gift giving. Still, the impossibility of reaching 100% understanding doesn’t mean it’s not a conversation worth broaching.

If gift giving is a subject you feel strongly about, my best advice is to talk early and openly and to let your family know that you’re making efforts to keep things simple. I’ve found the most success with offering positive ideas or guidelines rather than negative ones. Instead of saying a general “no plastic and no junk,” which will likely elicit eye rolls at best and straight-up defiance at worst, I suggest particulars that I know my children are really hoping for: a specific art supply, or a cooking utensil, or dress-up item. If there’s something that was a hit in a past year, I try to reconfirm the success of that gift, reminding a beloved family member, for instance, that my kids adored the winter pajamas they received the year before and how thrilled they’d be with a new set. If I feel like my tiny apartment simply cannot accommodate one more physical item, I encourage the idea of offering an experience like museum passes, or tickets to see a favorite movie, or the gift of a special one-on-one cup of cocoa.

And while I generally try to stick to the positives, if there’s something specific that we don’t need or want—in my house it’s children’s items emblazoned with trademarked characters—I try to be direct about that, too.

Gatekeeping:

If efforts at offering guidelines fail, I still think it’s important to remember that you’re still in charge of your own space and the things that come into it. Parents can help kids sort through their toys (see also!) and help them to recognize and decide what kinds of things get used and loved the most.

Resources and money are not limitless and kids learn pretty quickly what’s possible and what isn’t in their particular families. Indeed, I’d say that helping kids to understand limits is a central part of parenting. If you have a child, like I do, who loves strolling through the Christmas aisle at the neighborhood drug store and drooling over bedazzled Santa hats and singing reindeer, acknowledge the interest, embrace the gawking, revel in the moment of joy, but feel free to set a limit about what you might actually welcome into your home. Interest in does not always equate with ability to have.

And if a bedazzled Santa hat does wend its way into your home via an indulgent relative, try to remember that most of these things are, indeed, temporary. (Permission to privately shake your fist and curse the capitalist system that makes so many cheap, shiny things at great cost to people planet.) In all of this, I’ve found that it’s important for me to try to stay somewhat flexible. Faye found a set of Minnie Mouse ears outside of our apartment one day and I knew that making a big deal out of not letting her bring them inside would be more problematic than simply agreeing to bring them inside, give them a good wash, and let her play. The ears are still zipped into the pouch where we keep headbands and masks. They’re occasionally played with, mostly forgotten, and one day we’ll do a clean out of the pouch together and she’ll do some gatekeeping herself and decide whether or not to keep them.

Gratitude:

Finally, and most important of all, in all things, I try to remember gratitude. Receiving a gift that makes me feel seen and understood and cared for is pure magic, and it’s something I aim for in my own gift giving, but not every gift will hit every mark. That’s okay.

From the archives:

Baby Proof: Pre-Holiday Gift Reflections

Baby Proof: Gracious Gifts

Giving: Fewer Gifts, More Thought

Note: These photos were taken as part of an Instagram post I did in collaboration with a favorite neighborhood business, Acorn Toy Shop.

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38 Comments

  • Reply Liz November 27, 2019 at 10:34 am

    The first few years of becoming a parent, I felt a bit overwhelmed at gift-giving time, but this year I’m feeling a bit more relaxed about it, because I’ve held back on buying things through the year, so that when family ask what my daughter might like, I’ve been able to list some things (new pyjamas, new socks, a swimsuit in the next size up). It’s so tempting to succumb to the urge to order online and immediately fill any perceived need that arises, but that leaves you literally never really needing anything. I’ve also scaled back on the gifts I’ve bought her this year – I know she’ll get lots of lovely things, but also that she doesn’t measure my love in the quantity of the gifts I buy her, so I don’t need to have the longest receipt to prove the most love. +1 for a relaxed but intentional Christmas!

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    • Reply Rose November 27, 2019 at 4:56 pm

      What a good idea! I’ll be trying to do this!

    • Reply Michela November 27, 2019 at 7:00 pm

      Totally agree. I have also been very specific with requests this year…I don’t need to buy them the gift they really want or need…I’m letting grandparents doing it and I won’t leave their gift to their imagination and taste. Hopefully less unwanted stuff and happier kids grandparents…and parents.

  • Reply Carol B. November 27, 2019 at 11:34 am

    This is a great article! As a grandma, I appreciate the ideas my daughter has for me and now my granddaughters make up the list for themselves. They have short lists but I like being able to gift to them something they truly want or need. From this side of the equation, I’d like to encourage extended family to be sensitive to parents desires. It makes for a much happier holiday.

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  • Reply Kelly Libby November 27, 2019 at 11:43 am

    I go shopping with my mom to help her choose gifts that my nieces and nephews would like. And, remind her to only buy them one nice gift (or small gifts that go well together such as pajamas and slippers or crayons and notepads etc). This helps her reign in her spending while feeling joy in giving.

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  • Reply Katie November 27, 2019 at 1:35 pm

    I have an overly generous mother in law that just will not reign in her gift giving (be it the amount or type) no matter how many times we try to be “direct”, accentuate the positive, beg, plead, give her lists of things Eleanor and we actually need. So now we heed my mother’s rule of “eat it with a smile on your face,” thank her for the gifts, and immediately post to our local Buy Nothing Group so that a child can have some fun with the gifts (and continue to give lists of needed items in the hopes that one day there’s an intersection between what we need and what she wants to gift).

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    • Reply Megan November 27, 2019 at 2:01 pm

      I relate to the family members who just don’t care what your wants and desires are for your family/children. It’s tough and frustrating. I’ve been considering using it as a lesson in charity? Maybe involving the whole family on who and where to donate less loved items, whether they’ve been in the bottom of the toy basket for months or something that was given new. I have been telling myself, “they are only things” and try to let the water roll off my back like a duck. It does feel nice to know that I’m not alone out there in the struggle.

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      • Reply Marie November 27, 2019 at 2:57 pm

        Breathing a huge sigh of relief and solidarity at this post, and these replies. Yes, as you said, it is so helpful to know I’m not alone in this struggle.

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    • Reply Rachel November 28, 2019 at 9:41 am

      Huge sigh of relief. It’s not just us! Last year my MIL gifted our son one of those electric ride in big wheel cars. We live in a small two bedroom apartment on the 8th floor of a building with no yard…She was surprised and hurt when we didn’t want to take it home with us and we suggested it just be for her house. Looking back I think it was our shocked (read horrified) faces upon opening the gift that set off the defensive stance. We’re trying to be more gracious AND specific this year.

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    • Reply Ashley December 4, 2019 at 12:43 pm

      Oh, the mother-in-law that just will not change her ways. I know this all too well. I try to remind myself that she has the best of intentions in her heart but still would much rather she spend the same amount on ONE ice gift instead of lots of little gifts that we don’t want and will never use. I don’t know how to get her to see quality over quantity. Toys that will last years, instead of months. Eventually it may happen.

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  • Reply kim m November 27, 2019 at 1:45 pm

    Ha! I just sent a fairly direct email to grandparents on gift giving earlier this week. I may have overstepped by essentially providing a shortlist and assigning grandparents to particular gifts, but honestly after all the decluttering I’ve done in prep for new baby, I felt like this was the one year I could be hyper controlling and get away with it 😉

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    • Reply cathy December 1, 2019 at 4:10 pm

      Umm, you assigned people specific gifts?! Yeah, you may have overstepped a teeny bit. My kids are older, but not old enough to have children of their own. I have to say, if I received an email like that, I’d probably push back. And I’m the mom who desperately tried–and largely succeeded–in keeping plastic, talking/beeping/noise-making toys out of the house.

      • Reply ERIN BOYLE December 2, 2019 at 9:11 am

        So family specific and certainly something that many folks would appreciate and honor and that other folks might be perturbed by. Still, can’t imagine willfully giving someone a gift that they know might be overwhelming.

        • Reply cathy December 2, 2019 at 10:18 am

          Erin, I completely agree. However, there are also so many shades of reading a situation. I might look at a toy and think it would be overwhelming (to me, my child, the size of our space, aesthetics) because I run it through my filters. A living family member might view that same item with different criteria. It just seems a gentler approach would be to start a conversation about how the family (all sides) might approach gift-giving in general. I was fortunate that our family has always requested wish lists. That, itself, creates an opportunity to teach children about hopes versus expectations. When my kids were very little, my mom gave lovely gifts, just too many. It took her awhile to learn that fewer were better for her grandchild. I did learn one thing: there is such a thing as too many wooden toys (no matter how well-crafted)!

          • cathy December 2, 2019 at 10:20 am

            Oops! I meant Loving family member! Guess I needed to run my comment through a better spelling filter!

      • Reply Lilly December 2, 2019 at 5:51 pm

        We were assigned a gift for our nephew this year and I really appreciated it, honestly! We did ask, but asking what he might need and being given a really clear & direct answer was lovely. It’s going to mean a little more running around but if it’s something that won’t add to the clutter (and isn’t just another education savings contribution) I’m happy to search out something specific. It is so dependent on the family & relationship.

  • Reply Megan November 27, 2019 at 1:53 pm

    I so appreciate you articulating what I already have been thinking as we come up on the Holidays with an almost 1 year old. My own extended seems to be particularly defiant of my new family’s “guidelines”. Emma would appreciate some new blocks as she enjoys knocking towers over, or some felt food because she is very interested in her current small set. At our door shows up the largest and loudest “activity cube”. We are focused on clothes that are gentle on baby and environment, we don’t need many, but maybe one nice wool suit or a special set of mittens and a hat. Cue the giant multi-pack of covered in flame retardant fleece jammies. Needless to say, I have been overly stressing. I love the reminder for gratitude and also that me and my husband are the gatekeepers of our home. These things can have a season in our space and then be passed along to charities or families that welcome the loud and the plastic, better than a landfill? Anyway, I think the most upsetting is the not feeling seen or understood, and that is what is causing the anxiety around gift receiving. Thank you for continuing to write on this subject and helping me to put into words my feelings around these topics.

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    • Reply Sam December 1, 2019 at 10:13 am

      Megan! I see and understand you! Gosh, relating so hard to your comment. My own mom is so defiant about our simple requests regarding gifts. It’s like a personal assail on her own parenting (with me) decades ago? One year she sent not a play or dining table, but solely a train(!) table as if I even have space for it. As well as a colossal Costco sized ensemble of plastic noise making trinkets. I returned it all BEFORE the kids could see it and had to endure her feelings of hurt and surprise when she asked how the kids liked their gifts. It sucks for everyone! But meanwhile my stepmom will ask for websites and specifics and send me links to ethical shops before making any purchases. And it’s not about receiving, it’s that she makes the effort to understand what’s important to us and does so with genuine interest. It is, as Erin put it, truly magical! Anyway, sorry for my rant. So grateful for this space to share and discuss, Erin!

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  • Reply Teal November 27, 2019 at 4:03 pm

    This has been a thorn in my side in the past. No longer. Life’s too short to play gatekeeper with I laws or anyone regarding gifts for me. Instead, I practice gratitude and when my kids are sick of the latest Frozen toy or Bratz doll, I donate it.
    My influence is the most influential, and our everyday life is void of Frozen or Bratz. So I just take a breath and say thank you. And make my kids send thank you cards.

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    • Reply Leanne November 27, 2019 at 6:26 pm

      I love this. I’m trying to remember that the preferences for toy aesthetics are mine and not those of my kids. Some of those loud plastic toys that I hate bring them joy for a long time before we send them along to the next family to annoy. Disney-branded shirts that we’d never buy for them become some of their most beloved clothing items. Not my choice for them, but thank you for thinking of them and wanting to let them know how loved they are.

      And we’re always happy to make book/toy recommendations that we’ll all enjoy.

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    • Reply Anna November 28, 2019 at 5:31 am

      I agree wholeheartedly. I used to aim to replicate my own tastes when it came to my children’s toys but I got tired of the fight. I still aim for sustainability, I make gifts for my girls and hand sew things like nativity costumes but when it comes to relatives, policing gifts for aesthetic reasons or, honestly, out of snobbery has just got too tense and tiring for me. If something crosses a line (looking at you, giant noisy plastic Thomas the Tank Engine railway set) I just accept it graciously and donate it later on.

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  • Reply MissEm November 27, 2019 at 7:35 pm

    Yes! We’ve done all these things since my oldest was born, with mostly success (and some anxiety and tears). Now I am navigating much older children who do not want to give away any toys, or pare down, and who have their own money and burgeoning senses of self that they want to express through consumption, and whew, it is taking a huge stretch of my wisdom and knowledge and decisions over boundaries and which life lessons to make space for! From that perspective, I’d tell my early-parenthood self to think – before the time came – about how to communicate our family values to the kids, to come up with guidelines about how we deal with our money and consumption, and to get ready to let go of some control of their bedroom. AND to never get a play kitchen. Don’t do it, younger self – you will regret it. So far I’ve come up with telling my kids that in general we wait a few days before making a purchase we’d like to make, and that we don’t indulge in cheap plastic that break easily.

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    • Reply Sid November 28, 2019 at 10:43 am

      This for sure – as my children get older and have more opinions/preferences (and their own money) it’s a constant exercise in letting go and figuring out where my real priorities lie. If I want to teach my kids to be thoughtful of others, I don’t want to be modeling to them that I care for my own values over theirs (or other family members). I’ve been working to not call their beloved plastic toys “crap”; to talk about taking time to consider the purchases we make; the differences between needs and wants; etc.

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      • Reply Emily Ganzer November 29, 2019 at 8:51 am

        Oh, that discipline of not calling their toys crap (junk, etc). I’ve slipped up for sure (‘your room is full of junk! we need to go through it’ followed by crestfallen faces or furious rebuttals). It’s all treasure to them, and I hate when people denigrate *my* treasure! I decided to give them each an old straw picnic basket and a small shelf or part of a bookcase for their treasures. Sometimes I will find my littlest in her room going through her picnic basket with reverence and joy.

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  • Reply PAppel November 27, 2019 at 10:16 pm

    As a mother of four adult children and no grandchildren :(, I recommend (and actually practice) donations to a college fund. I have a grand niece that I am close to and assist the mom with (picking her up from school, making sure homework gets done, etc) and I opened a trust account CD and I add to it for her birthday and Christmas. I still give her gifts but they are more modest (new pjs, a book, a sweater, etc and are things she usually needs).

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    • Reply Andrea December 2, 2019 at 8:13 am

      It just hurts my heart to hear you moms having to stress over defiant grandparents etc. I just became a grandma for the first time and my sweet little grandson will be four months old at Christmas. My daughter and son in law live in a small bungalow and space is limited and I respect that so for baby’s first Christmas I got him 3 much needed outfits, 3 books (it’s important for the parents to build up his little library) one very special book with a sweet note written to him inside by the illustrator who I know personally, and handmade blocks I purchased from a craft show in a city we were in before he was even born. So here’s one grandma who’s very mindful on the gifts! Now, if I could get one daughter in law to quit giving me awful gag gifts I’d be one happy camper!

  • Reply Maria November 28, 2019 at 6:14 am

    How does everyone let go of the guilt that comes with practicing our own more thoughtful, more minimalist gift-giving philosophy (i.e., we buy fewer items for our nieces and nephews) with our siblings who give our son all the toys? We’ve tried having the conversation each year, agreeing to set limits (to which our siblings ultimately think they’re exempt), and still we’re left with gifts that our son never plays with and guilt that we didn’t spend as much money on his cousins. I struggle to just roll with it and not let it dampen my enjoyment of the holiday season. This year, I wrote a letter to everyone with “rules” and reasons (disparate incomes/debts, different sized households, etc.) that I’m glad I didn’t send, but like everyone is saying: I want them to understand where we’re coming from.

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    • Reply Jennifer November 28, 2019 at 11:24 am

      I have this issue, too, and don’t have an easy answer. But a lot of peace for me has come from quietly accepting. I also now try to separate cost from enjoyment. Sometimes the perfect gift for one person is more than any other gift I am giving, or significantly less than any gift I am giving to their siblings. A lot of peace came when I realized that if it is truly the thought that counts, I want that should go both ways, towards the expensive gifts as well as the inexpensive gifts. I now try to do mostly gifts of experiences which we are geographically close enough to do. Some of those are pricy, some are low/no-cost (hike to a favorite spot, ice cream afternoon) because being able to spend time one-on-one with nieces and nephews is so valuable, even if the monetary outlay varies. I do prefer gifts that reflect both the giver and the receiver, otherwise why not just buy it for yourself? If the gifts they are choosing are mindless traveling down the toy aisle with no thought of the receivers personality/desires…well that I haven’t quite gotten around to figuring out how to deal with.

  • Reply Anon November 28, 2019 at 7:01 am

    So well said. Thank you! It’s our first holiday season with a child, and this Black Friday (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, early bird week before…) has just felt really icky. (Doesn’t IG parentland sometimes feel like an extended Josie and the Pussycats reel?) My in-laws bristle at gift recommendations and guidelines, which is a bummer for our family. We’ll see how it goes with them this Christmas, and maybe next year we’ll send a pre-holiday link to your piece! 🙂

  • Reply Lissa November 29, 2019 at 2:46 pm

    Where did you get the toys pictured? Blocks and wooden pieces. Love them

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE November 30, 2019 at 1:39 pm

      Acorn Toy Shop! Linked at the end of the post!

      • Reply cathy December 1, 2019 at 4:24 pm

        Acorn Toy Shop has lots of cute things, but I couldn’t find the wood blocks on their website. They look like the ones made by Uncle Goose (which come in multiple languages and designs including things like Periodic Table). I don’t work for UG, but have bought their items for my synagogue gift shop. Super high-quality wood, non-toxic paint, made in Michigan. Hope it’s OK to provide the website: unclegoose.com.

  • Reply Helen December 2, 2019 at 10:53 am

    It’s so interesting to me to think about the different things that are at stake here (or at least, that’s what I’m reading into this). What is the point of gift-giving? What are you (the gift giver) getting out of it (in addition to the recipient)? It *has* to be about more than the gifts if one feels a need to “push back” if given specific instructions about gift giving from parents. I think it is about our perceptions of how we make connections and bonds with the people we love. I remember my mom saying–when a friend of hers gave our daughter a large stuffed bunny that I didn’t want–that everyone wants to be the one who found *the* favorite thing, the most beloved toy, which suggests that the gifter really understands the kid (read: loves). People also want children to have access to things/experiences that they cannot. Whether in overloading kids with treats (when you are on a restricted diet) or with stuff (when you are trying to clean out your own attic) or the cutest clothes (when you feel like you can’t wear tutus on the regular)–children occupy a space of possibility and freedom. Obviously this gets tricky for the caregivers who have to live with all of this stuff but also because caregivers too have fantasies of childhood and family that the stuff either facilitates or stymies. Given all of that, I still don’t know how to manage. There’s just too much stuff (and that includes the mass-produced, toxic and the ethical, organic). I know I’d be better served if I focused on the real connections between myself and my people, rather than asking the “stuff” to mediate it.

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  • Reply Vanessa December 2, 2019 at 6:55 pm

    That was an annual struggle with my in-laws. They had lots of money to spend and a fondness for plastic and I never got the message correct, or I did get it correct and they just didn’t care. And sometimes, difficult for me, their presents hit the “spot” while mine did not. I still remember that one of those big plastic Fisher-Price red barns with 8 farm animals became the toy that got my fevered one-year-old to stop crying. I never would have gotten that for him and he loved it immediately and played with it a lot.

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  • Reply Chrissy December 3, 2019 at 3:10 pm

    I see both sides of this. One side of wanting to set one’s own guidelines and the side of the gift-giver. As an aunt who lives states away, it’s hard that I don’t get idea lists (even when I ask) and am told “they don’t need anything”. I can’t really take them on experience things since I live far away. And the other side of the family seems to give lots of toys/books, etc when I’m told that I shouldn’t. And as a parent myself, I do want to limit the clutter. I’m firmly on team wish list/holding off on buying things myself so that others have opportunities to gift if they want to.

  • Reply Ashley December 4, 2019 at 12:47 pm

    Has anyone sent posts like this to family members that “over gift” and had success? I have a running list on amazon of needs for our child and toys that he can grow with.. unfortunately it rarely gets utilized.

  • Reply Teri December 4, 2019 at 5:36 pm

    Unfortunately this fight never ends. My mother in law gives my son everything he asks for, my daughter nothing but makeup, my husband cooking and wine supplies (he detests both) and me cleaning supplies and cookbooks. Straight to the Goodwill- except for the makeup bc it’s usually expired. It’s so embarrassing to see the hurt on my daughter’s face. What can you do, but resolve not to continue the cycle?

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