Parents disagree on when to give gifts to their kids

Q: I have a question about how to approach new toys with my almost 5-year-old and 2-year-old. My husband and I grew up with very different approaches to gift-giving. In my family, my parents stopped getting me presents by middle school. When I wanted something, I asked for it, and I often got it. If it was too expensive, my parents said no. In my husband’s family, his mom loves gift-giving. He did not get toys or new clothes (unless absolutely necessary) outside holidays. But there was an elaborate to-do over the opening of gifts any time there was an event. Now that my 5-year-old is old enough to pay attention to gifts, we are a little stuck on if it’s possible to combine our family approaches. Essentially, I would like to occasionally get new toys (and clothes!) for my girls without fanfare. My husband wants to wait until there’s a holiday and make it a celebration. I agree with that when they are older, but now they change interests so much and they’re growing, so it feels like needless misery to only introduce new things to play with twice a year. Above all, we both agree we don’t want our kids to feel entitled and expect presents constantly. Do you have any suggestion for how to handle gifts?

A: Thanks for writing in. While many people will read this and maybe think, “Cadillac problems,” I thought it was interesting because this gift question is about values, family and communication. And many questions like this represent all those topics filed under “Things we didn’t talk about when we were dating.” From the big things (religion/faith, where to live, schooling, how to spend money) to the little things (giving gifts, hobbies, routines, what rest looks like), it is not abnormal for parents to turn to each other with incredulity when the values don’t mesh. And, unless the values are diametrically opposed, most of these issues can be worked out with a little bit of planning and clear communication. This letter happens to be about gifts, but imagine it is about any value that you and your spouse may share.

When I reread your letter, there are some easy solutions you can reach (big holidays and random gift days), but I would rather have you consider the values you are trying to transmit to your daughters. For instance, I don’t know what your mother-in-law was trying to convey in her “only gifts on holidays” rule (frugality, patience and gratitude are my guesses), but what matters is what your spouse wants now. Did he think that only receiving gifts on holidays was a great way to grow up? Did it annoy him? Was it rigid? Was it comfortable? As a parent coach, this doesn’t rank as a big issue to me, but please sit with your spouse and clarify his understanding of his own childhood. For all we know, your spouse has never even thought about his childhood and how it affected him; he is just running on autopilot, doing what was done in his family. And believe me, this is typical.

Whatever his opinions are or are not, get to the nitty-gritty of the goals and values for the family. Rather than seeing it as proving a negative (I don’t want my kids to be spoiled), think of it as the value of something positive: “I want my children to appreciate the material items they have” or “I want my children to learn when enough is just right.” Enjoying what one has, the fruits of labor, is a wonderful human trait, and we don’t need to withhold, guilt or shame children into it.

After you decide on your family values, you can decide on the boundaries needed to make it happen. Your children are on the young side, but I recommend starting family meetings as soon as you can so these conversations can be as smooth and democratic as possible. For instance, you decide with your spouse that big gifts are for holidays and birthdays, but that a little treat is appropriate after a tough doctor’s visit or to celebrate a great day. You can call a family meeting and say, “Dolly (the 5-year-old), you have a visit to the pediatrician on Tuesday, and there will be shots and patience needed. It requires courage, and to celebrate that courage, we can stop by the store and you can pick out a Lego figurine.” And, whether the visit is a disaster or a smashing success, you go to the store to buy the little figurine. Your boundaries will be firmly established, (one toy under a certain price, whining will not change it) and once your children understand that you are sticking to your rules, this will go more smoothly.

What value is being upheld there? Celebrating joy! Celebrating courage! Celebrating the ability to play with a Lego! Celebrating imagination, and celebrating your good fortune at being able to provide such a toy.

As the kids get older, you can work more and more values in around gift-giving and receiving. This requires effort, communication, flexibility and patience, but it is not as hard as you think. How you problem solve for the small things is how you problem solve for the big things (to paraphrase Luke 16:10), so get practiced at talking about gift-giving so you can eventually talk more smoothly about technology use, sexuality, substance use, friendship crises and beyond. Good luck.