Gifts Without Rifts

When parents dictate what you can or can't buy for your grandchildren, it doesn't have to take the fun out of your holidays.

By by Rebecca Webber

From the moment Dorothea Hover-Kramer’s oldest grandson asked her for a bike, she dreamed of Christmas morning — and the look on the boy's face when he'd find the shiny two-wheeler under the tree. Still, she says, "it was kind of a big present, so I thought I'd run it by my daughter [the boy's mother]." Her daydream was quickly dashed. "My daughter said, 'No, we’ll get him the bike.' I said, 'He asked me for it,'" says Hover-Kramer, 69, a psychotherapist and grandmother of seven in Port Angeles, Wash.

Hover-Kramer was disappointed, but she backed off. "As a grandparent, I've learned to be the peacemaker and accommodator," she says. Her daughter and son-in-law bought the bike while she chipped in for the accessories, including a helmet and a lock.

For many grandparents, holiday gift-giving can be a minefield of family stressors. "You can really hurt feelings and get someone’s nose out of joint," says Susan Newman, a social psychologist and author of Little Things Mean a Lot: Creating Happy Memories With Your Grandchildren (Crown). Here's how to navigate the treacherous terrain, whether parents want you to buy more or less.

They ask you to go easy, but you had big plans

First, find out why the parents don’t want you to get a big gift this year. "People often have good reasons, though you might disagree," says Ruth Nemzoff, the author of Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships With your Adult Children (Palgrave Macmillan). Maybe they are trying to instill different values in the children, or hoping to quash the idea of "keeping up with the Joneses." If you still want to give a big present, consider a compromise: Say you were planning to give your teenage granddaughter the diamond earrings your grandmother gave you when you were 16, but her parents don't think she's responsible enough to hold onto them yet. Instead, give her some less costly new jewelry along with a special promise that the earrings she admires will be hers in a couple of years. But if you planned to buy your grandson his first car, and his parents have put their foot down, "you have to honor the parents," Nemzoff says. "They are on duty 24/7, and they are going to have to deal with the consequences of his having a car."

They forbid you from buying certain toys

You may think parents are being overprotective, but when they ban magnetic toys or play sets with small parts, you need to get in line. After all, if they won't let a child play with the toy, you'll have wasted your money. "And parents do have the right to feel anxious about safety," Nemzoff says. "Part of parenting is feeling you are protecting your child, and you don’t want to undermine that."

Parents also have the right to choose toys that they think are healthiest for their children's development, so they may suggest an art kit instead of a fashion doll. If you and your daughters adored Barbie growing up, and you explain that you just want to pass on that tradition, the parents may relent. Or they may not. "There are so many gifts you can give. Why give one that annoys?" Nemzoff asks. "There's another one you can find that will satisfy your grandchild and their parents."

They demand you run your gift ideas by them

It’s your money, and it's your grandchild, so why should you have to listen to anyone who tells you what you should buy? Because the parents know more about their children. Your daughter may want to make sure you give your grandchildren things they really need or want, rather than the toys they asked for last summer, but have since forgotten. Parents may also want to avoid duplication if children have been telling everyone what they want, so your grandson doesn’t find two Elmo Live dolls under the tree.

Whatever the parents' demand, or the reasons behind it, try to be accommodating. "Tread lightly," says Hover-Kramer. "Relationships with adult children can be delicate, and the grounds for estrangement very minor."

They ask you to buy a big gift, but you can’t afford it

No one is going to blame you for being frugal, whether it’s always been your way, or because you've lost some retirement savings in the market downturn. Tell your grown child, "I would really love to, but this year, it’s not possible," Newman suggests. "Given the current economic situation, everybody’s going to understand." If your grandchild truly has her heart set on a computer or swing set, suggest that everyone in the family pitch in for it. And remember, as Newman points out, it's very often the smallest gift that is a child's most treasured.

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