Updated on 04.05.10

Kids, Stuff, and Values

Trent Hamm

Wendy writes in with an email I considered using in today’s mailbag, but my response kind of grew into a full post:

When well-meaning relatives give gifts to your children, do you always allow your children to keep those gifts? My mother-in-law (who lives 20 hours away and only sees us a few times a year) not only gives gifts that are not age-appropriate or do not meet our standards for marketed characters or quality of play, but she gives so many at birthdays, holidays, and throughout the year that I feel like the boys would drown in toys, even before the other family members add to it. My mom has happily adjusted by providing ‘experience’ gifts for the grandkids- swimming lessons, zoo pass, etc., but my MIL really likes new things and does her absolute best to instill the love of something ‘new’ in our kids.

My sister in law thinks we are excessively prohibitive when it comes to toys and sweets. Rather than talk to us about what kind of toys or gifts we would like our kids to have, she gets mad when she finds out we get rid of some of the gifts after a couple of days. She also ignores what tips I’ve tried to provide in the past. I know they both love our kids dearly, and I know they are frustrated by the different priorities and values my husband and I are trying to instill in our kids.

The worst part of this is that they both seem quite willing to do what they think is appropriate even when it is at odds with what we’ve told them we allow or don’t allow. Neither of them have taken the kids on her own because I can’t even trust them to follow our guidelines when we are present. I feel like my SIL is just itching to sit my son in front of a DVD to show me that he really does like it; i know he probably would, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t better things he would like as much or more.

Right now, our kids are young enough that they aren’t attached to most ‘things’ they encounter. We openly or quietly give the excess away to friends and sell or donate what our friends don’t want. I know this will become more difficult as they get older.

How do you deal with gifts for your kids that don’t fit in with your lifestyle?

This is actually an issue in our own life, something we’ve puzzled over quite a lot.

Our two (very soon to be three) children have a lot of relatives who adore them. They have four grandparents, a great grandparent, four aunts, two uncles, and a small army of cousins who just adore our kids. Many of them give them gifts at a seemingly constant rate.

Here’s the thing, though. These gifts are given out of love. People give our kids gifts because they love them so much and it’s their way of expressing it. For me, telling them not to do so is akin to saying, “Please don’t express your love and caring for our children.”

I’m just simply not going to do that. I might not particularly like the method they use to express their love for our kids, but it’s not a harmful way of doing it.

Instead, I focus on passing my values on to my kids. My children both choose what they most enjoy playing with and play with that, but part of that equation also involves what toys they’re likely to see Mom and Dad playing with and approving of, too. I often play ball games in the yard with the kids. I also will get involved in a lot of the more open-ended toys, like Legos and craft/art projects.

Unsurprisingly, over a long period of time, my kids prefer these toys. My son loves nothing more than playing with a football out in the yard, throwing it around. My daughter – at two years of age, no less – will literally spend periods of an hour or more playing with her Magna-Tiles.

Why? We encourage our kids, more than anything, to play with open-ended stuff that encourages their creativity and their engineering skills or gets them physically active. That’s what we value and thus we focus on it ourselves.

Hand in hand with that, we explain to everyone who gives them gifts that we often off-load the toys that wind up in the bottom of the toy box. If my daughter keeps choosing the Magna-Tiles, then other toys are going to slowly wind up at the bottom of the toy box – and will eventually head to Goodwill or to a charity that will accept them. When they come to visit, let them witness what stuff is on the top of the toybox and what is on the bottom.

With regards to sweets, we follow the same philosophy. If a grandparent gives them a sweet treat, they can eat a bit – no problem. However, we don’t give them such sweets on any sort of regular basis. We have a “candy tub” that gets filled with candies from such events (like Easter and Halloween) and we allow them one piece a night if they remember and if they behaved well and ate adequately at supper. The result? We still have candy from Halloween.

From there, we carry it forward. We talk to the grandparents and other relatives about what our kids are obviously enjoying.

“Our son’s favorite food is black olives.”
“Does he eat candy?”
“Not really. You like bananas, don’t you, Joe?”

“Kate really, really likes her Magna-Tiles.”
“What are those?”
“They’re kind of a building block toy. She just gravitates to those kinds of things.”

“What did you do this weekend?”
“We let the kids choose and they wanted to go to the Science Center and the zoo. They just love going out and experiencing stuff instead of playing at home all of the time or just watching videos.”

“Don’t they like watching movies?”
“On rainy days, maybe sometimes. But if the weather is nice, we’d rather be out in the yard. Even on indoor days, we usually wind up making pictures and building stuff.”

Repeated over and over, attentive grandparents and relatives start to get the hint. We value open-ended toys. We don’t value sweets beyond moderation. Experience-oriented things are really loved around here, while passive toys aren’t valued as much.

This accomplishes a lot of things at once. It includes the people who care about your kids in their life. I know that both sets of grandparents – as well as the aunts – constantly want to know more about what our kids are up to, so we tell them. It also reveals in a pretty strong way what the kids enjoy – and what they don’t enjoy.

Perhaps most worthwhile (in relation to The Simple Dollar, anyway), it saves everyone money. The relatives know what kinds of toys our kids like and value, so they get them things in line with that. Thus, they aren’t spending their money on toys that won’t get played with much (and thus get quickly sent to Goodwill).

I have no objection with (almost) any of our relatives watching our kids, even if I know they won’t necessarily encourage the optimal activities I might want. Why? I know my kids. When they go there, they’re going to gravitate towards the stuff that they like – playing in the yard, playing with building-oriented toys, and so on. They might be encouraged to do other stuff and they might go along, but I’ve seen my daughter gravitate to the building toys many, many times and I’ve seen my son ask for paper to draw on and crayons many, many times.

There’s also another key lesson here that will help you in other areas of life: talk positively about what you value without talking negatively about what you don’t value. You can actually have a civil discussion about politics or money or religion or parenting if you never go negative and just don’t respond to negativity. The same is true with this discussion. Talk about what you value in a positive light without painting other viewpoints in a negative light and other people will be engaged. It works, I think, partially because people so rarely do it.

Instead of criticizing the gifts that your family gives, thank them for the gifts. At other opportunities, though, use positive comments to talk about the types of gifts that are in line with what you value. You’ll be surprised how much positivity can help any situation like this – or in any situation.

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  1. sarah says:

    Great post – assuming that the extended family gift-givers are rational people and respect you.

    And from the writers email, it sounds like that may not be the case with this family. The subtle hints work great with some families, but with others you may have to have those tough conversations. Being nice and putting a positive spin on it is a great first step. However, if your wishes as a parent are being outright and repeatedly dis-regarded, then getting rid of the gifts and effectively wasting the gift-givers money may be just what you have to do. It’s a bummer of a situation.

  2. Diane says:

    I have no grandchildren yet but I love them even now. I will not be showering them with a bunch of useless stuff but I will be putting money away for them for college. God only knows what it will cost 20 years from now.

  3. Nicole says:

    Another thing that has happened with our family is that DH and I just don’t give our son much of anything. We substitute away because the in-laws are so generous. This year the Easter bunny repurposed candy that the in-laws had sent him and didn’t provide any additional candy. If the in-laws ever ratchet down, then Santa and the bunny etc. will start providing things again.

    (DH, a “winter,” really wants his parents to stop buying things that would look great on his brother, a “spring,” but not on him… but he hasn’t been able to have that conversation. So every year goodwill gets some nice brand-new men’s dress clothing with tags that can’t be returned.)

  4. Kathy says:

    In reading Wendy’s letter, I am seeing a power struggle among the adults, which, unfortunately, involves them using the kids, or the kids’ gifts and toys.

    I get the impression that Wendy is very firm and unbending, and I get this impression from the way she worded her letter, particularly the phrase “do not meet our standards for marketed characters or quality of play”. I guess to me, it comes off as sounding rather snobby and condescending. That could be why MIL and SIL are doing what they are doing. Perhaps they see Wendy as denying the kids any fun.

    I don’t believe that grandparents/aunt/uncles have the right to undermine the parents and that they should respect what the parents’ wishes. That being said, I also think the parents in this case should be a bit more gracious and perhaps state their beliefs in a way that does not come off as condescending. I would be hurt and angry if a gift I gave to a niece or nephew was given away to Goodwill right away. I agree with Trent that perhaps the parents should steer the relatives in the direction of what toys the kids do like and let them go from there.

    Another concern that I do have is that the parents themselves are undermining their own efforts to raise their kids to be less materialistic by being so rigid about it. The kids may see these toys as “forbidden fruit” and want them even more. And when they are teenagers, it will get even worse.

  5. Gena says:

    The solutions offered bother me a bit and I’m trying to figure out why. From the post, it sounds to me that the OP has already been up front with her MIL/SIL about what is or isn’t okay and both individuals are openly defying this. I guess the answer I was looking for was how does one respond to a family member who is being disrespectful, even if it’s “out of love.” From where I sit, a loving family tries to support the family rather than oppose it (unless the dynamic is really abusive, and this is not).

    It also sounds like the OP is already employing many of the tactics suggested. As a parent, I know how frustrating it is when family members think more about themselves and their needs than the child and the gift in question. My husband’s former BIL, a nice guy but a bit of a button pusher, likes to give toys that we flat out don’t allow (toy weapons, games with killing etc). He knows this isn’t okay, but thinks he’s being funny by doing providing stuff like this. He’s the only one laughing.

    I’d suggest to the OP to continue doing what she’s doing and to try to not let the MIL/SIL’s reaction to the giveaways bother you too much. Eventually, maybe that act will get them to realize that the act of gift giving is more about the children than it is about them.

  6. leslie says:

    I truly love my in-laws and feel very lucky to have a great relationship with them. The one bone of contention that I have with them however is the EXCESS related to Christmas and to a smaller extent on birthdays. My MIL gives more just from her and my FIL at Christmas than from my entire family (grandparents, aunt, uncle and immediate family) combined – like 3 or 4 times the amount. I have had talks with her (both subtle and blunt) and it has gotten a little better but still crazy, over the top. Fortunately, they are appropriate for the most part but the sheer volume of gifts makes my children’s eyes glaze over and means that there is very little appreciation of any of it. One year, when my nephew was 7 or so, he spent the morning opening up gift after gift (mostly video game related, if I remember correctly). By the time he got to the last gift (a trip to Disney World) he had absolutely no reaction to it at all. Don’t even get me started on my Sister-in-law and her variations on this same theme.

    I have come to the conclusion that I just need to learn to let it go. They are not going to change this despite my pleas to do so. I deal with the inappropriate gifts by giving a lot of stuff away when we come home from their house after christmas. I have given them lists of ideas for appropriate gifts and that has helped some (except that she quite literally buys the entire list. And yes, I have tried to make the list one or two ideas but that just leads to her coming up with stuff on her own.). As annoying as this is to me, I have come to the conclusion that if this is the only real problem I have with my in-laws then I am pretty lucky in the grand scheme of things.

  7. Rita says:

    I agree with Kathy that there is a power struggle going on. While my husband and I agree with the sentiment of less is more when it comes to toys particular and material things in general, his family and some of mine does not. We realize that some of our values are not going to mesh with those individuals, we are going to get gifts that we think are inappropriate. But we are still the parents, if our daughter sees us getting more excited about a trip to the zoo or a day at the beach than a trip to the mall, she will come to value the experiences over the stuff every time. On the flip side, if we forbid tv (which we don’t watch), trendy toys or anything that while not bad is not what we want for her, she will grow up to do and value they very things we want her to avoid.

  8. Brent says:

    I don’t have children, but I see the dynamic with my cousin’s kids and the grandma. There is totally a power struggle that starts with it. I know that even as an adult the more gifts I get the less I appreciate them. 3 video games for one day and you pretty much only can enjoy one of them. I like the experiences gifts, doesn’t mean as much to the kid on the day, but you can be sure it contributes to their happiness and upbringing. I will never be buying candy for any kid. Sugar has taken more life out of me than I can ever recover.

  9. Todd says:

    This may be my favorite post of yours, Trent. You correctly point out that the only way to ever “win” a power struggle is to refuse to play along. And the only way to ever win over any family members with control issue is through love, patience, tact–and sometimes a little reverse psychology. I realized early on that life could quickly become an endless power struggle with in-laws unless I just embraced them as people and let them see how much I love them. THEN, I could work on ways other than confrontation to convince them of my views.

    I’ve also found that if we forbid our kids from experiencing certain things (candy, movies, toys, etc.) they tend to be all the more curious when they are at others’ houses. Our daughter was allowed to see a “Saw” movie as a 9-year-old at a sleepover. We were furious, the parents apologized, but I realized that my family members always flooded our kids with DVDs at holidays too, without regard for what we deemed appropriate, and then argued openly with us if we said they were inappropriate. So, next time the in-laws were visiting, I told them about the sleepover and popped in a “Saw” movie that I’d rented. I said, “Can you believe what some people consider appropriate for children?” My MIL was so horrified by what she saw that she has never purchased a DVD since, and she regularly rants about the products sold to children that are so harmful just to make money. She even calls now to discuss whether a toy is appropriate before she purchases it.

    She just needed to feel like it was her own idea, and now it is. Problem solved!

  10. Jesse says:

    Oh, man, I know EXACTLY how this is! The only difference being that I get along really well with my MIL otherwise. But she does try to undermine us in some ways: she thinks we dress them ‘too preppy’ (dresses, jeans and polos, etc.), though we let them pick what they like; she sends toys and movies with characters they don’t know (Veggie Tales, Davey and Goliath, other things along that vein); teaches and sings religious-themed songs to them; and more…

    We try to remember that she’s 1. Not got a lot of money, and 2. Only doing the religious stuff because she cares for us, and them. However, I usually let my husband handle conversations with his mom about appropriateness, and then if she tries to appeal to ME instead (because, yes, sometimes parents will try to undermine their own kids by appealing to their spouses!), I just agree with whatever he’s said. And when our grand-parents try to undermine us, we ask our parent to take care of the talk (his mom or my dad). We let me take care of talking to aunt/uncles (he has no siblings), and when holidays come, we give each person 1-2 SPECIFIC things they can get that WILL be played with/enjoyed. Do they give us tons more? Yes! But those specific things mentioned will get played with, and the rest will get given to someone else who might enjoy it. The kids help make the list, so even though we might steer the list a little (his mom gets less-expensive stuff like dress-up clothes and activity books and basic clothing like socks or hats and gloves), we still know they’re getting what they enjoy. If they deviate from the list and get upset, we just remind them again outright what our kids like and hope that eventually they will either get it, or stop getting upset. Doesn’t always happen (my grandmother STILL doesn’t think much of my mom though my parents have been happily married for almost 30 years with 4 kids and NO serious problems!), but all you can do is remind yourself that these people have (in most cases) had their turn at raising a child. Now, it’s your (and your partner/spouse/if you have one) turn, and you do what you think is right. That’s all you can do, is do what you feel is best, but if you do that, it will be enough!

  11. Candi says:

    Ah yes I remember my mother taking away my Halloween candy and doling it out in pieces like the grinch. I also remeber the other kids making fun of me and I remember eating literally anything “bad” for me I could get my hands on at friends houses. I had friends I actually preferred solely for the goodies in their cupboards. Just something to think about from someone whose mother did what you do with candy.

  12. Honey says:

    If the kids in the letter are old enough for swimming lessons, aren’t they old enough to make their own lists? Maybe sending their lists as letters to the grandparents, in their own handwriting, will convince them that the kids are asking for what they like and will enjoy. And I love the idea of asking them if they’d like to start a college fund instead – that will mean way more to them than a video game at the age of 6.

  13. Nicole says:

    I refuse to even think that there’s a power struggle going on in my family (even if my subconscious may suspect it). I tell myself things like, when DH was growing up they didn’t have a lot of money and now they do so they’re getting to spend it on grandkids. Spoiling grandkids is a grandparent’s job. They’re being generous. They’re giving so much to us because they give the same amount to DH’s brother who was laid off, even though we don’t need it.

    It just makes me happier not to attribute anything negative to these people who so obviously love DS, even if they provide different things and more things than we would. Exposure to different cultural backgrounds isn’t necessarily a bad thing either. DS is still a good kid and not yet materialistic. If it starts having negative effects other than too much stuff (which is easily remedied by trips to Goodwill), then we’ll start worrying about it.

  14. Wendy says:

    This is the letter writer, and thank you, Trent, for responding so quickly!

    I really appreciate all of the comments. I asked Trent about his experience, and his experience involves mostly local relatives who listen to hints or at least spend time around the kids during non-gift-giving occasions.

    Kathy (#4) shares the perspective I expect my in-laws have. The two things I see as the ‘big issues’ in this relationship:
    (1) that we have differing ideas of what is normal: french fries and/or cake a couple times a month versus nearly every day, and a couple toys per visit versus 3-4 big toys and 10+ small ones. Oh, and whether or not kids should have toys that are rated much older.
    (2) that they don’t respect our boundaries

    As Kathy says, it is hurtful to someone whose gifts are quickly given away, but when that person won’t make it a discussion, ask questions, or listen to suggestions, what should a parent do?

    As leslie says, I, too, need to learn to let it go. They do love our kids, and I know that, but with no attic, garage, or basement, I get quickly overwhelmed with every new toy that enters the house.

    The kids are under 2, so that is why there is no TV and such limited junk food. The baby swim classes are just for fun, but that is the whole point of family time on the weekend.

    Thank you all for your comments!

  15. Adrienne says:

    Wendy I feel your pain!
    The most troubling aspect for me is the blatent ignoring of my wishes and undermining me as a parent. I’ve tried many of the subtle (and not so subtle) routes listed here. I even had a big blowout once and it really only slowed it down for a few months.
    At this point I try to pick my battles and only say something about the really big issues (and slowly give away things on a regular basis).
    Still it is very frustrating when someone doesn’t respect your wishes for your children. I suspect those people who say just ignore it don’t have all that big a problem to begin with.

  16. Jennifer says:

    Loved your response on this one and how to best handle the situation. We often get so emotionally involved with the matter that our reactions simply add fuel to the fire. Your solution seems like it would result in less tension amongst the family members.

  17. Another Dave says:

    Wow… I really had to read this a couple times to make sure it wasn’t my wife writing this anonymously becuase she knows I read the blog! Can’t really add much more that hasn’t already been said. I’m finishing up a Dale Carnegie course on Effective Human Relations, and I see ALOT of things taught in that course expressed here as positive solutions. If anyone’s taken a DC course they will know what I’m talking about.

  18. My parents lived next door to me for the first three years of my daughters life. They showed great restraint and respect for my parenting wishes. The moment I moved away they started to spoil her with all kinds of crap. My ex-husband does the same thing-showers her with gifts I think she shouldn’t have.
    She’s eleven now and although we have a DS player in our house (something I never thought I’d agree to) she’s quite well adjusted to not having a ton of ‘stuff’. It hasn’t been easy but I try to use it as a learning lesson than showing her how to fight against people that I love and have different views. Oh, and a lot of deep breathing!

  19. spaces says:

    It’s posts like this that keep me coming back. Can’t wait to get Magna-Tiles for my daughter! She’s a little young yet, though (13 months).

  20. Carrie says:

    I can sympathize with Wendy. I too have family members who persist in getting toys that are totally not age appropriate (choking hazards for the baby, complex are activities for kids who intended for kids much, much older, etc).

    Our best solution thus far is to graciously accept, and keep a super close eye on the item in question while family enjoys watching the child play with the toy, and then put it in storage or give it away after a few days. I haven’t yet had anyone ask about toys, but if they do, I’ll be honest about why I chose to let someone else enjoy the gift.

    Family dynamics can be a frustrating thing to navigate.

  21. I think your kids and “stuff” is a learning process. My wife and I both want the best for our son, but have already learned that we buy him, and he has, too many toys.

    First, too much is too much. Second, getting age appropriate stuff, and stuff he’ll actually play with is sometimes a challenge.

    Third, too many toys does affect his ability to develop an attention span.

    We have somehow managed to create a checkpoint for gift-giving. For friends and family, that is, they normally ask what he wants, and what we want him to have.

    I think its the best way to go.

  22. Nick says:

    Great post, Trent.

  23. Rebecca says:

    We have handled this a couple of ways. our two oldest are autistic and so they play and use toys very differently than kids their age. They also are not into many of the things most kids the same age are. And new toys are often very confusing to them, they don’t know what they are or what to do with them unless we teach them, and this can take weeks or longer. So I keep a running list of any interests they have, so I have ideas to shoot to the grandparents at gift times. And there are many times when they just aren’t into anything at christmas or birthdays (which fall right after christmas for both) so I often suggest putting a “donation” into their savings accounts, which are primarily used for times when they do show a new interest in a toy and we want to continue that interest. OR towards a bigger gift, like bikes for the summer or a new swimming pool or trampoline. I often suggest clothing, which can be returned or exchanged if needed. Paper and art supplies and second hand books are always a good idea.

    with our budget, we rarely go out to dinner, but is something that with a great deal of practice for our sons, we hope to be able to do in the future. My parents know this and know that to go out, even for “practice” which often means we don’t make it through the meal, requires money. So they get gift cards for casual dinning places where we can take the kids. We love it!

  24. IASSOS says:

    This is a huge problem. Move to Africa.

  25. kat says:

    Wow! I thought someone letting my 5 year watch Gremlins was bad. I didn’t have an issue with too many gifts, as our family was just my son and myself. He was very proud when he was able to donate some of his toys to kids who may not have had any for Christmas. Appropriate TV/movie viewing was a major issue at friends and at the babysitters that I fought with for many many years. I stopped the scary movies by calling the indulgent person at 1 or 2 AM asking them for advise getting him over his nightmares.

  26. reulte says:

    Wendy – Realize that it is a power struggle and stick to your guidelines. They may love your kids, but you are quite literally the guardian of your children and it is your responsibility to keep them from danger and other things you consider inappropriate. While I wouldn’t let someone who wouldn’t follow my general rules watch my child at that young an age, I do allow him to visit grandma. However, he is 8 years and understands that grandma rules are not family rules.

    Kai — love your solution about the nightmares!

  27. Jeannette says:

    It’s an indication of our very “rich” society that so many seem to have such a problem. A part of me is so sad reading this, because I am reminded of the millions of kids who have next to nothing and would benefit from this largesse. (Maybe some of these overly generous relatives could consider rechanneling their need to give, if that is what it is, to give to a charity!)

    Having seen this scenario foplay out with the families of friends, despite the very loving and compassionate attempts by parents to explain and encourage support their wishes, I have to sympathize with Wendy on this one. (And whether or not you agree with her approach is NOT the issue. It IS her right as a parent to set the terms. You either respect that, or you don’t. )

    To me, it’s not love when you absolutely go against the parents stated thoughts about gifts, etc. IF they have been discussed. My friends tried compromising with their relatives, but once again, the allegedly “generous” relatives took advantage and didn’t adhere to even the compromises they agreed to.

    IMHO, this is not at all about generosity, nor is it a game amongst adults. It is about the so-called “givers” trying to buy affection from the kids they are giving to. Frankly, I think it is a form of emotional blackmail that starts young and gets worse as kids age. If not nipped in the bud. (Obviously, every family is different. But this is the case in some families though people are loathe to even talk about it.)

    And if you don’t think that gift-giving is a competition among relatives, you aren’t paying attention. It exists. It exists among the grandparents, that is for certain.

    Mature adult relatives, though they may dearly disagree with the parents of the kids, respect the wishes of those parents. And they find ways (there are plenty) to give creatively while expressing themselves AND respect the overall objectives of the parents.

    The other aspect of this, which has not been touched on, is what happens in the “average” family where some relatives are really well off –and can give so extravagantly–and the rest of the family may not even be able to afford gifts, let alone such expensive ones. DOn’t think that even small children don’t notice–and comment on–the difference in the size, scope of gifts. (Not to mention play those relatives to get what they want.) Unless countered by parents who wisely point out that the size of the gift is no indication of the amount of love and caring.

    What worries me the most about Trent’s comment about simply “going with the flow” on this with his family is that he (and others) seems to think that it’s OK to accept such behavior in the name of love.

    I think this is also a huge teaching opportunity for families. You don’t have to feel dissed or to want to diss these folks to really set boundaries.

    Boundaries, limits…these are a part of life. In friendship, relationships of any kind.

    TO me, love equals listening and respect for those we love. (Trent, I rather doubt you would accept your spouse overspending on an agreed-upon budget and rationalizing her choices by saying “Well, she loves us and means well.” So if you would not do that, why set no parameters for family? Frankly, I just don’t get it.)

  28. Nicole says:

    Ettiquitte (Miss Manners, Emily Post… the rule-keepers of Western Civilization) is very clear on this question. It is the giver’s right to give whatever he or she wants and it is the receiver’s right to do whatever he or she wants with the gift, whether it be use, destroy, or take directly to goodwill.

  29. Laurie says:

    I had a similar problem with my mother-in-law. Christmas required a trailer to take gifts home, and I knew that financially they really should NOT be spending like that – my father in law was about fed up also. Three years of subtly asking for fewer things or more experience type presents did not work.

    Food was the biggest issue – if she had my kids for the day, they’d have IHOP for breakfast, McDonald’s for lunch and Chick-fil-A for dinner – all with kids’ meals including toys, soda (AT BREAKFAST!!!) fries and then dessert of some kind. This was despite the fact that my oldest is a type I diabetic and that we carefully watch what both kids eat. I stopped allowing her to spend more than 2 hours with the kids b/c of blood sugar / insulin issues with diet.

    It ended when she fed my then 6 yo Reese’s Pieces cereal for breakfast WHILE I WAS IN THE HOUSE behind my back. This was a child who is diabetic AND deathly allergic to p-nuts, but apparently I am only being mean and cruel and “not letting him be a child.”

    After 2 epi pen shots (that she watched) and a trip to the ER that resulted in an overnight stay because of the resulting complication of steroids and diabetes, I totally lost my stuff and let her know that if our rules and needs for the kids were not met, they would no longer have access to the kids. At all. I’m sure that I was a total witch about it and luckily my husband (who is a huge mama’s baby) was supportive and backed me up, but I know that I was ranting, raving and screaming.

    I STILL cannot trust her to make really healthy food choices, but things have gotten a LOT better. My son is now 8 and will tell me that he turns down snacks that she considers “healthy” (loaded with transfats and sugars) b/c they say low fat or lower sugar on the box. AUGH!!!

    I think it boils down to the fact that she equates love with gift giving and “treat” food and feels like I am keeping her from loving the kids. Frustratingly, when we are there, she spends little “fun” time with the kids, instead parking them in front of video games and the TV while she knits or reads in the same room with them.

    Why do these grandparents not understand that spending time with them is what the kids will value and treasure? They are not going to remember the stupid snacks and the crap presents that break in three days. Take them to the park, do a craft together – teach them to knit or sew or whatever just stop shoveling junk into their lives!

  30. Candi says:

    Ok all I can say is man I am glad I am not a grandparent (and therby a parent of most of the posters)!

  31. Brenda says:

    Wendy has serious control issues. The kids are very young & Mommy is in the overprotecting stage. Chill out. This is not about you. She only sees the kids 4 times a year. If the objects are dangerous definitely keep them away. My DIL was like this when the boys were young. The idealism of no TV characters, etc. Once they were no longer insulated from other children all bets were off. You will not be able to control what your children are exposed to. Let them open gifts a few at a time over the day. If it is an inappropriate item you can pull it aside telling them later. Stick it on a shelf for the future. If it is still in the original packaging you have a free re-gift.
    I am his mother who cannot afford to overindulge. Her mother goes overboard on gifts and has the attitude of DIL does not allow XYZ. My take has always been I am the grandmother, not the mom. It is a grandparent’s job to spoil the kids. Am I disrespecting my DIL? I don’t think so. She is the disciplinarian, I am there to indulge. I do have common sense on what is appropriate for the age. Does she get upset? She used to. As the boys have aged she has finally loosened her hold. I am not going to put my grandkids in danger. She needed to learn I could be trusted. Yes. We have different styles. My son told her he survived. So would his kids.
    I don’t break their big rules. I also don’t think it will kill the kids if they take 2 cookies or we sometimes go for ice cream. Every house has different rules. Children need to learn this is how life works. What is appropriate at one is NOT appropriate at others.
    As the kids get older you will find they stick to the rules you teach them. I have nieces that let me know when their parents would not approve of something (books, TV shows, etc). The same nieces also tell me things their Omi allows and overindulges in. They do not tell Mom & Dad the things they do while there. Omi can do no wrong while my sister who is being overly cautious and concerned with Mom & Dad’s rules is always under surveillance. Your children will learn from what you say and do.

  32. Kathy says:

    Wendy, I am glad that you commented and gave more insight into your situation beyond your letter. I have an aunt, who, when my cousins were little, had rules about what gifts she wanted her kids to have, and the rest of my relatives all thought that she was a snob and those kids would never have any fun. Those kids are grown up now, and they turned out just fine. I thought perhaps this might have been your situation.

    Have you ever thought about laying down the law to the in-laws and saying that if they cannot respect your wishes and your rules, then the kids don’t go over there? I really hate ultimatums, but sometimes, in life, you have to go there, especially if boundaries are crossed. Also, where is your husband in all of this? Is he letting you handle this or is he standing by you and standing up for you?

  33. Donna says:

    I have a question. Where is the husband/dad in this? Wouldn’t it be nice if he spoke with his mother about this, rather than leaving it to his wife? If Grandma doesn’t want to listen to her daughter in law, why isn’t her son backing up his wife on this?

  34. Des says:

    If you have told you relatives what kinds of toys you approve of, and they continue to give inappropriate gifts, they have no business being upset when you throw them away. I am all on board with what another commenter said about Miss Manners – they can give whatever they want, and you can do whatever you like with the gift. I would add that it is courteous to let them know (politely) if you consider some common items inappropriate. We gave my cousins an NES when we were (much) younger, and my aunt & uncle threw it in the trash. We had no idea they considered video games evil, and we would absolutely have given something different if we had known.

  35. jim says:

    Giving away gifts a matter of days after getting them and giving away gifts “openly” would likely upset most gift givers. Thats just obnoxious if you ask me. Maybe it was a horrible gift but blattanly dumping it as soon as possible is just rude. Have the decency to shove it in a closet for a while then quietly give it away later.

    Too many toys is one issue. It is more of a harmless thing and nothing to get upset about. Grandparents and relatives are going to pile gifts on your kids. You’ll just have to deal with the tragedy of having generous relatives.

    The nature of the toys is the real problem issue. The bit about “standards for marketed characters or quality of play” stuck out to me. Sounds like Wendy is not allowing any Disney characters or stuff like that. If this is the case then Wendy needs to learn to deal with people arguing her opinions and disregarding them. When you are the “odd man out” the whole world doesn’t always bend to accommodate you. You can’t throw yourself at odds with everyone around you then get upset and perplexed that everyone doesn’t automatically accommodate you. You may as well be a strict vegan at a Texas BBQ then get upset that nobody makes a good tofu based dish.

    I think it does hinge on what the rules are exactly and how bad the relatives are breaking them. If Wendy is politely requesting no violent toys and clearly explaining to the inlaws that she has a rule against violent toys and then getting a pile of guns every Xmas then that is one thing. But if Wendy is saying her kids eat no sugar ever (including no b-day cake) and that all of their toys must be hand crafted with only certain colors and pass some sort of certification for educational value then that might come across as “crazy talk” to the world around her.

    This bit also sticks out: “Neither of them have taken the kids on her own because I can’t even trust them to follow our guidelines when we are present.” So grandma isn’t allowed to be alone with the kids because of what? You are afraid she might expose them to Kermit the frog or allow them to eat some candy? I think the kids will live through it. You really shouldn’t be afraid to leave the kids with grandma unless she is some sort of irresponsible felon or has dementia or something. This does frankly sound too controlling and over protective.

  36. Claudia says:

    My DIL of 3 years, dictates what kind of clothes we can buy, what color, etc. and what kind of toys we can buy. She never says thank you but just bitches if something isn’t quite right. (She lives on the East coast, we live in the Midwest, so we have met exactly twice for a few days.) Imagine my surprise when I last visited and saw the cheap Dollar Store crap her mother buys for them as well as the cheap Dollar Store clothes. DIL buys thrift store clothes, but doesn’t care if they are worn out or torn. The only decent clothes the kids have is what my son buys or I have bought for them. Since she really doesn’t even know us, I can only figure that she is doing this just to be mean and to get back at our son through us.

  37. cherie says:

    Such a hot topic LOL!

    Wendy my only comment is that you need to separate your objection to the excess from your objection to inappropriate things.
    If it’s something they’ll not be allowed to use while they’re living under your room [for example, gun type toys are simply out in our house – my son? would love them but will have to content himself with buying them when he moves out someday – I did tell him I’d gladly take him to a range to learn to care for and shoot a REAL gun with the respect it deserves – not to play ‘killing’ games] then just give it away – put it away for a few weeks and then make it gone.
    If it’s something they’ll be ready for soon, thank them and point out the age suggestion, and tell them you’ll put it away till they’re a little older – or if that won’t work tell them they got so upset or frustrated with it that you put it away till they’re more facile with the skills required.
    As for the excess? That’s a losing battle -talk with your kids about your values, about the kids who don’t have enough, visit the ‘giving trees’ at Christmastime, let them pack up toys to give to those in need etc – they’ll learn

    Believe me soon enough no matter what they get they’ll be rolling their eyes at the thing grannie chose- this too shall pass

  38. Jennifer says:

    I think it totally depends on how strict the rules & how bad the grievance. I know moms can be overprotective to the extreme, I know I have loosened my rules over time. But isn’t it the parent’s job to set the rules? The grandparents were once the parents and when they were they got to make the rules. The grandparents and aunts might not like it but it’s not their choice any more. If a relative is told “don’t buy X” and then they buy X; I don’t know how they could be upset when it’s returned.

    I wish our grandparents would take the 529 suggestions. We’ve talked it up and told them how easy it would be to make direct deposits into it for gifts, but they like to buy the toys & clothes too.

    Sort of related to the end of Trent’s post (but not really to the comments) my dad would never tell us his political affiliation growing up or who he voted for in elections. It wasn’t until recently that he started having discussions with us about it (post-college). But it is funny that our political leanings are very similar.

    But if I were the mother of the diabetic child I would never let that MIL in a room unsupervised with my children, that’s borderline criminal.

  39. Wendy says:

    Letter writer, again.

    My husband and I discuss the values and principles with which we are raising our kids, and he certainly challenges me to think through things when we have a difference of opinion. The big difference is that he is every bit as laid back as I am a control freak. He definitely backs me up when issues arise, but he grew up with her. He is more accustomed to her expectations, sensitivities, and ways of communicating. I don’t deal well with passive-aggressiveness. I want to be able to discuss things openly, but when I do, she sees it as an attack. Because he knows how she reacts to things, my husband would rather quietly deal with the aftermath than bring it up with her ahead of time.

    When I give away gifts ‘openly’, I mean with regard to the kids- they see it go to a friend or get dropped off at goodwill. I never openly tell people when I get rid of their gifts, but I don’t lie if they ask. If I give someone a gift, i want them to enjoy it to the fullest extent possible. If they derive the most enjoyment from immediately giving it away for any reason at all, I only hope it goes to someone who _would_ enjoy owning it rather than to a landfill.

    I resented people trying to buy my love (rather than spend time with me) when I was growing up, and it seems even more pronounced now that I see similar patterns happening with my kids.

  40. SLCCOM says:

    Wendy, I would suggest that you spend some quality time with a good therapist so that you don’t end up poisoning your relationship with your inlaws and your kids with your resentment. You can also end up poisoning your kids’ relationship with theyr grandparents and others in their lives who you perceive this way.

    Your perception that people were trying to “buy your love” rather than spend time with you may or may not be correct, and your perception that your inlaws are doing the same with your kids also may or may not be correct, but it sounds to me like you are painting your inlaws with a brush they don’t deserve without knowing one way or another.

    The ultimate beneficiary of the therapy is you. You may discover that your perception was correct, and find a way to heal the pain of the rejection you experienced. You may find that your parents (or whomever) were actually modeling their love in the way they learned to show it, and this understanding will help you heal the pain of the perceived rejection. No parents do everything perfectly, and they are very much influenced by (or victims of) the parenting they received.

    Of course, your kids will be seeing a therapist someday for the mistakes you make and will make. Don’t you want to model a healthy way to deal with childhood pain?

  41. Shevy says:

    Okay, if the kids are under 2 and you don’t permit family members to look after your kids because they might sit your son in front of a DVD that’s over the top in my estimation.

    Now, if they were like Laurie’s MIL (who fed her diabetic, peanut-allergic child Reese’s cereal) or if they were likely to let your child wander to the top of a flight of concrete steps without comment, or if you were worried that they might hit your children, I could understand. But a single DVD is not going to destroy your child!

    While I think SLCCOM was over the top talking about badly how you need therapy it’s also worth noting that you a) described yourself as a control freak, b) talked about how you resented people trying to “buy” your love when you were younger and c) “don’t deal well with [what you perceive as] passive aggressiveness”.

    You may be right and your husband’s relatives may all be very dysfunctional but you may also be overreacting or misperceiving what’s going on based on things you experienced when you were younger. Even if you can’t bring yourself to give them the benefit of the doubt, at least realize that everybody does the best they can with the tools (skills) they have and try to cut them a little slack.

  42. Shevy says:

    Oh yes, if the toys are not age-appropriate (i.e. they are for older children) you *can* just put them away until the kids are older!

  43. Stephanie says:

    Stuff that does not fit our values goes straight to Goodwill and things that are not loved are given away. Content appropriate but too old toys are saved for later if we have space to store them, otherwise they are gone.
    You are the parents and can decide what is ok for your house. I know kids who have certain toys that live at the grandparents house because while the grandparents think the toys are fine, the parents do not like, want, need, have space, etc… in their own home so they are special grandma/grandpa toys.
    My husband and I are ultimately the ones raising our children and we have our rules and expectations. Our relatives are pretty good about respecting our wishes and I can’t imagine having to deal with people who don’t.

  44. Becky says:

    I agree that with children under the age of 2, it is hard to understand. What kinds of “non age appropriate toys” were they”? Your kids are quite young! It is very easy to buy toys that are “too old” for these kids!

    At the same time, Wendy, I agree with most of the posters who say that if the worst problem you ever have with your inlaws is that they give your kids too many toys or the wrong toys, then you don’t have a “big problem”. You’ll see. I had to ONE TIME quietly let a toy disappear when it was something I didn’t want them to have. I took it to Toys R Us after Christmas, told them I didn’t want it (it was new) and they took it back and gave me credit. I took the credit and bought a toy I DID want them to have (a Little Tikes truck, I think).

    I’ve got 5 kids, Wendy. My kids haven’t been “utterly spoiled” by their relatives since our families (19 grandkids on one side and almost that many on the other) are too big for that kind of spoiling. However, you could exchange the things they get for things you do want your kids to have like Duplos (they are a GREAT gift for the little ones). Maybe because we didn’t have much money when ours were young, but I have a hard time imagining getting rid of brand new toys when they can be used for exchanging into some really nice toys!

    I can’t imagine, personally, giving these little guys so many gifts, since they don’t really understand yet what is going on. Don’t they get tired of opening presents? Mostly at the very young ages, they love the boxes and the paper that the presents come in!

  45. J says:

    Wendy, it seems that everyone needs to step back, take a deep breath and have some adult conversations. These aren’t conversations that you can have with the kids in earshot and ideally you will have them face to face. Having them on email or on the phone loses the body language and nuances that make up a lot of human communication.

    You and the MIL need to reach some sort of compromise here. I would absolutely hate to be your husband. He sees his mother (she’s not just someone he grew up with, it’s his mother) four times a year and is likely walking on eggshells the entire time, while you and her have some sort of seething contest. Does he take off with his dad a lot? I bet they both are sick to death of hearing about it. Do your parents live close enough to do the “experience” things and they don’t?

    Also, you say you don’t like passive-aggressiveness, but your relationship with the mother forces your husband to deal with the aftermath “quietly”. Talk about a lot of pressure on your man.

    I realize that text is not the most constructive way to share this kind of story and it’s very highly likely there is a considerable backstory. But you need to come to an arrangement with your in-laws because they do seem to be trying to do “the right thing”, albeit not in a way you like. It’s not like the other comment where the grandparent blithely ignored a medical condition and the kids ended up in the ER.

  46. Sarah says:

    Just keep at it. I just finally got my MIL to stick to our family rules and my oldest is 10. Eventually they’ll get it!

  47. Nicole says:

    #43 Stephanie

    Somehow the “toys that make noise” never do fit into our luggage on the way home. :) But they’re fun to visit at the grandparents’ place.

  48. Ian says:

    Please advise on what Magna-Tiles to get. I’ve read a couple reviews at Amazon. They sound great.

    I’m leaning towards the 100-count transluscent set, but it is the most expensive — $120.

    Is that what you recommend?

    Thanks for the tip!


  49. reulte says:

    Claudia (#36) — “I can only figure that she is doing this just to be mean and to get back at our son through us”. No, this is not about you.

    Shevy (and others saying to store the toys) There may not be space to put age-inappropriate toys away until the children are older – Wendy even mentions they have no attic, basement or garage.

    When my boy was a toddler, he also didn’t watch TV nor eat sweets/snacks. As he grew older, he watched what I permitted him to watch on TV/DVD. When he was given a video game at the age of 7, the giver first discussed this with me. The boundaries I set for him were very restricted and people complained that I was too controlling and he would grow up to rebel against them. Well, he hasn’t finished growing up yet; but he’s a happy, outgoing boy who doesn’t like sweets very often (I toss out 90% of his Halloween/ Christmas/ Valentine’s candy) and stops playing video games after a reasonable time to do something else like play outside.

    Wendy — I think your only problem with MIL and SIL is the boundary one you mention. I think that is the problem with every marriage — boundaries have to be made with new people. Keep working on it… talk to your ILs; explaining your position and not just about toys and TV. Try not to bring up specific incidents with your MIL/SIL. Good luck.

  50. Angie says:

    My only suggestion is to try to work in a solution that doesn’t seem like you are tryng to control the situation. For example, we try to have a theme. If your mother gives the swimming lessons, see if MIL/SIL will get something that fits, like swimming suits, water toys, fun beach towels, googles, etc. They’re going to give gifts regardless, might as well try to steer it in a direction that is useful. Even if you get them broken in, it’s going to take time.

    My SILs used to give DD tons of gifts for Christmas and birthdays. I told them not to but they insisted (DD was first grandkid in family). They did not have the money to spend on the gifts either. I told them I would not recipricate when they had kids and they still did it. Well, now SIL has a kid and I don’t buy for him – can’t afford to – but she was relieved the first Christmas I said to not give my (now 2) kids anything and to spend on her child. She still gives something little, my other SIL (not married no kids) still gives a little but she has more to buy for now so not as extensive. DD is now 7 and asked this past year why she doesn’t get as many presents. I told her it was because she was lucky to get what she got when she got it and now there’s more in the family. She seemed a little hurt but I explained Christmas is not about gifts and to have fun with her aunts/uncles/cousins when she gets a chance.

  51. SLCCOM says:

    Generally speaking, whenever someone is causing relationship chaos in a family and putting his/her spouse in a very delicate position where s/he is having to do damage control behind the scenes, yes, therapy is warranted. I’m not saying Wendy needs to go into a lifetime of analysis, but without question she is damaging family relationships with her inlaws and her husband, and creating tension that I guarantee you the children are picking up on.

    There is no downside to figuring out a way to deal maturely with relationship problems using a professional. There are tremendous downsides to ignoring the underlying problem and letting decades of damage to relationships go on. There is absolutely no way that this is helping her relationship with her husband, either.

    A grownup will get help to deal with things that are causing problems, particularly when they are turning into just about a war in the family. An emotional child will insist that “this is just about boundaries” and stubbornly insist that s/he is right and nobody else could possibly have a valid point.

  52. Claudia says:

    My MIL & FIL never bought our kids any toys, they’d occasionally buy them bags of socks while they bought their other grandchildren nice clothes or nice toys. So Wendy, count yourself lucky that your in-laws care about your children.
    As to my DIL, yes, it is about me and my husband, she just likes to be mean. There is no other explanation to her attitude as we have always been very nice to her.

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