In-laws and kids: How to deal with inappropriate giving

J. Michael Short/Tower of the Americas/PRNewsFoto
In-laws giving too many gifts to your children, or gifts that are not in line with your values can cause a moral dilemma, and will become increasingly difficult as your children age.

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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