20-40-60 Etiquette: Forever young?
QUESTION: My parents are gracious to host a Christmas day family get-together that includes my siblings, our spouses and collective 12 children ages 2 to 22. We all contribute to the meal and later exchange gifts with the person whose name we drew several weeks earlier. No one expects gifts except for that.
Every November my mom calls to finalize plans for the get-together and ALWAYS says that due to a lack of time or money, she's not getting any extra gifts except for the name exchange. I reassure her that no one expects my parents to buy gifts for all of us, and that's why we draw names.
On Christmas Day, everything is great until after the gift exchange with the person whose names we drew. At that time, my parents bring out a load of gifts and pass them out to all the grandchildren except my older ones.
My children are ages 15 and older. They watch their younger cousins open several gifts each. Then my mom awkwardly announces to my children that they are older so she didn't purchase gifts for them. My dad feels bad as he notices the younger grandchildren have several gifts while my kids wander into the other room to avoid the feeling of being left out.
Adding to the hurt is that two of my children, whose birthdays are this same week, get nothing either since my parents spent so much money on gifts for the younger kids.
Afterwards, my kids have told me how it really ruins the night to feel blatantly left out. They weren't expecting gifts but were told during the event that they were too old.
I just got off the phone with my mom who once again announced the “no other gifts” guideline. But, when I asked more questions, she admitted she was buying gifts for the grandchildren but “only the little kids.” I encouraged her to either get them ALL something simple or not at all and asked her not to leave some out as it causes hurt feelings. Even a $5 bill and note about her love for them would be nice. She had difficulty understanding this.
Am I being rude? What do you suggest I do? What is proper etiquette for grandparents giving gifts?
CALLIE'S ANSWER: I agree, give all grandchildren gifts or don't give anyone gifts. Especially if your children have told her their feelings are hurt. I'm sure if you discuss this with her, she is sure to understand! Good luck!
LILLIE-BETH'S ANSWER: I am sorry that your mother doesn't see the problem here. It would have been better if she set her parameters early on and applied them equally, but maybe her own circumstances have changed since your kids were small. You're right that she could acknowledge your kids' occasions with cards at least. I can understand why your kids are feeling left out (and not because they didn't get a gift) and why you are frustrated because she says one thing and does another. But since you have already spoken up, I don't think there's anything else you can do unless you suggest separate gatherings with your parents for individual families. That comes with a different set of issues, mainly separation from a family you love.
You also can use this as a time to talk with your own children about being gracious in all circumstances, letting go of resentment or making sure it's not directed at the wrong people and about setting boundaries or expressing feelings when people disappoint you. After all, it's not their cousins' fault they're receiving gifts. Families are complicated, and this sounds like a tough situation to fix.
HELEN'S ANSWER: You have told her mother how you feel and probably how “little kid gifts” makes your children feel. They are part of her grandchildren group, so it makes sense to buy for all. If she does not get it, then tell her again. Offer to help her get a few gifts for the older children. Gift giving is about joy and happiness, and I am sure she still wants to spread the joy. She may need to be reminded.
GUEST'S ANSWER: Christina Nihira, community volunteer: Author and humorist Garrison Keillor wrote “A lovely thing about Christmas is that it's compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together.”
Family gatherings are often stormy during the holiday season. Your question outlines the complexity of navigating relationships, tradition and agendas.
It seems you have verbally communicated with your mother about the “no other gifts” guideline. She fails to see the consequence of her actions. There are a few things you could try.
Maybe follow up your conversation with a letter explaining the hurt felt by your children about being snubbed. Write it in a constructive tone and avoid mentioning money. Depending on your kids' relationship with Granny, perhaps they, now nearly adults, need to also express their own disappointment. A thoughtful note or honest conversation from their perspective might enlighten her.
Another suggestion is providing her with creative solutions. Since there are a dozen grandchildren, ask (your father plus siblings' blessings and support) to have money donated in the family name to a charity like a food bank. The local zoo is a fun alternative as they frequently promote symbolic animal adoptions. Buy everyone a small, stuffed animal. This generous gesture accomplishes the here and now. It also allows for everyone to reunite later to visit the animal.
Have a modest birthday dinner for your two children that are December babies. Convey that there is a difference between birthdays and Christmas. Invite your parents. Maybe extend an invitation to other relatives. Illustrate the importance of togetherness.
A “cost” of being considered an adult is lack of grandparent gifts. This is a tough concept, but assuming the children received gifts as younger children, this is a natural consequence.
Keep in mind that it's challenging to change someone else. Be prepared for any type of response and protect yourself from unrealistic expectations. You need to do what works best for your family. Ultimately, there is no right or wrong answer.
Callie Athey is 20-something, Lillie-Beth Brinkman is in her 40s, and social columnist Helen Ford Wallace is 60-plus. To ask an etiquette question, email email@example.com.