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4 Tips to Avoid Relationship Strain Around Gift-Giving

So many global celebrations center around gift giving.  For those of us who want to encourage our children to live simply, these occasions often invite feelings of frustration when well-meaning family and friends bombard our children with gifts that are either excessive in quantity or questionable in quality.

Families committed to living thoughtfully must walk a fine line between protecting our personal convictions  while not offending those who don’t hold the same convictions as us.

Gift-giving almost always happens within the parameters of relationship, so with this in mind, a few mindset shifts increase the chance for positive outcomes when this delicate issue is discussed.

Here are four thoughts to consider as you approach this topic with friends and family.

1.  Establish the boundaries for your family.

This will look different for every family.  Some parents may not want battery-operated toys in their home. Other parents may not want licensed characters at all, while others may reject specific licensed characters as playthings for their children.  For other families, it’s not a matter of which toys are given, but rather a matter of how many toys their children receive.

wooden blocks
Photo by Tiffany Washko

When your children are little, it’s easy to construct a concrete boundary regarding their toys. As your children get older, find ways to make the boundary a collaborative effort where all opinions and preferences are taken into the decision-making process.

A boundary sounds restrictive, but it actually provides freedom — freedom from guilt and laborious decision-making about what comes into your house.

2. Keep a proper perspective on the boundary you’ve established.

Remember: you have zero control over what gifts other people give to you or your children. You can gently inform and provide guidance (more on that in a moment), but ultimately it’s the gift-giver spending the money, time, and energy on the gift, and decisions about what and how many are made by the gift-giver.

Also remember: you have complete control over what happens to the gifts you and your children receive. This is where you’ll find freedom from that boundary about what gifts are acceptable for your family. With guiding principles in place, it’s much easier to determine which gifts will be kept and which will find new homes, based on your family’s convictions.

3. Provide helpful guidance.

Your friends and family cannot read your mind.  It isn’t fair to expect them to respect your boundary about gifts if you haven’t made an attempt to express your thoughts on the matter.

Photo by Alex Barth

Be sensitive to the dynamics of each relationship as you consider how to approach this conversation. In some relationships, open and direct conversation is welcome and encouraged. Other relationships, however, may call for a more indirect and delicate approach.

Examine the relationship and construct ways to strengthen and build it up through a discussion, rather than alienating or distancing.

When it comes to the logistics of providing helpful guidance, there are two schools of thought:

• Have a preemptive conversation.

In relationships where direct and honest conversation is the norm, you may feel comfortable talking with (or sending an email or text to) friends or family members, saying something like:

“We’ve noticed lately that the toys the kids tend to play with most are the ones that really challenge them to use their imaginations. We’d love to focus on not having toys in the house that run on batteries and basically do all of the playing for them. With Jack’s birthday coming up, I have a few ideas about what gifts I know he’d truly enjoy — would you like to hear them?”

• Provide gift suggestions only when suggestions are requested.

For some, a preemptive conversation about gifts feels like a violation of etiquette or social norms. In this case, have a list of ideas prepared to share if and when suggestions are asked for. You can list broad categories, suggest specific items, or even provide links to stores or catalogs.

Regardless which approach you take, avoid stipulations and focus on helpful guidance. Even the most gracious gift-givers may bristle with instructions like, “NO cheap, plastic-y junk, please!”

Focus the discussion on what you know your children will enjoy: “Jane is so into drawing, painting, and creating right now. I know she’d be thrilled to have new art supplies!”

4.  Practice gratitude (even when you’re disappointed).

In our wedding ceremony’s homily, the pastor repeated this three times:  “People are more important than things.”

It’s such a simple but powerful truth. Yes, it’s good to be careful and mindful of what comes into our home. Yes, it can be difficult to quietly remove toys that don’t meet our family’s standards. Yes, it’s hurtful when our boundaries are not respected by those we love.

mom and child happy
Photo by John Morgan

Ultimately, though, we show love in our relationships when we let them learn what we value as a family. Then, we can choose to respond with grace and gratitude, regardless of what they give.

It’s possible to honor the relationship with thanks for the thoughtfulness, even while knowing the gift may not find a permanent place in your home.

Special occasions invite celebration. Confident and healthy boundaries help us celebrate the people in our lives, complete with freedom from worrying about the stuff.

Reading Time:

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  1. Angela

    I can completely relate to this post. Last year for my daughter’s first birthday I requested no character toys. I don’t have a problem with these in their entirety, I just felt that a one year old that had so far had no exposure to these characters didn’t need to start being indoctrinated yet. So I was more than a little bit irritated when my sister and her husband declared with great delight that they had bought Miss G “contraband” items. So we do play with these toys occasionally, but I refuse to call them by the character names. It took a lot of self control to be gracious about it… I’m still hoping to keep these kind of toys to a minimum over the coming years though!!

    • Rebecca

      Your daughter is so young, I wonder why you don’t just quietly get rid of the items without her knowledge. Keeping them and playing with them must make your sister think it was a great gift idea.

      • Angela

        Yes, now that I’ve learned from years passing, I am going to be more aware of what comes in and get it out right away if it is something I don’t agree with.

    • JAN KING

      I FEEL for you aand i find the whole gift buying thing pointless. the only time i buy a gift if i know that person wants it and i can afford it. Otherwise I am not goign to buy something that someone does not want. that will also mean a waster of my resources so no one will end up happy. i have tried to explain this to my mother who does not get it – she loves giving lots of gifts but i am afraid i dont like or need what my mum gives me so really it’s a waste of her money, time etc. people have their ideas yet seem to foist them on everyone else. just be clear in what you want – don’t be scared to dictate. last year i did not do Xmas gifts – yet i invitably ended up with a few gifts i did not want including a pricey one from my brother. i pointed this out to my mum and she told me i was rude. i did not mean to be rude i was being honest – he could have saved that money for himself!

  2. Micha

    Thank you! Thinking about presents is getting more and more important for me, because I have the feeling, that we definitively have too much stuff in the house. The children are open for new rules, but I think it’s more difficult to talk with grandparents and othes about it.
    .-= Micha´s last blog .."Hand Wash Cold" =-.

  3. Angela

    Great post. One of our big problems is sweets. I’m not a fan of the endless amounts of sugar that come with all the holidays. It seems to get worse with each passing year as more and more products come out. It was easier when the kids were younger and I could just ditch the majority of it, but now that my son is old enough to remember what he was given it’s a LOT harder.
    .-= Angela´s last blog ..It’s all worth it! =-.

    • Megan

      Oh, I hadn’t thought about sweets being an issue! Thank you for including that in this conversation.

  4. Mrs. Money

    I like to get savings bonds for kids. When they grow up and see what they are worth, they are not only surprised with the money, they are happy with the giver! 🙂
    .-= Mrs. Money´s last blog ..What is Groupon? =-.

  5. renee @ FIMBY

    Megan this was very good. I’ve had these conversations with family, sent the e-mails but I have been know to use the words “no cheap, plastic-y junk”! I agree you can’t control what others give but you can control what you do with it. So my question for you is what do you do with a piece of junk that enters your home? We are working very, very hard on the first part – controlling what comes in, (maybe to the detriment of the relationship with the gift giver) because I am really tired of having to deal with the plastic or cultural pollution that follows. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

    • Megan

      Well, I can tell you what *I* do, but I know your kids are older than mine (mine are 5 and 2), so this may not work as well with older kids!

      When we do get the gifts that don’t meet up with our “standards” (I realize that kind of sounds superior, but that’s really what it is – a standard for our home), I let the girls play with them for a day or two. I really have found that the girls quickly lose interest in the battery-operated toys. Toys that do the same thing over and over get boring after a few days! When the girls are in bed, I just put it away in a closet. If they don’t ask for it after a week, I put it in the giveaway bin.

      Now sometimes there will be a toy that they really enjoy that I REALLY do not like. We have a unique situation in that we have an upstairs playroom, and so if they REALLY like the toy, I banish it to the upstairs. It can only be played with up there. For example, my parents gave our two year old a talking Dora backpack. I can’t stand it; she loves it. So if she wants to play with it, she had to do it upstairs where it’s out of listening range for me.

      I have thought about how I’ll handle this when they get older and actually remember when a toy goes missing. I’m not entirely sure what we’ll do then. I want to be open to compromise, but I don’t want to completely compromise my standards.

      I would love to hear from parents whose children are older who have found a good solution to this!

      • Amy

        Almost all battery toys get a “battery-ectomy” in our house. They can still play with the toy, just not with the noise. The exceptions are for toys that do not function without them – like remote controlled cars. This is something we started when he was a baby, so there is an expectation that they will lose the batteries.

        • Anitra

          I have friends who allow battery-operated toys, but don’t replace the batteries. They put in one set when the toy is brand-new, and then ONE toy can get replacement batteries ONE time during the year. (Jan – Dec I believe.)

          Their daughters know this is the policy, and will make decisions about how much they want to play with the powered options of a toy.

      • renee @ FIMBY

        Megan, because you’re starting your children young with this philosophy they will probably adopt your standards (if you live joyfully with less and not sour faced with less). My big issue is not getting my children on board with this, we’re all on board.

        We just don’t want to be used as a conduit to deliver goods to goodwill, landfills or other places. I don’t need the hassle, nor do I want to have to dispose of the plastic packaging etc. I just want no part of it and I wish people would realize that we don’t need to celebrate every occasion with “Things”.

        Luckily, our families are on board or live too far away to have much impact but things still manage to creep in and I guess I’m lacking the grace and patience for that right now. We work so hard to simplify and I’d like it to stay that way (smile).

        PS. I don’t think you should de-clutter your older children’s toys and not tell them what you’re doing. I think it breaks down trust. I think instead you need to inspire your children and give them a vision of how you want to live and then have fun doing so (living that is). That gets everyone on board.

        Ok, I think I’ve given enough opinions here today!

        • Megan

          Thanks for your feedback, Renee! Good points to think about!

          • Hannah Kuehmichel

            As I grew up, my parents were very careful with what they allowed in our home. So, if a toy was given to me, or one of my siblings, that wasn’t ‘approved’ of, then my parents would take us shopping to pick out a new item. I never felt slited in the least, it really was an exchange instead of simply having a toy taken away…it was one gained that I got to choose. Just a thought to ponder!

      • Sally

        I have older kids 12, 10 and 7 with great memories, so the disappearing act doesn’t work anymore, but I have found a couple of things that do work. First, talking about quality ‘toys’ with your kids. When they ask for things or say they want something, I talk to them about the reasons and if they think they would be happy with that thing in a week, month, year or if the money that would be spent on them could be put to something more useful. They seem to get it at different levels for different ages and when grandma asks what they would like for their birthday or Christmas, they have thought about it a little instead of blurting out the most recent thing they’ve seen in an ad. I’ve also ‘bought’ back a toy from them. Basically, I paid them to give me the toy, because I did not want it in the house. Then they can go shop for something they really want or save it for something else. I don’t do that with every toy I don’t like, but some I’m really opposed to. I also have to say that if you stick to your guns, the ‘gifters’ usually get it. I really wanted my girls to have one or two special dolls (that I made for them) and not be bombarded with a ton of dolls or any plastic ones and my mother-in-law at first thought it was crazy and a little silly, but she now loves to see how attatched they are to their 2 dolls and how much interactive play they do with them, compared to the granddaughters with a ton of not so cuddley dolls. So stick to it if you really feel like it’s important.
        Oh one more thing, I’ve convinced one set of grandparents that a magazine subscription is something that my children really like and they now give it as a gift every Christmas. The kids love getting mail and they really do think about their grandparents each time it comes and as they read it. It also gives them something to talk about when they talk on the phone (they are magazines that my parents get as well, ‘Country’ and Birds and Bloom’, with great pictures so my parents will ask what their favorite picture was or if they thought a bird was interesting). It’s a way to stay connected throughout the year. (FYI those magazines are great for cutting up for school projects or passing on to a nursing home–tons of pictures).

        • El Kingo

          What a great idea with the magazine subscriptions! Both sets of grandparents are out of town and that might be just the thing for our kids to feel more connected with them while giving the grandparents a chance to be giving- especially at the holidays.

        • Karen T.

          Fantastic idea with the magazines!

      • Angela

        I’m glad you wrote about this. I’ve had a huge change of heart this year. I really don’t care what people give us. I used to, but it really is not worth upsetting relationships. Our family knows our preferences. In all these years, most of them don’t agree with us. I am not changing their minds anytime soon. If it doesn’t belong, we always get rid of it one way or another. So why stress over it? We do a similar thing to what you do. The children unwrap and play with the gifts if the giver is present. Then if it is not ok with us to keep it, I ask the children if they would like to give it away to another child or sell it and buy something they really want. If it is truly junk, I will set it aside for a couple days (and they forget about it) and then toss or donate it. I really do not think it is our right to demand any sort of gift from any giver. We do have the right to get rid of anything we don’t want and not feel guilty.

    • melissa

      I was wondering about the gift giver’s response to giving something away. we live overseas, and have received two boxes from family…which I’m sure there are things in there we don’t want/need. But, there is also the expectation that those toys will be here when they come to visit. Is it wrong for me to put a few things aside, and keep them until the grandparents’ visit or Skype phone calls, the get rid of them after that time?

      • Angela

        Melissa, if you feel a need to do this, taking a photo of the children with their toys and making thank you notes or showing the toys on skype is enough. However, if you do this, they will believe that you like and want more of this kind of gift. If they come and visit and demand to see the gifts, you can smile and say that all the children’s toys are xyz (wherever they are all over the house) and then change the topic. If they press it, you can let them know that you had a toy purge to make room for what’s next or let them know what kind of toys you would like in the future if they are open to that.

  6. Rose

    This is an incredibly frustrating topic for me. My Mom and My Mom-in-law are at opposite ends of the gift giving spectrum. My Mom has too many grandkids to be able to give an abundance of gifts for every single kids birthday, and my Mom-in-law buys a pile of toys and junk for every single holiday for every single grandkid. There is no way to tell her I don’t think this is okay. I ‘ve tried, and its like she has a built in defense mechanism of “we never had the conversation” If only she would realize that if she stopped giving so many presents my kids would be more than content with her simple presence.
    .-= Rose´s last blog ..And Lyon says… =-.

    • Kim

      “If only she would realize that if she stopped giving so many presents my kids would be more than content with her simple presence.”

      Very well said. I love how you worded that! It is SO true!! Stop the expectations of multiple gifts at every single get-together and the kids will be happy to see you rather than your gifts.

  7. Tez

    So happy to read this post. It was very relevant to me today. My daughter just had her 10th birthday and I always struggle with the societal view of gift giving. I tend to say “fun and educational” when I don’t have opportunity to be specific, so thank you for the wonderful ideas on how to communicate preference.

    “People are more important than things” has been a motto in my house for many years, it is what we “bring out” when squabbles over who plays with what, occur.

  8. Jessie

    My husband and I came up with a phrase to put on my daughter’s first birthday invitations: “No need to bring a gift, but if you want to, please bring a book for Lucy’s library.” We felt that it’s tactful and not too demanding, but gets across that she doesn’t need a bunch of presents, and that we value books over toys. Of course, if people show up with other things we’ll thank them profusely and then decide later if the stuff will be staying in the house or going in this year’s garage sale. 🙂
    .-= Jessie´s last blog ..Norman’s Birthday =-.

    • Megan

      I think that is a wonderful way to handle the situation tactfully, Jessie!

  9. heidi @ wonder woman wannabe

    I enjoyed this post! I’m thankful that I have open communication w/our family enough that we can discuss things like this in a non-stressful way. I did have to request that my parents try to limit gifts of ‘things’ in general. We have a small home and just couldn’t house all the ‘stuff’. As I am an only child, it was only natural for my parents to want to shower their first and only grandchild with gifts on special occasions. I gently let them know how much we appreciated their generocity, and respectfully asked if they could limit the quantity in the future.

    They were SO receptive. Since that time, they usually even ASK if there is a particular gift our boys might like and said gift usually more valuable than the scores of smaller gifts they used to get. This year, instead of lots of gifts to unrap for our boys’ birthday (both in May) my parents are treating them (and us) to a special trip together at a nearby resort town that they’ll enjoy as an EXPERIENCE for their main gift.
    .-= heidi @ wonder woman wannabe´s last blog ..Hope in Suffering Series {part 4} Hope =-.

  10. Mama Llama

    I think this is So hard to do with inlaws that do not share your value. We get a lot of “Character” things that I am not a fan of and clothes that I would never put my chidlren in. I have finally found a learning store that I have gotten my MIL to purchase toys from. But they are a “you never return anything” kind of family. Where my mother is a “I’d rather you get what you want” so will send $ instead of a bunch of junk we don’t need. It is a fine line… but I think helping family and friends to know your desires is great. I also think including the chidlren in a “weed out the old toys for charity” is great to help them to develop a less materialistic mind and also a greater charitable heart
    .-= Mama Llama´s last blog ..Lenten Lights =-.

  11. Laura

    This is hard for us too. We usually just accept anything given as a gift but choose not to buy these ourselves. I did request no more electronic toys because they had so many that were redundant. Our families are not very well off financially so I’ve been able to play that up and ask them to go simple with the gifts. Some of them are starting to realize that we cherish books more than other toys.
    .-= Laura´s last blog ..Daffodils, Guinea Fowl, and Peas! =-.

  12. Francis

    I think this must be hard for anyone who cares about the toys their kids play with. When we had our first child it was really overwhelming with how many gifts she received. We didn’t say anything but once we had more kids, they naturally had to cut back because there were more to buy for. We still get ‘cheap plastic-y stuff’ that I know is going to break in a few days – so when it does break, I throw it away with no regrets. Luckily its only a few items/year so its not too bad. My kids are old enough to remember everything and even worse one kid in particular treasures everything dearly (not a bad thing except when he is loving a piece of junk!). If I really hate a toy I will send it to a second hand store and tell the kids that someone who doesn’t have many toys will be able to play with it. They seem to understand that…. and I don’t have to hear the talking Elmo anymore! 😉 I also try to keep an Amazon list for the kids to help out those that care to ask what they would like.

  13. Megan@Homeschooling on the Run

    Thanks so much for the post! I have been wrestling with this as my daughter’s first birthday approaches. We have a really small house, and I am a bit crunchy when it comes to toys: I’d rather have a few quality, formless toys with limitless imaginative possibilities, than hundreds of beepy, specialized plastic things! I’m even choosy about books, so it is tough. We are very friendly at the local thrift store drop-off site and many I re-gift, too. I guess it’s just an on-going thing you have to deal with if you are trying to be intention about the stuff you keep around. Mostly, I want to be gracious about it, but firm; I’m glad to read about other mommy strategies for working with older kids to understand why we are not keeping them, and helping detach from these unwanted gifts.
    .-= Megan@Homeschooling on the Run´s last blog ..Wordless Wednesday 3/24 =-.

  14. Debbie

    With daughter #2’s 1st birthday coming up this is an current issue for me. I am blessed w/ a great and understanding family. But our girls are the only small children to give gifts to for several in our close family, so it is hard to deny the pleasure of choosing a special toy. Even if they each only get one it gives them 6 gifts.

    One thing I have done is have a theme for their birthday parties (we just have family and a close friend). For example my oldest 2nd birthday theme was crayons. So I suggested that things like coloring books, stickers etc…would be great. For her 1st birthday I did a farm theme and suggested animals for her farm set (our gift), a toy tractor etc… For the first birthday I have coming up I think I am going to do a ball theme, because my daughter really loves balls. I don’t require people to bring a theme oriented gift, but most do, and it is kind of fun for them to get involved. I even did this at Christmas, to some extent. We got the girls a kitchen and I got our family involved by suggesting they get kitchen accesories (play food etc…) I try to approach it that instead of limiting what gifts they can give, I am including them in something fun we are doing.

    Also we really limit the amount of toys we give them, we try limiting ourselves to 1 toy per special occasion.

  15. Keilah

    This hits home as my son had a birthday last Thursday and my daughter’s is next Thursday. We are having a joint birthday party and they each get to invite one friend. Now grandparents have already asked what they need and want. I sent out emails to them with different requests so that there are no doubles. I do have a hard time with a lot of plastic toys too. We do have some, more than I would like.

    My son made an unusual request for his birthday, a big ticket item. We are a very musical family and his request was a shiny blue trumpet. I found a nice one for a reasonable price(1/3 of most). When I shared the request with my family, one side immediately said no, they would not help go in on the gift. They thought it not practical, which most of you will think too. The other side(the musical side) was happy to contribute and in fact is footing half of the bill. My husband is planning on teaching him one to two times a week. We have a guitar, clarinet, drum and other various small musical instruments.

    I think that it is funny that they would rather buy toys(some that are not very practical) that will not last past their next birthday instead of investing in their musical/educational future. Even if he does not become a prodigy but it helps shape his music appreciation and artistic being. But maybe that is just me 🙂

    Great post!
    .-= Keilah´s last blog ..Deal of the Century! =-.

    • Megan

      That is so interesting that family members would balk at something so incredibly valuable as a musical instrument! But again, as the giver, they get to choose. I can see how that would have been disappointing though.

    • TheBargainBabe

      I think chipping in for a musical instrument is fantastic. Sorry that the one group said no, but glad the other side is paying half!

    • Karen T.

      When my older daughter was saving so she could upgrade her keyboard (she needed one with better quality since she’s become quite a good piano player), we let family members know, and several replaced other gifts they might have purchased with gifts of cash last Christmas and for her birthday in May. This Christmas (along with cash we are contributing) she’s going to buy a professional-quality keyboard. At our Christmas get-together, she is going to play a little concert so family members who contributed will be able to see their gift in use. Plus, she’s saved her money for a long time, so the learning experience of working and saving for something you really want is invaluable — just another gift as far as I’m concerned!

  16. Rhiannon

    We want to try to keep our little guy (10 months old) from the commercialized, liscensed characters and excessive amounts of battery operated toys. It’s amazing how insatiable the market is for the silly, easily replacable toys!
    Some of my friends have told me outright they think I’m CRAZY for being particular about my son’s toys. It’s really hard to be tactful with your requests when they are less than tactful with their opinions! But I see no reason for a baby to have a house full of battery operated toys. Maybe some, someday but, not now.
    One thing that helped us establish our stance early on was that my sister held a book shower for our baby shower. It was perfect! Another tact we’ve taken (that may not work forever but does now!) is giving the kinds of toys/gifts we want to recieve. It’s hard to give someone and Tickle Me Elmo when you gave their baby a hand-knit blanket!
    With all this said though, one of my son’s favorite “toys” is an Ernie bookmark that showed up in our house! It’s the perfect size, brightly colored, he can easily hold it, and Ernie has a very happy face that makes his just light up! It can entertain him for the whole church service! I’m embaressed to pull it out but if it helps us reach a more important goal- oh well, I can deal with it!

    • Megan

      Oh well! That Ernie bookmark serves a purpose in this season. No reason to be embarrassed! 🙂

  17. Christine

    I find these guidelines gracious and practical. However, coming from a family with intercultural influence, I have noticed that sometimes, in order to build trust, gifts must be accepted and used for the sake of showing the gift-giver gratitude that is acceptable to their own culture. What I mean is this: when I am given a gift from another country that I will not necessarily use in daily life (usually an obscure piece of jewelry), I will put the gift to use right away (or stick the wooden carved bracelet on my hand right then!) in order to show the gift-giver I appreciate their thoughtfulness. Of course this varies a bit with children, but if someone of another culture is attending a child’s birthday party, we must look to see what gift giving means in that culture so we can be sensitive to their (or their mother’s) expectations.

    • Megan

      Thank you so much for adding in the voice of an intercultural family. That aspect would not have occurred to me, but I am so glad you spoke on it. Such a great reminder.

  18. Kristen

    My second daughter was born in January right after all the Christmas present rush and being the second girl in the family, there’s very little she needs or wants that we don’t already have. In fact, we’re trying desperately to simplify what we do have. Some solutions we’ve come up with: a family membership to the Children’s Museum, paid classes for music, gymnastic, or swim lessons, play or concert tickets, assistance towards a large gift (swingset, doll house furniture), or assistance towards a family vacation (admission to a theme park). My mother, especially, while happy to do any of these things, desperately wanted to have something for her to open from Grammy. As a compromise, she started buying each girl a new outfit and then taking them out on a special outing. That way each child could have something to open and, yet, the real gift was special one-on-one time with Grammy.

    • Sarah

      That is what we have asked for, but we are meeting a lot of resistance. My side of the family just really wants presents under the tree…a lot of them! This last Christmas I had to take half of her new toys and put them away. I’m going to swap them out in a few months. My daughter was super overwhelmed by so much stuff.

  19. Debbie

    I am blessed to have a fairly cooperative family. But there are a lot of people to give gifts, so even if they only give one gift each it can be a lot.

    One thing I have done is to have a theme for birthdays, and even Christmas. For my oldest 1st birthday I did a farm theme. Then I encouraged gifts that went w/ the barn we were giving her (animals, a tractor etc…) For her 2nd bday we had a crayon theme. I suggested art supplies, coloring books etc… For my little ones upcoming bday I am going to do a ball theme (she loves them) I don’t require people to bring gifts to go w/ the theme, but even if just some of them do it really helps. I think it really works well because instead of limiting their gift giving, we are including them in our fun. Even for Christmas, we got our girls a play kitchen, and told our family how much we would appreciate kitchen accessories.

    We also try to really limit how much we give to our children to only 1 “toy” per special occasion

  20. canuck_grad

    I fall somewhere in between on this spectrum – I prefer more classic, non-battery type toys, but I don’t mind a little of them, depending on what they are. For example, my son had a plastic, battery operated “guitar” when he was younger – basically you just push buttons and it plays songs. He also has that leapfrog Tad frog thing that sings songs and plays lullaby music. I’m OK with those, they don’t seem that different to me than playing music on a CD. And now that he’s older he plays with his (real) ukelele and we’ve passed along the guitar. I also don’t mind trucks and things that will make small noises if buttons are pushed – sirens or engines or something – at least they are making a noise that encourages more imaginative play with the toy. What drives me *nuts* are all the “educational” toys that say numbers, letters, colors, etc. – why in god’s name does my son need a tool set that says numbers and letters?? When he’s playing with his tools I want him to play with his tools – we can talk about numbers and letters when we’re reading or whatever.

    Luckily, our family is great about asking us what we want them to get for him. Granted, they do go overboard a bit, so that might be something we’ll have to deal with in the future – but for now, their willingness to spend money on him has allowed us to ask them to purchase some more expensive things we wouldn’t be able to afford. His birthday is shortly after Easter, and he’s got coming to him an outdoor climber with a slide, a great pop-up tent and tunnel set, a toy lawnmower and weed-trimmer (again, battery-operated but I am OK with that – he LOVES “helping” Daddy with the yard), t-ball set, basketball set, and some nice wooden Melissa and Doug pots and food to replace the cheap plastic stuff someone passed along to us when he got his kitchen. The climber alone is $200, my awesome FIL is getting him that as a bday gift. It’s nice having his bday at the beginning of spring too, so we can focus on outdoor summer toys for that occasion, so we’re not overrun with stuff when we still have newer toys from X-mas around… then by X-mas it will be easier to purge last year’s toys when we get new stuff.

    The only real snag I had was when I was looking for a kitchen set for him, and my sister picked up a McDonald’s kitchen set at a yard sale, thinking she was doing a great thing. I was horrified!! It had the big M on top, the grease baskets, and all McDonald’s food and pictures of food and stickers. Luckily, my niece liked it as well, so we kept it at my Mom’s house and I told her I had already picked out a nice kitchen I wanted to invest in. I think she realized I wasn’t happy about the McDonald’s one, so it was a little awkward, but nothing too bad.

    • TheBargainBabe

      “why in god’s name does my son need a tool set that says numbers and letters?? When he’s playing with his tools I want him to play with his tools ”

      roflol! YES!

  21. E

    Thanks a lot for this article. My MIL and my sister are both “stuff” people, so this is also a big issue for my family. MIL even managed to buy a book that needed batteries!

    We tried using very practical terms: we don’t have a lot of space, we want our daughter to have toys that last a long time, etc., but that didn’t work. She’s the only grandchild on both sides and long-distance from all grandparents and uncle/aunts, so family sees physical gifts as a way of connecting with her. (Except my dad, who sends awesome gifts like mix CDs.)

    What has helped with my sister and my mom is using positive examples throughout the year. “She loves her xylophone!” “We can never have too many crayons.” “Those Dr. Seuss books were a big hit.” When said out of the context of a holiday, it doesn’t come off as pushy or demanding. Thoughtful gift givers (hopefully) remember these kinds of things when the next holiday or birthday comes around and use those as guidelines without the need for negative feedback. MIL, not so much, but my relationship with her is tenuous enough that it’s just not worth it.

    • Megan

      Oh, yes! I meant to include that in the article – that discussing this when it is NOT in context of an upcoming event really, really can go a long way toward peaceful conversations on the matter. Thanks, E!

  22. Maya

    “A boundary may sound restricting, but in the end it actually provides freedom” –
    So incredibly true.

    And feel like I am deep in this mess today myself – actually learning to deal with it every day. Setting boundaries and communicating with friends and family really helps.

    It is making me think a lot – thanks for the post on a difficult topic!

  23. aimee

    this was such a well-written and gracious post. we have a small house and also believe in the “less stuff, more fun” philosophy so we had told people we really didn’t want toys when our daughter was born. in addition to a traditional baby registry (that did not include toys but rather things we actually needed), we created a book registry which ended up being the best thing ever. we’ve just had our second child and since people know how much we love books, most people have been very generous and thoughtful with adding lovely new books to our ever expanding children’s “library.”

    When people send toys or things we either can’t use or don’t want our children to have, we send a gracious thank you note and promptly take the item(s) to goodwill.

  24. Michelle

    Oh, I love this post. I am at such a hard spot wanting to live more simply and teach the principal to my daughter. I grew up in a family where my mom still to this day goes into debt buying gifts every holiday. Looking back, I wish they wouldn’t have created such a “stuff” attitude in me. Now this past Christmas when I gave DD only a few selected items, I felt like I was cheating her. My husband got depressed bec. we had not given her much. Finances was part of the reason – but less was more the reason. My mom is very open to suggestions, thankfully – so she often purchases mostly things I would like for my daughter. My MIL on the other hand, as DH says, tell her the opposite of what you really want, then you might get it. Lol. I’ve given up. For those further along on this journey of living with less – at what age do you begin having your children sort through the toys. I just did a purge a few weeks ago when DD was away for the day. I felt bad. She didn’t notice at 3 years old – but next time, I think she will notice. Any suggestions? I want to create a giving attitude in her – which I still struggle with bec. of how I grew up with “stuff.”

  25. Rachel

    I find with my kids (ages 7,5,3 and 1) that holidays used to be a time of embarrassment and rudeness. The kids would be overwhelmed and grabbing each gift that our family had generously (though sometimes very off-the mark) given them and saying something like “I don’t like blue”, etc. So now leading up to the holiday we practice being thankful. I take a household item and wrap it up in a tea towel. We sit in a circle and unwrap the item and have to say thankyou and say something nice (and TRUE) about it. They may unwrap a wooden spoon and they’ll say “Thank-you, that will come in handy when I’m stirring my hot chocolate.” The kids love the roleplaying and the lesson is learned. I got this idea from somewhere (not sure where any more so I can’t give the recognition where it belongs!)

    • Megan

      Beautiful. I love it!

    • Rowenna

      This sounds exactly like a Montessori Grace and Courtesy lesson! The concept is that you offer the child a way to behave at a neutral time, so that when he is put on the spot, he already knows how to act properly. Children love acting things out, and they love knowing how to act properly in a social situation!

    • Karen T.

      Great idea! A non-pressure teaching moment for your kids, so they already know how to behave when put on the spot. You are doing something wonderful for them — so many kids don’t seem to be TAUGHT how to behave, but it’s still expected of them, and they don’t know what to do.

  26. Princess Leia

    I give the fam a list of what we need every Christmas/birthday season (got a Jan 8th and a Dec 23rd). They understand our space limitations and are mostly good about not going overboard. It’s a constant struggle to rein them in though (my mom’s a dollar store junkie, hubs’ mom is just a shopper in general), especially since we currently have the only grandchildren. Soon sis-in-law will be popping out her first and she lives MUCH closer to my in-laws, so I expect that some of the pressure will be off (I doubt that she’ll have the anti-stuff fetish that I have).

    For my son’s 3rd birthday (his first party – an easy way to cut down on gifts!), we included in the invitation something explaining that the only thing we have not been blessed with in abundance was space. So instead of giving us (who don’t need it) more stuff, please consider donating an item for the local pregnancy center (with a list of _their_ needs on the back). A few came giftless, a few gave us cash, most obliged, much to the delight of the pregnancy center. There were enough gifts from grandparents and parents that he still had _plenty_ to open at the party.

    My problem is that I have a hard time donating to Goodwill (or where ever) something that I don’t want my kids to play with. I feel guilty if I keep it in circulation. This is especially true for the cheap plastic stuff made in China. I don’t want it for my kids because it could very well endanger their health. Why would I pass that on for someone else to buy?

    And I have a REALLY hard time buying gifts for my friends’ kids, knowing that they’ve already got too much stuff. I usually end up asking if they actually _need_ anything, then giving a gift card towards that expense (like one girl who is taking ballet got a gift cert. to a local dancewear store). It’s a lame gift for the kid to open usually, but often the parents appreciate it. Or at least they say they do!

  27. Anisa

    Ugh! This is such a HARD topic for me and our family! My mom is great – she just asks me what I want for the kids and goes with it. But it’s my husband’s family.
    His grandparents buy BAGS of candy for every holiday for each child (even my baby got a bag of candy at only 4 mopnths old). It’s RIDICULOUS! We’ve tried to be tactful, subtle, and direct and they still do it. We just throw it out when we get home. We’ve even told them that it will just be thrown out and they still buy it. It truly makes me feel disrespected and in their family.
    And gifts – we’ve also tried to be tactful, preemptive and even harsh and to no avail. I think the best you can do is say thank you, act gracious, and then chuck it/donate it/return it after the fact.

    -Can you tell this frustrates me a bit? 😉
    Thanks for the great post – it helps knowing we’re not alone.
    .-= Anisa´s last blog ..2010 Independence Days – Week 3 =-.

  28. Jackie Lee

    My daughter’s 4th birthday is next month. We have this problem with my mom. As her only grandchild (and a person who feels buying things shows people you love them) she always OVER buys for every possible occasion. We have talked and she just doesn’t listen. The problem isn’t really with my daughter ~ she doesn’t play with the toys and is open to letting other kids who have less have them ~ it’s my MOM!! She remembers every little thing she’s ever given her and when she doesn’t see it she asks where it is, and then is upset when it was broken, not played with or given away. I’m trying to declutter, and simplify but it’s really hard when my Mom thinks Tuesday is a good reason to buy gifts for her.

    I’m thinking this year about asking people to bring 2 dollars for my daughter’s birthday. One for her and one for her to give to a charity. I know this will not go over well, but it will actually give her the chance to go and buy something she really wants, and learn about giving to those who have less as well.
    .-= Jackie Lee´s last blog ..Living the Law of Attraction and Parenting With It Too! =-.

  29. lunzy

    wow, I guess we are really lucky.
    I always have an ongoing wishlist at or, etc. and since all of our family lives out of state, they pretty much just pick from the list. LOTS of books on the list, magazine subscriptions, gift certificates to favorite stores. Sometimes we will mention we are trying to buy something larger for the kids, like their swing set, and any gift certificates to add towards that would be greatly appreciated. We also mention how much we could really use things to get us OUT of the house instead of gifts to keep us busy IN the house like zoo/museum memberships, special classes, etc. Everyone has been really wonderful about it.
    ~ Lisa
    p.s. I also mention how much STUFF we keep donating to the kids’ schools every year. That kind of hits home as to how little the kids really *need*.
    .-= lunzy´s last blog ..Wordless Wednesday: At last. =-.

  30. Alissa

    We are lucky to be in a community of friends that has whole heartedly embraced the “no gifts” strategy for birthday parties, so none of the kids in our group expect gifts from friends.

    We’re still working with our families on limiting the quantity of gifts. One thing I’m coming to terms with is that my in-laws have “giving gifts” as their primary love language. When I try to encourage them toward the “less is more” approach, they perceive that as a rejection of their love. Frustrating. This year, I’m hoping to explore a conversation about what we want Christmas Day to FEEL like – last year, we couldn’t get through all the gifts before the kids went to bed and it felt frantic, chaotic, stressful, etc. How can we make the day feel more special, loving, community building, grateful, etc… wish me luck!
    .-= Alissa´s last blog ..March Madness =-.

    • Kathryn

      We have the same challenge with some of our family–you’ve described our Christmas “celebrations” to a T! Over the course of several years, we’ve been able to steer everyone more toward experiences and less toward stuff (though we still have to wade through an obscene amount of presents). Some of our tips:
      1. We refuse to contribute to the problem–we give each person only one good-quality gift.
      2. Around June, we start initiating respectful, cheerful but to-the-point conversations about how nice it would be to have more time for playing games, etc. at Christmas this year.
      3. When family ask for gift suggestions (and they usually do), we mention specific items (e.g., “x brand of art easel, available at x store”) and also suggest group gifts or contributions to our daughter’s college fund. This is extremely effective–the givers still get to feel like they’re giving love, but the presents are more in line with our values.
      4. We proactively attempt to arrange group gifts with other family members to cut down on the total number of presents, e.g., “Would you like to go in with us to buy such-and-such for so-and-so?”
      5. We block out two days for Christmas. On the first day, we let the kids open about half their presents, then the adults open most (sometimes all) of our presents after the kids are in bed. We all spend the night, have a great Christmas breakfast, and finish opening the kids’ presents the next day. This allows plenty of time to get through all the presents but still socialize, eat leisurely, play, etc. The adults also love the kid-free time to hang out together.

    • Jen

      How did your group of friends bring this subject up? I want to talk to my friends about it, but don’t want to come off sounding ‘cheap’ because I don’t want to do gifts. It isn’t the money issue, but the fact that our kids just don’t need more plastic made-in-China toys!

    • Megan

      How wonderful to be part of such a like-minded community of friends!

      And I do completely realize that for some people, giving gifts IS a form of expressing love. I think we can still work together to welcome them expressing love in that way.

      For example, perhaps grandparents could give a family zoo membership as a gift. Maybe for the actual occasion, they could give a zoo-themed coloring book and crayons or a collection of books about animals as the gift to be opened (for gift-oriented people, this is important), and then on trips to the zoo, the parents could be sure to take pictures to email or send to that set of grandparents (or invite them along if they live close enough!) so that the grandparents can see how that gift is continuing to enrich the lives of the family.

      There are ways to encourage gifting! I would never say we want to eliminate gifts from these occasions. If a family feels led to do so, that is wonderful for that family to pursue, but not everyone wants to take that direction. I think we can work together creatively to find some good ways for everyone to be at peace with the process.

    • Alissa

      I wanted to post a follow-up:
      We’ve been successful at getting all the adults on board with “drawing names” for Christmas this year. It worked to talk about how we (and the kids) FELT last year – overwhelmed, frantic, etc trying to get through all the gifts! Instead, there have been many family discussions about how nice it will be to savor the gift giving and receiving experience this year.

      I know my kids will still get an overwhelming amount of “stuff” (and we’re guilty of contributing as well!), so this article was a GREAT re-read to remember that when we gather on Christmas, it’s more important to focus on the relationships and not let the gifts themselves be a source of stress.

      As for our friend parties – our kids are still pretty young, and we do “group” parties (i.e. all the kids with fall birthdays have one joint party). It allows us to do something really fun for the party (Like renting the local pool!), so the experience is the celebration, not presents. When someone asked my son what he’s “getting” at his birthday, he responded with excitement: A Cupcake!

  31. Hannah

    Ooooh, this has ALWAYS been an issue in our house. My mom asks me what to get for the children’s birthdays. My mother-in-law and other relatives rarely do, and if they do, I’ve learned not to expect my suggestions to be followed! My heart has sunk many times upon seeing the latest thing of very temporary value being presented, and I’ve felt frustrated that somehow our values haven’t been communicated or received very clearly. I so want to avoid filling our house with flimsy, character-centered items. But like you said, it’s so important to remember that the relationship is primary, and that the thought is what counts. Great post!

  32. Trina

    What a great post! This has always been a touchy subject for me. Imagine the delight of (some of) my family when 5 or 6 years ago, we requested no Christmas gifts! Instead, we ask for money in lieu so the kids can in turn pass it along to our foster children in Uganda. We don’t need more stuff in a world where there is already too much. Family is welcome to give gifts at other times of the year. We still provide gifts for them at Christmas, but it’s been enormously better since the number of gifts has been scaled back. Appreciativeness shines through when there’s not as much.

  33. Angela @ Homegrown Mom

    Our girls have many grandparents and they all like to get them multiple presents. They are very respectful of our boundaries and talk with me before big holidays to see who is getting what, etc. I’m very thankful that their grandparents love to bless them and the only problem we ever had was too much candy from too many sources. We just mentioned it and everyone cut back.

    I think it’s more important to teach my girls to be gracious, and they are taught to be thankful, no matter what. They are not even to say if someone else has already gotten them that gift, or whatever.

    This is a great post 🙂
    .-= Angela @ Homegrown Mom´s last blog ..6 Keys to Happiness =-.

  34. Kristy

    Am I glad you brought this up! We have struggled with this for years (my girls are 9,7, and 4). I am stuff-averse and stuff…even gifts…especially kids’ noisy, thousand plastic piece toys…cause me mucho stress. The dilemma actually improved this year when we moved into a smaller place and I had an excuse to say “we just don’t have any room!”
    .-= Kristy´s last blog .."Cat"chy Tune =-.

  35. Melissa

    Thanks! Great post!
    I have a semi-related question: We have been having pretty crazy holidays (everyone wants to see us on the actual day of the Christmas, Easter, etc). We are really trying to figure out our boundaries for celebrating holidays while caring about our families. Does anyone have any tips on boundaries for holidays AND discussing this with family in a loving way? Thanks!

    • Alissa

      Oh, that’s the worst. Both our families would get so offended when we tried to take what we felt was a balanced approach – and that was before we had children. We finally moved! Seriously. Well, we had lots of other reasons, but that was one. Now, when we come back to visit during the holidays, the grandparents are grateful for whatever time they are able to have with us and the kids. =) Part of the challenge is trying to establish your own traditions instead of trying to maintain all the extended family traditions and not have anything new for your own immediate family. Good luck!
      .-= Alissa´s last blog ..March Madness =-.

    • Anitra

      One thing we did, before our child was even born, was to start hosting a major holiday at our house. In our case, Thanksgiving. “If you want to see us on or around Thanksgiving, please come visit!” Now it’s still busy, but not as crazy as it was before. Christmas is still a little overwhelming, but we’ve managed to stretch that out over 2-3 days rather than trying to cram it all into Dec. 25th every year.

    • Jessie

      Yes. The best advice my husband and I were given when we were engaged was to decide to spend Christmas Day at our own house, no matter what. Just do it. Just tell everyone that Christmas is just for you guys. Or, if you want, that they can come see you if they want to see you on Christmas. We’re lucky, because our families are pretty laid back about it. But you and your husband and kids are a team. It’s you against the world, and you always do what’s best for each other. If that means spending a holiday or two at home without visitors, then that’s what you have to do. I would suggest just deciding, telling your relatives what you’ve decided as calmly and kindly as possible, and letting them deal with it.
      .-= Jessie´s last blog ..Norman’s Birthday =-.

      • Karen T.

        I absolutely agree. We did the same thing, and it’s been wonderful (our kids are teenagers now). We travel to see one set of grandparents on Thanksgiving and one set on Easter, and we’re always at our own home (with our own traditions) on Christmas. I have one sister who lives close, so we usually spend a day together shortly after Christmas. Other siblings we see at the family reunion in the summer (and yes, that means our vacation every year is to southern CA where the reunion is held).

  36. Jen

    I’ve been struggling with this topic as well, but never know how to approach the family and friends with my thoughts. We do have an Amazon wish list for ourselves and our 13 month old son, but I feel bad even telling people about it because I don’t want to seem picky or pushy.
    My real question, though, is how do you all deal with this issue, but flip-flopped? What do you ‘buy’ for family members, especially the kids, that already have everything? We spend a fortune each year on gifts for family members an friends; gifts that we aren’t positive that they’ll like or something they might already have, because they don’t have wish lists or give us ideas as to what they might want. I keep proposing to my husband the idea that we don’t do gifts for Christmas for the whole family (which keeps growing with all the nieces, nephews, and new spouses), but maybe do the whole draw-names thing. He doesn’t want to bring it up to the family, so nothing will ever change! It’s so frustrating! I don’t want to come off as Scrooge, but it all seems so wasteful to me. Any ideas?

  37. Nadene

    We have wish lists for bithdays.
    I like to see what that child needs for “Hands”, for “Head” and “Heart”. This usually leads to craft kits, art supplies, sewing things (I have 3 girls), stationary for letter writing, books, magazine subscription (for photography/ wildlife etc.), devotional books, Christian CD or DVD and so on. I encourage them to have 1 ‘heavy weight’ gift (that only mom and dad could possibly afford – an ipod for example) and then to try think of at least 3 cheaper gifts that their siblings could afford. I use these ideas when I chat to grandparents who may call and ask what gifts my children wish for.
    .-= Nadene´s last blog ..What are Workboxes? Some Links =-.

  38. Jamie

    I understand and appreciate the desire to keep our kids in a imaginative, creative sense of mind, but I have to admit I am a little shocked by this post. Isn’t the essence of simple living having ultimate gratitude for the people we love and lives we are blessed to lead? I love the idea of gentle encouragement toward things like art supplies and books, but I think we also need to remember–first and foremost–that a gift is an act of love, and not something to be offended or disgruntled over. It is easy to purge after a birthday and donate the items you feel are not appropriate for your child–we do this all the time–so I really think number 4 should go in slot #1 on the coping mechanism list. Be grateful for the love, time, and effort above all else. Megan is totally right on her gratitude count–People Before Things!

    • renee @ FIMBY

      Jamie, this is very interesting but I wanted to say this gets harder as your kids get older. Purging gifts is not as easy as cleaning out the closet while your 3 year old isn’t looking. It involves lots of conversation and value judgements. My children don’t want to be forever carting off inappropriate gifts to goodwill any more than I do. And after watching the movie Wall-e they have been increasingly thoughtful about our society’s throw away mentality towards “things” and don’t want to participate in that (the plastic packaging for example).
      And I honestly wonder about a gift always being an act of love. I think many gifts given on special occasions are done so out of obligation. And I honestly want to release people from that obligation.
      But… I say all this a person whose primary love language is not gift giving, in fact it’s probably lowest on the list for me. You speak like a true gift giver (smile) and I need to keep this perspective more in mind in how I approach this issue. Thank you for giving me something to think about.

    • Megan

      I wanted to add, too, that the “essence of simply living” will look different for every family.

      For your family, it may very well be practicing gratitude in all things.

      For other families, the essence of simple living may be taking an active stand against our consumerism/stuff-driven culture, or instilling in children that gifts are fun, but it’s relationships that are to be paramount. For other families, living light in a small space makes it impossible to store many toys.

      In the past here at Simple Mom, the articles that Tsh and I have written regarding children almost always draw out discussion in the comments about how to handle the gifts that come into our home. I was simply hoping to speak to how we can choose to handle these situations in a way that promotes peace amongst family and friends while allowing families to stand firm in convictions.

      Thank you for adding your voice to the discussion!

      • renee @ FIMBY

        Megan, You said “how we can choose to handle these situations in a way that promotes peace amongst family and friends while allowing families to stand firm in convictions”
        As our family’s convictions go further and further against the mainstream promoting peace is not always easy (or even possible). I don’t know what the answer is but this has been a very lively and useful discussion. I haven’t entered one of these comment discussions on a blog for a long time, I think it’s time to head back to my lurker shell (smile) so I don’t hurt anyone unintentionally with misunderstood remarks – one of the hardest things about communicating this way vs. face to face discussion over tea.
        Although I have enjoyed the discussion and have enjoyed reading things from other people’s perspective that I don’t always see.

        • Jamie

          Thanks ladies for both your comments. I definitely see how choosing a different lifestyle than our families can make it difficult to keep the peace. In my experience it has mostly been because other family members feel our commitment to a certain lifestyle is somehow a judgement call on them. At least in our family, the best solutions have been to tread lines carefully–choose our battles, I guess–and be sure that our families & friends understand that we love and appreciate their efforts.

          @Renee – I really appreciate your comment about the gift obligation problem. That is huge. I have to admit, with a husband in med school I am always relieved to get a birthday invitation for my daughter that says “no gifts” or invites us to swap a gently used book or toy. I will be paying extra attention to that in the future when we decide to celebrate.

  39. jaime

    This is so relevant to me. I have tried to provide some guidance for our family on the types of gifts that are most loved in our home and, generally, they are very receptive to that advice. I’m fortunate that they almost ALWAYS ask if there are any special requests before giving a gift. Still, though, we have managed to amass a profound volume of “cluttery” toys. I appreciate your admonition that what happens to those things AFTER they make it into our home is totally up to me. Somehow I find myself grappling every time with the guilt of “but so and so GAVE this to her!” I have to let go of that!

    Thanks for the tips!

  40. Lindsey@ Mama Sews

    Luckily my family KNOWS which toys I’m against since I’m pretty outspoken. 🙂 the real trouble is the amount of clothing my mother-in-law buys. It’s more than obscene, and while I’m grateful for her wanting to help us out financially, this is an area I would rather her not participate in. We’re, or my husband, will be telling her this year to only purchase 1or 2 outfits that she loves and wants to see on our children. We don’t want her to purchase the entire spring, summer, fall, and winter wardrobes. It’s my pleasure as a mom to buy clothes for my kids, to help them find their own creative style.
    .-= Lindsey@ Mama Sews´s last blog ..Meal Planning =-.

  41. Kerry D.

    Just wanted to throw in my thought–that, as frustrating as this topic is for a lot of families, it must be nice to have gift giving problems… ALL of our kids’ grandparents are deceased, and were very poor when they were alive; all of the various aunts and uncles have too much on their own plate for overwhelming gift giving. So, when the holidays or birthdays come around, it’s kind of the opposite problem.

    Not that I don’t see the point; we too, prefer toys and gifts to help the children develop. But, just wanted to point out that having this problem means that people are loving and doting on your children. 🙂

    • Jade

      Great point!

  42. Monte

    Our problem is that my MIL just loves to buy things, and really feels like the number of things matters, rather than quality. But she doesn’t have much money, so she goes to the thrift store and just buys up every toy there, whether it’s age-appropriate, broken or not. I hate it, because it never feels like she’s put any thought into the specific child and what they want, and she doesn’t respond to our suggestions that just one gift is plenty. I have nothing against thrift-store buying–we shop there all the time, even for gifts–I just want the gifts to at least be chosen thoughtfully. Our solution for all the gifts that aren’t for a specific holiday is that we ask her to keep them at her house, “so they have something to play with.” I haven’t felt comfortable doing that for Christmas or birthday gifts yet, but so far our child (and the cousins) are young enough that we can weed them out easily.
    .-= Monte´s last blog ..Beauty =-.

  43. Chris

    We definately struggle with this issue in our home too. AND, with all the grandparents living within an hour’s drive, it’s difficult to make items disappear.

    Lately, as I realize she has way more stuff than a toddler needs, or could even want, I’ve been emphasizing to family the idea that if a new item comes in the house, and old one has to leave. This has reduced the giving from some, but my MIL in particular seems to think that hand me downs don’t count nor should stuffed animals. To *us*, the only things that don’t count are books and items that add to an ongoing collection (blocks, for ex.) and *still fit* in the allotted container.

    As for the types of toys, our families are slowly picking up on the types of toys we prefer and at Christmas decided to ask what she could use. They weren’t all exactly as we would have chosen, but they did indicate that our family was really trying.

    Our family values are greatly different than those of our families’, so we’re learning to prioritize. We emphasize healthy eating first, then positive child-centered interaction then toy quantity and quality. It’s important to pick your battles, esp because sometimes they can take your different choices as criticisms of their own parenting choices.

  44. Corey

    Wow – such a response. You have hit a real nerve. In our family we handle different parts of the family differently. Grandparents (who tend to spend a lot) we ask for experiential gifts – subscriptions to the zoo, pool, museum or other fave place. For one side of the family (aunts and uncles) we have established (over time) a one big ticket item that they all pitch in for. We established this practice by identifying something under the agreed cost for each if they all pitched in. They went for that and it started a trend. For the side of our family that is crafty/arty we went for stories from their life. They create little books that tell particular stories they remember when they were the kids age and make a book about it. this last one gives us some awesome options! With some friends, we have established seet pressies – I have one friend who always gets PJs. It is a great arrangement – and sometimes I will let her no of a set I just love in advance…. With family members who live quite distant, I will send a website that has the sorts of toys I like who deliver at a good price. They can buy online and not have to worry about the postage.
    It is a bit of a mine field, but over time we have managed to reduce the number of not-for-our-house toys we get.
    Great topic – I have picked up several good ideas to hit those last few members of the family with…

  45. Kim

    Hi, I am new to SimpleMom, but I have to comment on this article because I appreciated it so much. This is a big struggle for me! I love and appreciate my children’s grandparents very much, but the lifestyle I am interested in living and the lifestyle they live are completely night and day. We are overwhelmed with inappropriate, low-quality toys every holiday, no matter how many times I politely request a zoo membership or books….
    I am curious if anyone can give me some creative suggestions for “disposing” of the toys I don’t want? Other than just taking boxes and boxes of stuff to Goodwill all the time… ?

    • TheBargainBabe

      Aside from Goodwill, you cuold take the items to a Head Start school or any little preschool or daycare in town. You could take them to a church and let them have them for the kids rooms or to give away to needy families. Battered women’s shelters often need childrens items to make the kids that live there feel welcomed and at home.
      A doctor’s office or clinic may be able to use toys in the waiting room, or the local WIC office.

      Luckily my MIL doesn’t care if we return stuff (though we almost never do. She’s a good gift-giver) and my parents are getting into having a few nicer gifts and LESS STUFF, especially less stuff made in China.

  46. E

    GREAT post! Thank you – this is helpful. I really like the idea of requesting a “hand-me-down” or thrift shop gift! When I was pregnant for the first time, I asked and dropped hints constantly that I really preferred thrift shop clothing for the baby, since it seemed silly to me to spend full-price retail on clothes that would be outgrown quickly.

    This seems like maybe a way to approach a birthday party too! On the invitation, along the lines someone suggested above, we could write, “Your presence is gift enough, but if you really would like to bring something, a hand-me-down or garage sale/thrift item is wonderful.” Sometimes when I give gifts, it feels like the item must be new. If I received this statement on an invitation, I wouldn’t be embarrassed passing along something nice as a hand-me-down or that I found at a thrift store!

  47. E

    Thanks for all the ideas – great post!

  48. Becky

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! for this wonderful post and great ideas! This is EXACTLY what we are dealing with right now. From the desire to live more simply, to some family having more expendable income than others, to long distance “love.” We are expecting our first child this summer and don’t want “cheap, plastic-y” toys to fill up our house. And yet… so many family members equate “stuff” with “love.” I think we will use a combination of the many ideas posted here: throw out the candy, remove the toy when the child seems to tire of it then donate it if they don’t miss it, request going in as families on bigger gifts, request incorporating a small representative gift with a bigger activity (ie zoo trip with a zoo book), and all the while practicing thankfulness for whatever we receive.

    Some ideas we have: 1) I have been gently mentioning that we don’t want lots of toys to fill up our house. 2) Instead of registering, I have a list of “Free-for-all” gifts that include: receiving blankets, socks, onsies, bibs, towels, and BOOKS! For older children, I think we could change it to crayons, coloring / activity books, science kits, books. Then still older: iTunes and bookstore gift cards. 3) My sister started this with her kids: after (or before?) birthday / Christmas her kids go through their things and decide what to donate. It is an equal amount in and out. 4) With your kids: take apart that obnoxious toy and see what makes it tick! Try to put it back together or make something else. (Okay, my husband is a nerd, but I love the idea of using a “generic” toy in a novel way!)

    Thank you again for all your wonderful suggestions!

  49. Alison

    Great post! Our kids are 7, 5 and a newborn and we have had this discussion many times over the years. Some of the things we have tried (some successful, some not so much) are the following:
    – instituting with our kids that gift giving occasions bring 3 gifts for the kids from us (like Jesus received); they may get others from other family members
    – encouraging family members to stay within a dollar limit
    – we get a lot of hand-me-downs for our daughter but suggest that picking out an outfit together is fun (she loves the 1:1 time too)
    – we did a book exchange for our 7 yr old sons birthday last year (everyone brought a book and left with a book) – it went over okay but he didn`t want to repeat it this year (he still got gifts from family)
    – this year we did a twonie party (I think it was mentioned above) – he got a twonie for a charity and a twonie for himself from each person. We matched both amounts and he went and picked out a gift he really wanted. This surprisingly went over really well. We have the added issue that his birthday is in December so it is followed up by more gifts for Christmas – so we really wantto watch how many gifts come in
    – We do give lists with suggestions
    – We`d love experience gifts but dont seem to receive them
    – Weve been encouraging World Vision gifts to be exchanged between cousins and stress teh importance of actually getting together

    One other thing we do is give $5 gift cards to Toys R Us or Walmart with a Thank you for coming to my party card in lieu of loot bags – I really donèt enjoy getting all of the extra candy and little toys.

    Thanks for all of the other ideas!

    One of our goals to work on this year is to decrease the amount of candy coming into the house. It doesnt help that we as adults have sweet teeth too.

  50. Barbara Ling, Virtual Coach

    I’m pretty lucky there – my kids are very basic kids indeed, so jaunts to the dollar store or 5 Below generally suffices to fill their imagination!

  51. Alicia Bayer

    Is it terrible to say I wish I had this problem? 🙂 My parents are both dead and my husband’s family has a strict per child policy for how much they will spend on gifts. With four kids and a small budget, we have to be very frugal in what we get the kids. I’m not a fan of too much stuff, but I wish my kids could experience that sort of “problem” just once growing up. 🙂

  52. Tara

    Great reminder on showing gratitude for gifts even if you don’t approve. I will think of this on Christmas day.

  53. Laundry Lady

    I’m so glad you decided to repost this link. I deal with this problem a lot, mostly because our budget is very tight and I wish family members would focus on giving our daughter things she needs (aka clothes and books) rather than toys and stuffed animals. My husband’s family is also lower income and I wish they would save their money so they could come and visit us more often. Their presence means far more than presents. Last year we drove 4 hours to visit my MIL for the weekend and then she was so busy that she barely had anytime to spend with us. She spent an hour at Target picking out a toy for my one year old, when it would have meant more just to spend an hour with us instead. Then it ended up being My Pal Violet, the talking dog from Leap Frog. I actually kept the toy hidden for a month and we finally decided to let my daughter have it. She actually loves it and dances around the house with it. But we try to let his family know that we want to limit her electronic toys.

  54. Aprille

    I am going to be the odd man out here, but boo-hoo! what a nice problem to have! i generally LOVE your blog, but this post irritated me. i understand this premise of this post, but really there are much bigger “problems” at gift giving times than this. And I wonder how many out there would love to have a relative that had the interest, inclination, or means to give a gift… no matter what that gift may be…

    • Megan

      Hi Aprille! The impetus for this article comes from dozens of comments and emails on other Simple Mom columns that broached the topic of gifts. Clearly not everyone struggles in this area, but for many families seeking to live simply, gift-giving time is a genuine area of concern.

      As a Big Picture thinker, I definitely see where you are coming from in your perspective! One person’s idea of a “problem” is another person’s “if-only.”

      The team here at Simple Mom seeks to offer encouragement and guidance on a wide variety of topics, but it’s certainly never meant to be “one size fits all.” That’s the great thing about community – lots of opportunity to hear the perspective of others!

  55. Kristina

    This is a very helpful post. Sometimes it’s difficult to express gratitude when we are disappointed and we definitely have to set boundaries on the gifts our children received. This is very wonderful.

  56. Gwen~healthymamma

    Wonderful post, very thoughtful,great advice! Bookmarked this as a great reminder and to share w others! Candy and sweets are the biggest issue w me, especially w little Jack starting Kindergarten this year. Today his friends were ‘kind’ enough to share cookies, cupcakes, candy filled bags and more! My chest is tightening. How how how do I get the message across to parents and teachers that all the sweets are NOT o.k.? I’ve told his teacher that we don’t eat sugary foods bcuz Jack is VERY hyper and we don’t like them but 1. She’s busy and 2. I don’t want to single Jack out as the only one who doesn’t get a treat.
    Any Advice?!!!!!!!

    • Megan

      My oldest daughter is in kindergarten and we had the same thing happen yesterday. Treats and sweets GALORE! I honestly don’t have the solution for this issue, but I would love to hear what others have done!

  57. Kathryn

    One thing that’s really helped me in this area is realizing that the issue of Stuff is like a lot of other parenting issues: my child listens to me first, others second. So, even if I fail in my attempts to keep excessive gifts (or character toys, or whatever) from entering my home, I don’t have to stress out. As long as DH and I are being consistent and open about our values, our child is very likely to adopt them and not want that Stuff around any more than we do.

  58. Alison C

    This exact topic has been at the forefront of my mind since I got pregnant 8 months ago. While I wont have to deal with it this Christmas, I am glad to have some ideas to start training my family early on. My husband and I try to live simply, and if something doesn’t serve multiple purposes, it generally doesn’t have a place in our house (especially when it comes to the kitchen). Most of my family I know will be obliging, but my step-mother is once of those who has a bag of goodies for the grandchildren at each Holiday, and always has a new outfit for them each time they come over. I don’t mind gifts so much, but what I don’t want is for my kids to grow up thinking they are entitled to these gifts each time they see Grandma, or that they should receive the same amount of presents each year, etc. I want to help get across the idea that gifts that help kids learn, or books, or college funds are what really matter to us.

    My husband and I are changing our own gift giving habits next year because we just can’t stand buying Gift Certificates and meaningless gifts for our friends and family anymore. Our friends and family have everything they need, so we’re going to spend that money on Charity next year (we’re going to sponsor a family) and hand out cookies and other home made items to the people we would have otherwise spent the money on.

  59. jessica

    I find it helpful to let family know that our kids would value experiences instead of things…ie. helping pay for lessons, classes, passes to museums, swimming, a trip to the zoo/etc. with grandparents. I find the grandparents especially receptive since they are very into education and multicultural opportunities! Yes, we still get the plastic junk but not so much!

  60. Debbie Gerber

    Thanks for this great information. Sharing things that help in relationships helps everyone.

  61. Kayla

    This came at a perfect time. We just got back from visiting my parents for an early Christmas with them out of state, and we came back with more stuff for my two year old daughter than I literally know what to do with. It’s very overwhelming for me, as we want to live simply and teach our kids to do the same, as well as teaching that Christmas is primarily about Jesus and not presents. I have had some anxiety because I know the conversation will be touchy about gift giving in the future. Thanks so much for the tips.

  62. tee shirt homme

    Most of my family I know will be obliging, but my step-mother is once of those who has a bag of goodies for the grandchildren at each Holiday, and always has a new outfit for them each time they come over.

  63. Cari Machado

    I have had some anxiety because I know the conversation will be touchy about gift giving in the future. Thanks so much for the tips.

  64. Zipporah Bird

    It’s amazing that this conversation is still going nearly two years later. It’s such an common and emotionally-charged situation. We are moving my MIL in with us in a few months, and she is notorious for giving cheap garbage to us and my kids. In this situation, I think family counseling will be necessary for us. My husband and I both intercept as many packages from her as we can, and 80% goes into the garbage or donate bin. Once she lives with us, though, her blatant lack of respect for our boundaries will have to stop. I wish she could find another way to demonstrate love other than giving stuff.

  65. anbee

    When my 3 or 4 year old daughter received the latest Gameboy and very , in our opinion as parents, ugly clothes with a then famous character print…I dressed her in the clothes took a picture, send it as a thankyou to the generous giver and allowed a sentence like “she’s somewhat young to play with the electronic device. The clothes were donated to a local charity or maybe even sold at my daughters school on a second-hand market organized to raise funds for interesting pedagogical projects for her class. She never asked for the clothes (didn’t like the feel of their polyesterfabric anyway) nor the gamedevice. We have all had a go at it and now it has been lying in a forgotten corner of the house for 16 years…It’s vintage now, my daughter turnes 20 soon and has survived without it!

  66. Jennifer

    My family is really on board with the “fewer things, more experiences” bandwagon. In fact, my parents almost refuse to buy toys for their grandkids because of how much the kids already have. This year my parents bought family passes to a children’s museum as their Christmas present to us all and everyone is happy about it. The kids will have a couple of presents to open (one thing to wear/read/play with) on Christmas, but they will enjoy visits to the museum all year long! My husband’s family, however, isn’t so easy to convince. We leave their house after our holiday visit loaded down with “cheap, plastic-y things.” They live out of town and don’t see us often, though, so it’s easy for us to do the disappearing act with toys that don’t meet with our approval.

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