Grandparent Gift Giving Etiquette? How to Stop Excessive Indulgence

When grandparents give too much. A pile of white presents wrapped with red bow.

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A reader wonders how to deal with a grandparent who is overly generous. Are there rules for gift-giving etiquette?

How to Deal with An Overly Generous Grandmother

One of our Free Email Newsletter Subscribers poses this question:

How have you had to struggle over members of your extended family giving too many or inappropriate gifts to your children?

A good friend of mine has a struggle with her mother-in-law giving expensive presents to her son.

My friend and her husband are on a budget and they want to teach their son that Christmas isn’t about presents but about traditions, family, and charity. But this is difficult with a grandmother who wants to indulge their son.

We sense this problem too. We live in a world where children grow up thinking that stuff equals love; and the more stuff, the more you’re loved. We’re all trying to break that cycle with our kids. What do you think? 

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Helping Grandparents to be Reasonable in their Generosity

We haven’t seen any written rules for gift-giving etiquette when it comes to grandparents and grandkids. But we do know that Indulging kids can create stress for parents and a vicious cycle of discontentment for children.

Thinking differently about gifts could help. Here are several ideas that have worked for our family.

1. Have a Respectful and Honest Conversation

Of course, this isn’t always going to be easy because attitudes about gift-giving often can be traced back to childhood.

If you can affirm your parents or in-laws for their desire to be generous, but also share your concerns it should go well. Discuss your feelings about limited space, about wanting your child to be grateful for what is received.

Having this discussion hopefully will set the groundwork for a successful future.

The next step is to discuss alternatives to expensive or abundant gifts.

2. Gift Memberships

Encourage your friend to ask her mother-in-law to buy disappearing gifts like a zoo or science museum membership for a year.

If they explain that they currently can’t go often because admission fees are costly this might help grandma to see this as a good thing. A gift of this type would provide their son with great learning experiences and create some awesome family memories (grandma could come too!).

3. Gifts of Lessons or Sports Fees

Another option would be to ask the mother-in-law to write a personalized gift certificate that offers to pay for music or dance lessons or that cover sports fees for the grandson.

4. Simple or Disappearing Gifts

Another idea would be to tell the grandparents that the child has plenty of toys already. Then suggest that they could buy him something small like a Christmas ornament, or a disappearing gift such as a couple of his favorite snack foods.

And with the difference in cost, they could buy a savings bond that would be and put toward his college education. Steve’s parents gave our kids savings bonds when they were young and the bonds were cashed in when they reached college age.

The gift became more valuable over time and our kids remembered their grandparents, even after they had passed on.

Another option would be to make deposits into an investment like a 529 plan for educational expenses.

5. Other suggestions from parents we know include:

  • Purchase things the child loves, but keep them at grandma’s house.
  • Contributions to private school tuition or a college fund.
  • Limit purchases to only one toy or clothing item each month, instead of every time she sees her grandson. (Consider every other month if you still think it would be too much.)
  • Save craft supplies. Saving things like boxes, ribbon spools, toilet paper rolls, pipe cleaners, and popsicle sticks. They can all be used for craft projects done with your child.
  • Set aside money for outdoor play equipment that would be installed in your backyard.
  • Take your child to the library once a week for storytime and book check-outs.
  • Buy a subscription to the Science Center in your community.

Working through issues with extended family early on can set the stage for enjoyable holidays for many years to come.

Can a Grandparent Entitle their Grandchildren?

Can Grandma or Grandpa spoil their grandchildren too much? You bet they can. It is always best for grandparents to check with their children before showering the grandchildren with too many or too extravagant gifts.

Ask the grandchildren to provide you with reasonable wish lists. Of course, there are so many factors that play into this.

Get  a free wishlist in .pdf and .doc format here by sharing your email address

Grandparents Giving Gifts with Strings Attached

There are grandparents that use every occasion to give gifts with strings attached.

Some grandparents are not emotionally healthy, and they create an unhealthy dependence on them emotionally and financially.

Be very careful about this.

You can choose to receive their presents, but handing them a wish list will give you a better chance of receiving something that you can really use.

Read more information about breaking the dysfunctional patterns in your family to get to a healthy emotional place.

Many of us grow up in dysfunctional homes not even realizing we were dysfunctional because when you grow up with something, it seems normal. Just because something is familiar, doesn’t mean it is healthy.

See our Healthy Living Books page for some good reading suggestions.
Also, see our Family & Marriage Book Page and check out our review of the book, “How We Love.”

Other scenarios grandparents may encounter.

Scenario one: Wealthy Parents:  The kids are well off and can buy whatever they want for their kids. In this case, see all the suggestions above and work to buy experiences that you can share together to make memories.

Or buy grandchildren something that the parents wouldn’t think of like awesome books, movie biographies, or a very meaningful collection you can add to each year.

Scenario two Struggling Parents:  The kids are struggling financially, but are trying to make the best decisions they can with their money. Therefore, Christmas in this home means that the parents can provide for the kids’ needs, but very few of their wants.

In this case, as a grandparent, ask for a wish list for each of the grandchildren and try to buy a few special things that are within your budget. You can also buy some practical things that they might need but not have the money for.

Scenario three Bad Money Decisions: Your kids are struggling financially, but are making bad money decisions, and/ or their financial priorities are really screwed up.

In this case, buy things they would really need, but also some of their “wants” as well. Just choose carefully. We knew one family where the kids were financially struggling so badly, that many presents given were hocked for money to buy gaming equipment.

Gift cards were also sold at a loss as well.

Give very practical things like a box of food, a bag of cleaning supplies, a bag of personal care toiletries, and clothing that they will love. Maybe even some favorite childhood food items, or homemade baked goods.

When Grandparents give too much. A pile of white presents wrapped with red bow.

How Should Kids Respond to Their Parents Who Want to Control with Gifts?

We can’t emphasize how important it is for you to give your parents (kids’ grandparents) a wish list for your family.

Get  a free wishlist in .pdf and .doc format here by sharing your email address

You can put museum memberships on there, as well as zoo memberships, aquarium memberships, or a wildlife center.

Also as we said above, if your parents are well off, ask for deposits to 529 plans or money for lessons for the kids. Things like music lessons, skating lessons, athletic lessons of some sort. You can even ask for Tutoring sessions if one of your kids is struggling in a certain area.

As we also said before, special experiences make tremendous gifts.

Gift Conclusions

As you can see there are many creative options to help grandparents respect their children’s wishes while still being generous to the grandchildren. It’s not about proper manners, but it is about honoring each other.

Allowing grandparents to express their love and generosity to bless grandchildren, while honoring the child’s parents.

We hope these suggestions lead to a happy, family-centered holiday season.

What to do When Grandparents give too much. A pile of white presents wrapped with red bow.

2 thoughts on “Grandparent Gift Giving Etiquette? How to Stop Excessive Indulgence

  1. Linda L.

    Another flashpoint happens in families where one set of grandparents is better off financially than the other one. It’s very easy for children to equate gifts with ‘love’. It can be very hard for the parent from the family with less resources to explain that just because you can afford to spend a lot on the grandchildren, it doesn’t mean that you should.
    One good way to deal with this is to set up a pooled fund for your child’s education where anybody can put in whatever they want but the resulting benefit for the child down the road comes from everyone, not just the richer grandparents. I remember being at a university graduation and watching a family afterwards gathering for family photos. One of the grandparents kept repeating how she and her husband had paid for the grad’s education and how she (the grad) had done them proud. This was in front of the other set of grandparents and other family members and the poor girl was obviously uncomfortable. It was all I could do not to go over and tell her that love and other things trump a dollar bill any day.
    It’s key to start out the way you intend to go on meaning that, as the parents, you need to set clear limits right from your child’s birth. It’s hard to change a pattern that’s been established.

    1. Steve Economides Post author

      Linda – thanks for sharing your insight on grandparents and gift giving. You’re so right about issues that arise from a disparity of income between grandparents.

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