Almost every time Andrea Langley’s* two-year-old visits his grandmother, there’s a surprise waiting for him. “It ranges from dollar store toys to more expensive ones, like light-up trucks and books,” says Langley, whose son sees his grandmother every one to two weeks. “She makes note of anything he likes and buys everything cute on that theme.”
It’s not that Langley doesn’t appreciate the generosity. But she lives in a condo and doesn’t have a lot of space for toy storage. “Every new item becomes something that needs a place to be stored,” she says.
“I also worry that his relationship with his grandmother is being built on the fact that she’s a source of gifts, not experiences or common grounds.”
Langley and her husband have tried talking to her about the issue, and while the gifts might slow for a bit, they soon ramp up again. “She’ll say, ‘It’s just a small thing,’ or ‘I already had it here.’”
Jane Isay, author of Unconditional Love: A Guide to Navigating the Joys and Challenges of Being a Grandparent Today, says what Langley is describing is one of the most common complaints of parents when it comes to their own parents. “The universal gripe in our focus groups was ‘they don’t follow my rules.’” While sometimes that meant not following rules about bedtime or food, it often meant not respecting boundaries for purchases for their kids.
“They said, ‘I can’t stop them from getting presents and there are so many little pieces of plastic on the floor, I can’t walk barefoot.’”
For many families, including the Langleys, the onslaught of presents goes against their values on many fronts. They have a desire to raise their kids to be less materialistic and to be conscious of the environmental impact of purchases. “I also don’t want to develop this ‘disposable’ ideology in my child where toys are just junk that we buy and break and toss and don’t care for,” says Langley. Often, families just don’t have enough space to hold all the stuff—and would rather not be tasked with coming up with creative storage solutions or multiple trips to donation depots. “The big issue parents have is, ‘Why don’t you respect my wishes and my boundaries? I’m telling you how I want my children to be raised, and you’re not respecting it,’” says Isay.
The author, who is a grandparent herself, has a theory on why grandparents want to have a gift at the ready when they see their grandchildren—they’re worried the kid won’t greet them happily at the door if they don’t. “Older people don’t always get a lot of enthusiastic greetings in their life, and their grandchildren and the way they greet them matters. It makes sense that you want to ensure that greeting.”
Sarah Rosensweet, a parenting coach and educator in Toronto, says it’s also helpful to remember that giving gifts is one of the five love languages. “People show love through gifts, so it’s important to recognize they’re doing it because they love your kid so much,” she explains.
Grandparents might also use gifts as a way to make up for the fact that they don’t see their grandchildren that often, whether that’s because they live in another city or because busy schedules means visits are few and far between.
You don’t need to sit back and allow the never-ending onslaught of gizmos and gadgets, however. Here are some steps you can take:
First, sit down with the grandparent to explain your concerns. Talk about how grateful you are for their affection but that the material items are a problem for your family. “You can say, ‘We’re really trying to cut down on the stuff in the house. The children love you so much, and you don’t need to bring all these presents,’” says Isay. Assuring the grandparent that they are loved—no matter what—is key.
The greatest gift a grandparent can give a grandchild is their time, says Isay. Help the grandparent find ways to spend quality time with your child, like telling them a family story, reading a book together or going on a special outing. If the grandparent lives out of town, facilitate video chats or suggest the grandparent write the child letters, and help your kid write back. (Be sure to emphasize that a note, not a new toy, is all that needs to arrive in the mail.)
If the grandparent is banking on the “Yay, Grandma’s here!” reaction, consider taking that out of play, suggests Isay. Without being rude, take the item before they have the chance to give it to your kid, and say something like, “You can play with this when Grandma isn't here.” Direct them to something in the house, like a craft brought home from preschool, to get them interacting. Your kid's attention will be on the grandparent, rather than the new toy, which will hopefully strengthen their bond and make the grandparent feel more secure.
If the grandparent really wants to spend money on the child, suggest they contribute to dance lessons, sports equipment or post-secondary education. “Direct them to what you think would be useful for the kids,” says Isay. You can also suggest that the toys they purchase stay at the grandparent’s house, for your kid to play with when visiting.
Of course, grandparents are still going to want to give gifts for birthdays and special occasions, and there’s a chance they won’t be able to resist that shark-themed shirt when it reminds them of their grandchild on their next vacation. Use these occasions to teach your kid how to express gratitude, with thank-you notes or a phone call. “As parents, we’re instilling the values,” says Rosensweet. “We don’t need to worry that getting a lot of things is going to turn them into shallow, obsessed monsters.” In fact, many adults with overindulgent grandparents report the experience taught them about generosity. “For the sake of good relationships, you might have to make allowances for people who are doing the best they know how,” says Rosensweet.
* Name has been changed
This article was originally published online in December 2019.