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Betsy Brown Braun Headshot

Over-Gifting? Welcome To the Age of Competitive Grandparenting

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At one of my parenting groups recently, I asked people to share a memory of their grandparents from when they were growing up. Among the responses were: baking cookies, working in the garage, sleeping at Grandma's house, and going to London. How telling that not one, not one person shared a memory of receiving a particular gift from a grandparent.

Right on the heels of Thanksgiving, the holiday of gratitude and sharing, come Christmas and Hannukah, the holidays of gimme gimme. Parents know how much excess is wrapped up in these holidays and are giving serious thought to reigning in their kids' insatiable hunger for stuff. Everyone in my parenting groups wants to talk about greed vs. need, spoiled children, and those two little words: I want. And, even though they get it and want to get the gift-giving under control, they inevitably ask: But how do I get my parents (my in-laws) to stop flooding my kids with gifts?"

When it comes to grandparents, the holidays are a whole different story.

One set of grandparents lives two miles away; the other lives across the country. One set visits the grandchildren twice a week; the other, twice a year. One works full time; the other is able to babysit two days a week. "I want the kids to know who we are," is the rationale for piling on the presents. Then there is the refrain, "It's a grandparent's prerogative to spoil his grandchildren. And with that, the Toys R Us truck arrives. Welcome to competitive grandparenting.

Your parents are not trying to undermine your goals. Just like you do, your in-laws want your children to become appreciative, and have "the right" values. But their desire to be adored, even favored, can trump their common sense and your goals. They've waited a long time to become grandparents, and they want to connect with your children. The challenge is to make them understand how time and experiences create meaningful memorable grandparent-grandkid relationships, not over-gifting.

Here's how to help them:

At an unloaded moment, talk with the grandparents about your plan for the holidays. Explain to them your sincere desire to raise unspoiled children and how you hope to do so.

Punctuate your discussion with an honest request that they not undermine your parenting, explaining how their abundant gift giving does so.

Let your parents know how much your children would love to spend time with them, and suggest that each child receive from them the promise of specific, targeted time, just Granny and him. (A coupon for this can be wrapped as a gift!) The holidays, and not just the winter ones, provide plenty of opportunities for creating Granny and Me rituals, ones that just the two of them will do together, year after year. (Cooking, crafting, shopping for his parents...) Weekly rituals with just one child are even better -- Saturday trips to the bagel store, the library, the museum.

Try a weekly private Skype session. Though maybe not as yummy as in-person time, suggest that Granny make it special by adding a joke or riddle on each call. Have her read a favorite book, or share stories from when Mommy was young... especially tales of naughtiness.

Explain how time and experiences make the most memorable gifts, and give real concrete examples: See Lion King; go fishing; visit the closest historical site; do a 3-D puzzle together; learn to play the ukelele together. Help your parents to know that every time your child talks about that experience, she will feel closer to them. Because experiences are gifts.

The grandparents may not believe you. But, kids forget the toys they got for Christmas quickly. They end up in the playroom closet, crammed in with old skis and extra towels. The time when Granny took him deep sea fishing or Grandpa showed her his favorite painting at the museum... Those experiences add to a child's essence. It may not be wrapped with a bow, but could there be a more valuable gift?