Do My Parents Have a Right to Spoil My Kids?

spoil kids christmas spoil kids christmas

Early in November, I started getting the texts from my mom asking what she should get my kids for Christmas. She needed ideas, lots of them. And although every year I ask my parents to not inundate my kids with Christmas gifts, every year, without fail, they blatantly ignore me.

One nice gift, sure, why not. My kids may have mountains of possessions at home already, but if my parents need to give a wrapped gift that gets my kids jazzed, I get it. It’s fun to watch their faces light up and whatnot. It’s not like my husband and I are total grinches who don’t buy them anything, but I also want to be reasonable (and let’s be honest, I don’t have the time or inclination to figure out where to put a whole boatload of LOL Doll accessories and plastic Hot Wheels tracks my kids absolutely do not need).

But of course, giving my children one quality gift is never what my parents do. Instead, it is a mountain of highly unnecessary plastic crap, knickknacks large and small, and occasionally an oversized stuffed animal that will take up a good quarter of my kids’ room (“Big Unicorn,” as she is named, has been the bane of my existence for a good three years now). Things that will break. Things that are noisy. Things that have a bunch of tiny parts just waiting to get lost. Things like glitter putty that will ooze into my carpet to haunt me for eternity.

I’ve suggested to my parents that they give experiences like museum passes or pottery painting or a trip to the movies. Science even shows that these are the best kind of gifts to give if you want to deepen emotional connections. My husband’s mother puts together amazing “adventure boxes” every year to give each of our kids the gift of quality time; each monthly envelope contains a card with an activity like cooking a meal together or going for a hike or bike riding or an outing like bowling or going to the movie theatre. The truth is, my kids can talk for hours about the adventure box activities they’ve done, but I don’t think they could remember a single item my parents got them for Christmas last year.

My parents, also, are great about spending time with my kids, and I feel both lucky and grateful that my children have grandparents that are so involved. It’s just that even during non-Christmas time, their outings are always going to the Dollar Store and letting the kids go ham or garage sale hunting through other people’s trash. And to be honest, I hate that it makes “getting stuff” the focus of my kids’ time with them, whether it’s the holidays or not.

When we visit my parents for Christmas, my kids get worked into a frenzy, ripping open gifts and not even pausing to appreciate what they received because there’s more, more, more. Beyond making my attempts at a minimalist (or hell, mildly organized) household an uphill battle, I hate that this practice makes this mindless, crazed unwrapping the center of my kids’ Christmas experience. They get to a point where they don’t even seem like they’re enjoying themselves because they are so overwhelmed and overstimulated.

It is hard to watch all this when I know there is a better way, but also, some part of me realizes that my attitude is part of the problem, too. Sure, it’s difficult to dissuade my kids from becoming gift-crazy when they see that shiny pile of presents on Christmas morning, but I’m not making anything better by groaning about all the gifts they get. All I’m doing is making them feel bad for enjoying this exchange of love with their grandparents. If I want to shift the focus away from the gifts, complaining about the influx of stuff isn’t the answer. Focusing on the negative aspects of the gifts they receive is still keeping the focus on stuff.

To be honest, I don’t know if my parents’ gifting style will ever change. I have tried and failed to create boundaries around their gift-giving, and have ultimately come to accept that this is just the way it is. This is their love language, their way of showing affection for our children. It’s not just a strategy to spite me, though it sometimes feels otherwise.

Of course it’s still hard to make peace with all the stuff, even if spring cleaning is right around the corner. It’s difficult to find places for all the new things, and like pulling teeth to get my kids to part with anything (even though Big Unicorn has stuffing constantly falling out of her neck). But the truth is, if I want to find more joy in the holiday season, I need to let go of my need to control the way my parents celebrate Christmas. After all, my kids will forget the gifts they got, but they’ll remember my grinchy attitude if I don’t find a way to fix it.

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Gemma Hartley is a freelance journalist and author of Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women and the Way Forward. She lives in Reno, Nevada with her husband and three young children.