What To Do When Gifts Cause a Rift In Your Family

The following guest post is from Tracy O’Connor. Tracy writes for Money Ning, a personal finance blog . Visit to find all the latest information about online savings accounts.

A recent post on Frugal Dad, Do Your Kids Have Too Many Toys? reminded me of a frequent topic on the parenting forums I used to administrate: how to deal with your extended family and the gifts (or lack of) that they showered on your kids.

Many of us who limit the amount of toys our children own aren’t solely motivated by the desire to save money. Toys are expensive but the real goal is to raise children who aren’t focused on material things, who take care and pride in what they do have and who value quality over quantity. It can be frustrating when well meaning relatives ignore our desires  and give our children mountains of flashy toys that don’t fit into the lessons we are trying to teach.

Even trickier is when one child or children in the family are favored above the rest and you are left trying to deal with questions about why Suzy got more or why Timmy gets less.  What’s more, whatever the issue is surrounding gifts in your family, chances are good that it’s complicated by feelings from the past and current power struggles.

If you’re experiencing conflict over extended families and gifts, here are a few points to keep in mind to help resolve the problems in the best possible way for all involved.

Sometimes it’s best to just let it go

If the problem is just that your family members are giving your child too many gifts or aren’t buying the kinds of gifts you prefer (for example loud, plastic toys over simple, wooden ones) it might just be better to let the matter drop and choose to feel grateful that your child has so many  people that love them. This is not to say that it’s not annoying that your wishes are being annoyed, just that it’s not worth the time to feel angry over something that is not that big of a deal in the long run.

You can always put away some or most of the toys and bring them out for rainy days so that they are not cluttering your house. Don’t worry about your child become spoiled because they get too many birthday or Christmas presents, as long as you are giving them a good example every day of a frugal, sustainable lifestyle they’ll get the message.

Be Proactive in Offering Gift Suggestions

Nobody wants to been seen as greedy or a gift-grubber, but sometimes it’s best to be direct about asking for what you want on behalf of your kids. You can’t control what other people do, but if you give helpful suggestions with solid reasons why you think it’s a good idea, there is a chance that they might do what you want.

Don’t be offended if they balk at the idea or insist their idea is better. After all, you think your ideas are better, too! Sometimes people need to feel like their point of view has been acknowledged and respected before they concede so don’t turn it into a power struggle. Instead respond with grace and tact and you might find that they change their mind and do as you suggest after all.

Try Not to Focus on the Past

Often dealing with these kinds of gifting issues can be surprisingly painful. Seeing your own child showered with gifts by grandparents that never visit can remind you of how you wished your own parents would spend more time with you. Or, if you were the odd child out, seeing your sibling’s children get more gifts and attention than your own can bring up feelings of rage and resentment that you thought had been buried years ago.

Your feelings are valid, but it’s important to remember that you are an adult now and your children don’t deserve to be saddled with your baggage. Do go to your spouse and friends for a supportive ear but be careful of what you say in your children’s earshot. Keep all discussions focused on the here and now rather than using it as an opportunity to bring up hurts from the past.

When to Speak Up

While sometimes it’s better to just say nothing and chalk things up to family weirdness, sometimes speaking up is necessary.

  • When relatives are constantly giving your child things that are not age appropriate or go completely opposite your values or give items that present serious safety issues. Scale your response to the seriousness of the offense – giving an infant preschool toys might only require a gentle reminder to check the ages on the package while constantly giving your children who are being raised Jewish Christian themed items is a good call for a firm discussion on boundaries.
  • If the discrepancy between gifts that the grandchildren receive is large and noticeable to all concerned, it’s important to take action so that relationships between family members are not permanently damaged. It might become necessary to avoid family gatherings to protect your children’s feelings. Ideally, these discussions should take place between the blood relations to avoid adding tension to relationships between in-laws.
  • If family members are involved in the everyday care of your child and you feel that bad habits are being established. There is a large difference between getting spoiled rotten a few weekends out of the year and every day over-indulgence. Remember to show your appreciation for all the love your family member has for your children and be ready with suggestions of things that they can do to bond with your children that won’t cause issues with materialism or entitlement down the line.

Other Suggestions:

  • Ask family members to buy things that provide value all year long, such as a zoo or museum membership rather than buying more toys. Point out all of the educational and social opportunities that this will give your child to make it extra attractive and promise lots of pictures.
  • Suggest that family members draw names or buy family gifts for major holidays rather than buying for each person.  Family members might see this as a welcome relief from the stress and expense of buying for so many people.
  • Let grandparents and Aunts and Uncles know that your child would treasure some one on one time with them more than a gift on their birthday. A lunch date and the movies would be a treat for both.
  • It’s fine to ask for a gift receipt if your child is truly not able to use the toy because it’s age inappropriate or unsafe.
  • Make sure that you give your child great lessons about money, consumer culture and the value of spending time together as a family on a daily basis. No matter what, you are your child’s best and most influential teacher.

Your turn

Have gifts to children caused any conflict in your family? How have you dealt with it? Did it work as planned?

This article was included in the Carnival of Money Stories


  1. Wow, this is one of the best posts I’ve read in a long time.

    I had cousins who exchanged gifts but we didn’t and it didn’t seem fair. I am thankful that one of my cousins realized this and started buying me stuff at Xmas (she was 11 years older and very thoughtful).

    My kids are in the camp that they have too many toys now, but instead of complaining, some toys go right into the attic and they get rotated in and out of the main play area. My kids love going to the attic because it’s like Xmas all over again. Plus, I tend to buy them toys too. My husband laughs because he realizes I am re-living my childhood through them.

    It’s hard to not do too much and spoil them. But then again, they have more fun with a cardboard box than with a $100 robot..so it’s not the money but the experience of playing. Thanks for the post.

  2. A great article – I have one comment. I have no baggage in this regard really, I’m an only child LOL.
    However something that shocked me with my in laws was that they feel that age somehow means value.
    If they’re handing out money, the 8yo would get twice as much as the 4yo. Gifts were handled similarly. Even when they were small they understood that big sister was somehow getting more.

    I spoke with my husband about it and he put a stop to it – but I thought I would bring it up because their reasoning was truly not something I would ever have figured out myself – had we not discussed it I would have assumed they were being stupid at best and playing true [and cruel] favorites at worst – it became apparent to me that it was, at least, not meant unkindly – just not a message that we want to approve them sending to our children.

    • This is an interesting and timely comment. Our niece and nephew have a significant age difference (he’s a teenager and she’s just turned 4). He has asked for money in lieu of gifts as he is saving for a car. We respect and appreciate that he is thinking ahead to his first car so send money as he has requested. We definitely send more money for his car fund than we spend on our niece.

      I can understand your point about the children seeing the disparities but I do think there are times that it is valid. It’s certainly something I will keep in mind now that I’ve seen our post!

      • We had something similar to this in my family. The value of the gifts we received definitely depended on the age – but anyone who was 5 years old would receive something of the same value, so when my cousin was 5 (about 5 years before me), he received something with the same value I got when I turned 5. However now we’re both adults we both have the same amount (pretty much) spent on us.

        It also helps that my family is quite small, it certainly made things easier.

  3. If one child is being favored over another, then that has to be nipped in the bud immediately (in my opinion). I know adults that are still upset with not being ‘in favor’ and feeling like they were second class citizens compares to siblings/cousins/whoever.

    Regarding gift preferences, we just accept what we get. It can be really hard to shop for kids nowadays because kids have so much. If a relative does not spend a ton of time with that child, they probably don’t know what to get. I personally ask the parent what the child would want, but some people just like to shop and prefer to buy what strikes them.

    We do sometimes get things my kids already have, and it’s no big deal. I just appreciate that someone took the time to buy my child a present. However, if it was age-inappropriate, I would probably just put it away and bring it back out a few years later.

  4. I dunno C, ‘eldest child’ comes with some right and privileges to match the responsibility. (Responsibilites for being a good example , helping mom and dad out with younger siblings etc. ).

    An 8 year old’s interests are typically more advanced that an 4 year old’s and consequently more expensive. Goodnight Moon isn’t going to cut it for a kid who wants to read Wimpy Kid diaries, a Star Wars Wii game costs more than a Bob the Builder toolkit , a skateboard isn’t the same as a trike.

    If nothing else , it can and should be seen by younger kids as part of the rite of passage. Establishing Kid-Tenure comes with rewards. An older brother or sister having some seriously cool stuff was perfectly acceptable, indeed expected, in my house and while it gave rise to some envy , it didn’t lead to resentment or jealousy. Handling envy or jealously are important skills. Kids can handle these kinds of thing if you respect them enough to give them a shot at experiencing and dealing with it.

    I most certainly don’t consider it favoritism when grandma sent my 8 year old the Jedi Starcruiser ($35) he was hoping for and the 4 year old gets a set of Lego ($17). Both of ’em had a blast with their age appropriate toys and I think grandma was pretty adept at knowing what the perfect toy is for each of the kids.

    This idea that you are entitled to whatever someone else might have just by virtue of being there is a large part of a lot of problems today

  5. Great article . I find using kiddy Amazon gift lists are a great way of making sure that one-upmanship is less of an problem with relatives buying gifts.
    You can even get the little ones to make their own. You can eliminate disparity and also veto those things that make too much dang noise.

    Fine, you had your revenge Mom, never again.

  6. Great suggestions – especially recognizing the value of letting go. It is one of the hardest things to do, for sure. But it’s also one of the best ways to reduce stress if you’ve tried everything and just can’t control the gift giving. Realizing that family wants to show love through gifts is helfpul too.

    Two ideas we have is having a yard salw or donating old gifts to charity when the gifts strat to pile up. It keeps the inventory fairly low.

  7. Thanks for this article. I have an 11 month old and my parents go overboard with presents. My husband and I weren’t sure how to handle it. I am sure they would get offended if I told them to stop buying him so much. Instead of getting upset about it, I will try to be happy that my son has grandparents that love him so much.

  8. Great article. This is something we struggle with a lot (too many gifts and relatives who don’t respect our wishes). I’m going to re-read this again as we get closer to the holidays.

  9. My grandparents have many grandchildren, so they give money to the parents each year to purchase gifts for the grandchildren. This works out fantastically in theory and generally the parents choose a gift that can either be worn or played with at my grandparents house on Christmas day or whenever the holidays are celebrated. Seven of the families live an hour to three hours away from the grandparents and the other three families live within a couple miles of the grandparents.

    One Christmas the grandparents decided the three families that lived “close by” should not get the usual Christmas envelope because we presumably get “so much” the rest of the year, which is a pretty far stretch from reality. The three families who did not receive gift money had multiple children between the ages of 4 and 12.

    Is there anything worse than a child asking, “Why didn’t I get a present from Grandpa and Grandma?” when their over 20 cousins were taking turns opening their gifts at the Christmas tree? Bless the parents who quickly rushed out to the vehicles where a small wrapped item was waiting, even though they probably couldn’t afford the extra gifts, so as to not let their children know the real story.

  10. This guest post made me rethink our plan of paying an age-based allowance to our kids. Then again, older kids typically have more (or more difficult) chores to accomplish. Perhaps it does make sense to pay older kids a higher allowance, but not necessarily because of their age, but because of the responsbilities of added chores and more expenses they can cover with their own money.

    Interested to hear other thoughts on how allowance might tie into this discussion.

    • Hi FD!

      I’m speaking as the oldest of three, but it seems fair to me to give the older children more allowance to reflect their greater responsibility and needs. I think it’s good to give the younger ones something to aspire to and to give the older ones some tangible acknowledgment that you appreciate the larger amount of responsibility they are given.

      Of course, the younger ones might whine and say it’s not fair, but it’s a good opportunity for them to learn that fair doesn’t always mean equal.

      While I do think that gift giving should be more or less fair, I also think it’s a bit silly to expect that infants will be given the same things as teenagers. I think we can do damage insisting that everything be precisely equal, too.

      • Allowance was easier. The older you got, the more responsibility, the more money. God willing, everyone will get older and in turn make more money.

  11. This reminds me of an episode of King of Queens when Deecan (sp?) and Kelly were frustrated with a gift. They gave Dough and Carrie a HUGE (and hideous) painting – of Doug and Carrie – that they helped hang right in their living room. So maybe a little “taste of your own medicine” is another option.

    I still say “let go and rotate the old gifts out” though. But a painting of Grandma and Grandpa could be pretty funny, too (and an effective “gift etiquette” conversation starter)…

    • That’s hilarious! I’ve often thought that sometimes those loud toys are a payback from when we were younger and would spend all of our Christmas spending money on candy and use the 50 cents we had leftover to get our folks something like a cheap plastic ET keyring or the time my sister took a frame my parents already owned and stuck her picture in it and wrapped it (both true stories).

      But yeah, most of the time letting go and making the effort to see it in the best light possible is the best possible solution. Just like that old saying says “Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?”

  12. I’m not aware of birthday and Christmas gifts that have caused problems in my family. Although I have heard stories of hand me down drama. Personally I think it’s a little immature, some things can’t be helped.

  13. What a great article! I’m on the opposite side, being the gift-giver that is frugal/thrifty & has different values than most of my family. I have seven nieces/nephews, ages 6-23 and am on a much lower income level (by choice!) than my siblings who want to maintain a certain standard of living. It’s rare if a niece or nephew calls that I am not able to help or spend time with them. If & when I have children, I know how I raise them will be a lot different than how my siblings raise their children.

    While it hasn’t always been easy, my family finally understands my values & how I spend my time/money/resources is a choice. Regardless, kids are still kids & I like to give them something at Christmas as much as they like to receive something. A few years ago, I just wasn’t ‘feeling’ the holiday & when I turned around, it was Christmas Eve & I was due at a family gathering in an hour. Not wanting to go empty-handed, I started looking around the house for stuff to give the kids. What started as a grab bag out of desperation, became a fun adventure not only for me, but the kids as well. The bags were a huge hit!

    Each kid gets a paper lunch bag filled with various, useful items, at least one item geared specifically toward their interests (acquired on my terms throughout the year), and a $10 gift card to a store they all like. The kids go crazy and really look forward to it. Or, as my 15 year-old nephew put it, “It seems like, the most random assortment of stuff, but it’s all REALLY useful!”. I could easily eliminate the gift card, as they really go bonkers over what I put in their bags, but I like that a g.c gives them the opportunity to understand how to shop within limits.

    Over the years, my lifestyle has afforded me many opportunities to spend TIME with my nieces & nephews. I know, more than anything, that providing them with quality undivided attention and introducing them to my ‘unconventional’ way of living, will outlast any toy.


  14. I would say one thing in regard to “letting it go”. This can quickly deteriorate into a harmful situation and can result in really bad boundaries. As a parent, it is a parent’s job to raise their children they way they see fit. If relatives insist upon ignoring the parents’ wishes, then their gift-giving may be motivated by something other than just love. If relatives love you and your child, than following your guidelines should not be a problem. Instead of just letting it go or burying your head in the sand be and adult and tackle the situation head on. Speaking from my own family experience, what is NOT said is more detrimental than what is. It is better that everyone knows the truth and real feelings instead of trying to preserve the peace. You owe it to your relatives to be truthful with them. It is also important that you enforce your boundaries with your family members. Just because they are family does not give them the right to do as they please with you and your children.

  15. I thought that was a great idea, too. Some zoos, museums, etc. offer bulk discounts if you buy five gift memberships. A great idea for grandparents, aunts and uncles for grandkids and nieces/nephews, respectively.

    A subscription to an educational magazine (something like National Geographic for Kids, etc.) might also make a nice year-long gift, though I would probably run it by parents first to make sure they don’t object to the content, politicial slant, or anything else related to the publication.

  16. Our family has done white elephant gifting for the last 15 years. As soon as a child is old enough to “join in” they are dropped from the “Christmas junk” list and added to the white elephant. HUGE success.
    I always give memberships (and now preschool tuition).
    My ex SIL took to the habit of only giving to my daughter and not my son for Christmas and birthdays. I don’t know why. I spoke to my daughter when she was five and we agreed to send the present back. Neither child ever got another- which was fine with all of us. Weird.

  17. Also setting a spending limit may help, so no one is spending too much. We do this in my family during the Holidays. The secret Santa / grab bag gift is also a great way to avoid conflict and can be a fun game with the family.

  18. A few years ago, my wife and I asked our parents to stop buying our two boys toys. Instead, they have been purchasing one larger gift (swing-set, trip to Disney, etc.) instead. They still buy the kids a few very small toys, but it really helps out.

  19. Luckily, my daughter is younger than my sister’s kids, so we get alot of hand-me-down toys and clothes — saves us A LOT of money. My daughter tends to get alot of toys at the holidays from family members — way too many for her to really enjoy because she gets overwhelmed by them, plays with them for 10 minutes and then forgets about them. So, I just store them away and bring them out little by little so that she can focus on them and really enjoy and play with them.

  20. We figured out – after a few stressfull years – that letting go is definitely the best option to save our own sanity! We can always get rid of the stuff we don’t want in our house later.

    Our problem is that we can’t get the rest of the family to do the same thing! They all want to “figure out” Christmas ahead of time and decide what “we’re” going to do – draw names, one gift per fam, etc. We are more of the mindset that each family ought do what they think is best. As in, If we choose to get each person a gift, but my in-laws can only afford one gift per family, then we should each do what works for us. But they always want it to be “fair” and “equal”. Drives me bonkers that they try to get us to shoulder their guilt for them!!

  21. We tried the letting go thing & is just made the problem snow ball. The kids got stressed at the volume fo crap that accompanied every gift giving occasion & we have no where to store that much stuff.

    Some probably won’t beleive this but there is such a tiung as too many toys. It iver stimulates the kids & they don’t see it as fun.
    Last year my oldest boy received over 120 toys for Christmas – that’s too many. Only 5 of those 120 were ones he actually enjoyed. He’s starting to show signs of resenting so many gifts. He’d rather spend time with his Grandparents, Aunt, Uncles, etc.

  22. This are really good suggestion. My family members, really they give to many gifts to the kids even they don’t listen to me. With this article I found the way to deal with this. I would like to ask you on this, which kinds of toys are safe for the kids?

  23. As a child I was always told that with age came more expensive gifts, however as an adult of 43 I can say that the day of equality in gifts never came in my family and isn’t in place for my teenage son amongst his younger cousins. Unfortunately my step- siblings and nieces and nephews have always been more gift worthy that my son and I that why we rarely go visit family. Even in the last month my son graduated with honors and a full ride through college on top of having health problems since the day he was born. But these accomplishments didn’t even rate a $.50 card and stamp from my step- brother and sister. I have tried to gift as I could for their kids over the years even giving my step-brothers daughter $50.00 last for graduation which is a huge amount of money for me. She was pregnant when she graduated and my step-sisters kids where growing dope and smuggling in drugs from Mexico when they graduated but I still sent them a gift but my son didn’t even rate a card ( from people who are financially better off that I am ). My tolerance of their arrogance and superiority is officially over. We kicked them all off of our Facebook pages last week.