While Hallmark movies often depict the holidays as a kind of gingerbread-scented domestic bliss, the truth is that family dynamics can quickly turn them into a battleground. This is especially true when it comes to overindulgent grandparents.
Maybe you’re trying to encourage a love of books, but they keep leaving video games under the tree. Or perhaps you’ve set a limit on the number of gifts you want your child to receive, and they blow past it before the stockings have even been hung. Your resentment builds and can easily boil over, leading to strained relationships and uncomfortable situations for your children.
I know because I’ve been there.
My husband and I strive to be conscious consumers. There are a variety of reasons for this, ranging from environmental concerns to the fact that we started our relationship sharing a 700 square foot apartment with limited storage space. Now as parents, even with a little more space, we do it to preserve our sanity.
We all know how quickly kids’ stuff can take over. I swear our sippy cups breed on the countertop overnight. Not having toys spill out of every drawer and cupboard lends a sense of calm and order to our house and also makes it possible to feel like our pre-kid selves for a few minutes every night after our toddler goes to bed — not so easy when you’re sharing the couch with a mountain of stuffed animals.
I’m grateful that we’re aligned in our goal of maintaining a light footprint in the world and that we work together to pass this value along to our son. The problem, however, is his grandparents.
We’ve done our best to express our preference for fewer gifts, stressing that the time they spend with him (with which they are extremely generous) is the best present we could hope for. Despite our attempts, on holidays, they continue to arrive with towering stacks of brightly wrapped boxes.
While we prefer Montessori-inspired toys that encourage creative play, their selections usually come with battery packs and power switches, like the time they gave him remote-controlled police helicopter complete with siren, seizure-inducing lights, and a recorded voice yelling “Come out with your hands up!”
“Are you kidding?” I whispered to my husband, not very quietly. “They couldn’t have gotten him a puzzle?”
As the parameters we set for gifts went unheeded, I moved on to other tactics that included passive-aggressive games of hide-and-seek with the offending toys (I hid them, my son cried, the grandparents found them), and silently stewing in the juices of my own resentment.
Our holidays were anything but merry, and something had to change.
Tossing and turning one night after yet another strained celebration, it occurred to me that maybe I was the problem. That through my efforts to police our family festivities, I was ruining them for everyone.
Rather than viewing grandparents’ gift-giving as an expression of love for my son, I saw it as a personal slight against me and my parenting style and an intentional trashing of the boundaries I’d set.
Now, boundaries are important, especially where family is involved. They are the bedrock of healthy relationships, and if there is someone in your life who constantly disregards your wishes when it comes to your children, that’s a bigger conversation.
In my case, though, I was confusing boundaries with control. I had a million rules when it came to my son; the types of gifts people could give him was only one. And while I told myself these rules were for his benefit, really, my primary goal was to control his every interaction with the world.
As it turns out, this is not only exhausting, it’s impossible. He’s already out in the world without me when he’s with his teachers and babysitters. This will only increase as he gets older and develops his own friends and interests. Trying to control everything that happens to him is a short-term game and also teaches him the wrong lesson.
Preparing him to respond to all the situations he will inevitably encounter is the long game. As parents, we do this by instilling values in our children that serve as a compass to help them navigate the world on their own. We give them the tools, and at some point, we must let go and trust they will use them.
In my son’s case, he’s not experiencing the holidays in a vacuum. The rest of the year, he sees my husband and I use things until they’re worn out instead of always upgrading to the latest and greatest. He knows that many of his clothes (and ours) come from second-hand stores because it’s kinder for the planet and our wallet than always shopping new. We talk to him about the difference between wants and needs and do our best not to give in to instant gratification every time we’re at the store.
This year, then, Christmas will be different. I’ll watch him open gifts from his grandparents, and I’ll hold my tongue. I’ll put my faith in the foundation we’ve laid for him, knowing it will serve him far better than warring with those who love him, and trusting that no amount of gifts from them can truly spoil him.