Dear Mrs. Riches:
My mother-in-law loves giving gifts to our two daughters, as well as spending a lot of time with them. While we are all very lucky that she is a caring and involved grandparent, my issue is that she often gives the kids gifts that I would never buy for them, whether it's because the gifts are too lavish, inappropriate for their age, or inconsistent with our values. For example, I prefer that our children play with classic toys like blocks or Tinkertoys; she likes buying Bratz dolls and makeup kits. I like the girls to wear clothing that's free from splashy logos; she buys outfits that make them look like walking ads for Disney.
Before you tell me to simply talk to her, I should say that I've tried that. I've tried tactfully explaining our preferences, as well as offering her ideas for gifts when she asks about holidays or their birthdays. She also visits our house frequently, so she's able to see what kind of values we try to pass on to the girls in our home. None of it seems to sink in; she just does what she wants. I don't want to be rude to her, but I'm reaching my boiling point. Please send ideas!
An Ungrateful Mom
Dear Ungrateful Mom:
You can imagine my surprise when I found out that the definition for the word "gift" doesn't include anything about the pleasure of the recipient (or her parents). A gift is simply something bestowed without expectation for compensation. But to me, that definition misses the spirit of gift-giving; a present should intend to give pleasure, not cause pain. It's hard to feel grateful for a "gift" that makes you so very uncomfortable.
I suspect that your mother-in-law wants to give your daughters the pleasure of a certain kind of gifts, perhaps what she wished for as a child, or what she thinks your daughters are "missing out" on. The gift does come with some expectations for compensation, though not the monetary kind. She may instead be looking for gratitude from them, a recognition that grandma is special (special enough to flout Mom and Dad's rules), and maybe even a speck of triumph that she can "trump" your classic gifts and clothing by bringing out the Disney princesses. Unknowingly or not, she picked a brilliant means of manipulation, since it's very hard to remove said items from the clutches of a child who's just opened them.
Get a roomful of parents together, and you'll find just as many differing opinions about childrearing and its ins and outs, gifts included. Some folks love Disney; others can't stand anything that remotely looks like the bevy of animated beauties. So rather than arguing with your mother-in-law about Disney or the like, focus on the real problem -- that the girls have to be aware that there's tension, that they know Grandma is disregarding Mom's rules, they may feel confused or guilty that they are so attracted to the items that Mom dislikes so much, and that Mom and Dad's authority is being undermined.
But that brings up an important question: Where is dad in all of this? Is he trying to stay out of this war of the gifts between you and your mother-in-law? This is the first issue you need to tackle. "Staying out" of an argument is another way of taking sides; his silence (if indeed, this is what is happening) allows his mother to continue showering your daughters with the kind of gifts you so loathe. Talk to him, explaining how this disagreement with his mother makes you feel, and then enlist his help.
Once you and he are on the same page, I would suggest that he be the person to take on his mother. He should explain the rules in your home and ask that she respect them. All of this should be done without anger or accusation; assume she is a well-meaning grandmother who simply wants her granddaughters to be blissfully happy.
Want to help her find a gift that will make you proud? Suggest donating in the girls' names to one of this year's child-friendly Foolanthropy charities, like Half the Sky or Room to Read. Teaching your children compassion is a lifelong gift.
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Fool contributor Elizabeth Brokamp is a licensed professional counselor (a.k.a. "Mrs. Riches"). She has a special interest in Half the Sky , the charity that helped her daughter Zoe in China, and in Robert Brokamp, her husband and editor of The Motley Fool's Rule Your Retirement newsletter.