Ask Scary Mommy: Grandma Gives Terrible Gifts

by Christine Organ
Originally Published: 

Do you have a family member who gives terrible gifts? Are you sick of tiptoeing around the subject so that you don’t hurt their feelings, but might actually get a gift you want? We’ve got some solutions.

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Dear Scary Mommy,

This is definitely a first-world problem, but we kind of hate the presents that my mom gives us every year. She does put a lot of thought into the gifts and she’s always loved giving gifts, but she never seems to give us things we need/want/will actually use. She does ask what the kids want, but rarely sticks to their list. I hate that she basically is wasting her money, and I can’t just return/exchange them because she visits often and would definitely know. She often asks if we are enjoying our gifts, if they held up okay, etc. I’ve told the kids to lie for now, but it feels like we should probably just address the elephant in the room, so that we can get things we actually do want. What do you think? How do we broach this?

I love that you acknowledge that this is a first-world problem, because… well, it is. That said, getting terrible gifts can actually get pretty annoying and your feelings are valid.

If there is one thing that’s clear from your message, it is this: You care about your mom and she cares about you and your family. You say that she “puts a lot of thought into the gifts” and it’s apparent from your message that you don’t want to hurt your mom’s feelings. So I think it’s best to start from that place – the place of love and caring that is at the core.

I completely understand your frustration though. I’m fairly minimalist-ish and clutter triggers my anxiety. So when relatives would get us piles of “stuff” for the holidays, my feelings of gratitude were always tinged with a side of angst. Over time, I’ve realized that gifts are sometimes as much a gift to the giver as they are to the recipient. People genuinely like giving gifts to the people they love. When you graciously receive the gifts from your mom you aren’t just getting some new trinket or toy, you are also giving her a gift — the gift of feeling needed and appreciated and generous.

Now, with all of that sentimental, feel-good stuff as the backdrop, the bottom line remains: the gifts suck and you don’t want to continue telling her otherwise. Start small. Next time Grandma asks if little Harper loves the expensive doll she bought her, say something like, “She appreciated the thought, but she’s actually much more interested in airplanes. She really liked the book about space you bought her much more.”

I also recommend that you really push the whole “experiences versus stuff” mentality. Remind your mom that you want your kids to do things, not have things. Send her articles about the problems of excessive consumerism and the benefits of experience gifts of toys. Give her lots of general ideas (if you need some, there are plenty here) to choose from and remind her that if she really wants to get them a trinket, to think small (both physically and financially).

Your mom might still enjoy “the hunt” for gifts so instead of handing over a specific list, you could start by giving her a list of things that you and the kids are interested in, along with a list of things they hate. Be specific about the dislikes here. For instance, you could say, “Mom, I’ve been doing a lot of cooking lately and I’ve been eyeing some good immersion blenders. I don’t want a bread maker though.” Or you could tell her that your kids are really into art kits but aren’t really into dolls or trains. This way you give her the space to find something unique (which is the gift you’re giving her) while also increasing the potential that she will actually give you and your kids something you all want (the gift to you).

It won’t be a one-and-done conversation, but a slow build over time. She’ll get used to getting a little more direction and more honest feedback about the hits and misses, and you’ll get used to give that feedback. Be profuse with your praise and appreciate for the gifts that she gets right and she’s more likely to continue down that trend.

If you are appreciative for the good gifts, it’ll soften the blow when you tell her you exchanged that sweater she bought you. Because there will still be misses, of course. As my mom always said, it isn’t what you say, it’s how you say it. So be kind when you ask her for the receipt to return something or say that the kids have outgrown building blocks. It’ll be okay. She’s survive and so will you.

Because, like I said at the outset, love and caring are at the core.

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