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The Vine: November 30, 2011

Submitted by on November 30, 2011 – 9:22 AM100 Comments

The holiday season is looming and I'm trying to figure out how to deal with a situation before it becomes a Situation. (Could be worse. Could be The Situation…) Brief background: we're thirtysomethings who live in a very small space, and we've recently had our first child, who is about eighteen months old. Like most people, we have some definite ideas about how Child should be raised, ideas that aren't way out there, but just rather different from some of our family. We're not Luddites, but we just want to encourage reading, physical activity, and imagination.

Maybe we're tilting at windmills, but I'm not interested in raising some child version of the people in WALL-E, and we're new enough at this to still be hopeful. So, while we both realize that we can't give Child our childhoods and that grandparents and extended family have, to a certain extent, the right to love and "spoil" Child to their hearts' content, we also do not want any of the following: a child with more crap than imagination, a house overflowing with plastic objects that have obliterated all public spaces, strained family relationships.

Neither of us ever had this problem as kids, but with so much cheap stuff, it's amazing (appalling?) the volume of toys that seems to appear for our nieces and nephews at the holidays. (Lest it appear that I'm just a stick-in-the-mud control freak, I should say that one four-person family with a van actually had to rent a small U-Haul trailer to get home with gifts and that was just at ONE holiday stop…) We already do a large annual pre-holiday purge for donating that we plan to continue doing as a family and I don't mean to "borrow trouble," but this is coming — we both know it is, and we want to have a reasonable, cohesive plan in place so that we can just deal with it smoothly and move on.

What I need is two-fold — a.) ways to clearly articulate some limits without being "no fun" or going on at length and b.) a way to deal with transgressors. Ideally, the first part's not so bad. I can just create an Amazon wishlist and say, "No more than x dollars, no larger than a mid-sized dog, and nothing that requires a screen, please." Alternatively, as I'm sometimes afraid we'll still be paying for our student loans when it's Child's turn to go to college, I'm okay with just suggesting some books and a college fund donation. ("But that's not fun!" they say. Neither is paying for a graduate degree for twenty years…)

But the second part is the trick. I'm really not sure everyone will listen to the message (or they'll listen to the message, but they won't hear the message) and that's when I get really stumped. Partner and I are afraid that if we don't nip this in the bud, it will only get worse as Child gets bigger and more engaged, or if we have Child 2. Letting it go doesn't seem to be an option, so then what? At this stage, I can just deal with it myself — quietly put aside anything that we don't feel good about and exchange it later, but if I do that now, what do I do when Child is older and unwraps something that has been marketed like mad and that we don't want Child to have? Take it from a crying kid and say, "Gee, sorry, but you can't have that," thereby upsetting the giver and the recipient, or wait until later and try to have a more "reasonable" talk with a seven-year-old who just really, really wants to keep the Nintendo DS?

I really, truly don't want to kill the joy and fun of getting kids something they're excited about, and I don't want to create a huge list of what is or is not acceptable item by item. I'm even willing to give up (most) of the fun giving myself so that our families can have that joy, but I have to find some way to rein these people in before they undermine what I'm trying to accomplish. I'm glad Child has loving extended family that gets along and wants to be generous with one another, but I need to have some respect for my wishes as a parent, so I'm hoping you and the readers have some insight and suggestions, because we can't be the only people with overzealous grandparents.

Cindy Lou Who

Dear Cindy,

Okay, the first thing I'm going to point out is that I'm not a parent, and there are a lot of reasons for that, all of them sound, but the number of emotional and politico-familial minefields y'all have to tiptoe through every birthday and Chrismukkah, and every other holiday, and every other day, forever…that is some taxing shit. Just putting myself in your collective shoes to answer Vine letters, I need to lie down, never mind negotiating these situations and diaper changes and orthodonture and so on. So the first thing I'm pointing out is that it is hard, and everyone is doing the best they can, and you will never please everyone, and that is very annoying, so take a minute with that.

…Okay! Ambitious parenting: awesome. Go for it. Ambitious trying to control behavior and actions of other adults, especially during month of December: folly. Do not attempt. I mean, I get it, but you're getting ahead of yourself with some of this, I think. And I know that some people will not hear it, or will misunderstand it (sometimes on purpose), or will get offended by something else you didn't even think of. It happens, it's not the end of the world, and even if it were, there isn't a damn thing you can do about it usually, so don't waste your time trying.

So, make the wish list. Make it broad-ranging, and limit your additional comments, because the more rules you lay down for gift-givers, the more work it makes for you, both interpersonally and in terms of spending time and mental energy enforcing them. Phrase guidelines as positively as you can. "Child is really into ladybugs, robots, and stuff that folds up really cleverly and tinily!" is helpful. "Absolutely NO pricey things, plastic, videogames, blue toys, or [item someone will feel judged when you reject]" works less well. Include a few large or ambitiously priced items to let grandparents feel like they've really contributed. Mention that you welcome questions or ideas.

Then, once the list is made, you've done what you can do, so let it go. You should absolutely stick to your guns about the environment you want to provide for your child, and if a gift comes in that doesn't fit into that, do what you need to do. But they are in fact your guns, not anyone else's, and people do not want to have to read a manual before buying your kid a gift, because they…just don't. These rules aren't as important to anyone else as they are to you and your partner; it doesn't make anyone "wrong." It just is.

Draw up the list, and discuss with your partner how you'll deal with presents that don't fly, but don't get years ahead of yourselves with it. If you have another kid and they double-team Nana for an Xbox in 2018, you'll have that discussion in 2018 — or not. Maybe you'll feel differently about it by then. Regardless, you don't need to figure out a comprehensive policy that covers one to three further children and lasts until college right now.

And as far as dealing with "transgressors"? For starters, avoid adversarial language like that, that gets you fired up before anything even happens. They mean well, most of them, so go with that. You accept the gifts with cheery gratitude, you donate the ones you can't work with, and in the interests of diplomacy and your blood pressure, that is all you do. The "in future, we'd appreciate" speech you've got rehearsed is going to blow up in your face no matter how you deliver it. Ixnay. Sincere thanks, donation, next.

I think there are a few areas in the larger situation here where you can make less work and aggro for yourself, without relaxing your principles. If you can't control it, try not to let it control you by getting anxious about it.

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100 Comments »

  • Bria says:

    Oh god, oh god, oh god, I just remembered a doll my Grammy gave me when I was about 5 and I'm now laughing so hard I'm crying at my desk. It ranks highly in the all-time worst noisemaking toys EVER – cried maniacally at seemingly random intervals (or maybe when you took the toy out of it's little pink fist? hard to say). How did you stop it from crying, you ask? YOU SHOOK IT. Yes, you made the baby stop crying by shaking it. I…can't even begin to speculate how any adult in charge of anything bigger than a binder clip decided to green light a toy that teaches about the lighter side of shaken babies. I can still see both of my parents furiously shaking her to make her shut up.

    I'm pretty sure she "lost" her batteries after a rather embarrassing crying and shaking episode in church. The next year, Grammy just sent money and my parents used it to buy me a feather bed.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    "The lack of thanks from the gifts we sent are likewise infuriating, but that's a rant for another time."

    When I recieved my very first thank you note from my neice (the first year she was old enough to write) I framed it and hung it above my desk. It meant that much to me.

    I know this is a sidebar, but parents, I beg you: suffer through the wailing, tantrums, heavy sighs and "BORRRRING!s" and force those kids to write "thanks for the X" on a peice of paper. It pays off for so long, in so many ways!

    And if they're too young, grit your teeth and write them. A one liner is sufficient (or emails if that how your freinds/family roll.) Thanks mean so much, truly. They make the world go 'round.

  • NZErin says:

    Sometimes these things just work out for themselves: My daughter was the first grandchild on both sides, so her second Christmas was a little insane (first xmas, she was only a couple of weeks old)

    Both grandmothers were a tad enthusiastic about it all, and everyone got too many presents. My mother in particular was more than a little horrified at herself when she saw the great piles of presents and vowed never to do it again. She sure hadn't been like that when we were little!

    Similarly, one xmas, an aunt of mine bought ridiculous amounts of presents for her grandsons. Grandson no. 1 had already been to 2 xmas gatherings that day and promptly lost it, refusing to open or look at anything.

    Anyway, as more grandchildren appear these things tend to even out. Everyone gets a few things, and the eldest only has vague memories of the heady days of singledom!

  • Courtney says:

    Just want to add that my ONE policy for any gift giving event is: no gun type anything.

    Guess whose boys receive waterguns all the time.

    Mine. So now I just let what happens happen. Usually they break in 15 minutes and I toss them. Same goes board games with lots of little pieces. We play it, lose a few pieces, recycle, repeat.

    I should mention, too, that my house is 784sqft.

  • A Peach says:

    I wanted to chime in on books… when my nieces were born, I started a tradition of giving them two gifts for Christmas every year:
    1 – a toy/game/gizmo to play with tactilly (I often scour the intewebz for fun educational toys/packages/kits that even though they're educational, involve some sort of hands-on play – think magic kits, build-your-own-solar-car kits, etc.)
    2 – a book. But not just any book, one that I loved at their specific age as a child, mostly classics/award winners that I can still find. Even though books from my childhood are still available today, they aren't the "popular" books or most common, so the chance of them having it already is pretty slim. And if they have gotten duplicates, I've not been told. As they've gotten older and are able to understand more, they've come to love and expect them each year – to the point where the 12-year-old already told me she can't wait to see what book she's going to get this year. (I have to get on that, already!)
    So, as for books, that's what I go by! Enjoy!

  • Joleen says:

    We do a lot of donating when it gets close to the holidays and my girls are on-board with it. They are 11 and 14 and we have done this since they were very young. We always donate to a local charity that they are familiar with and of course I never make them give up the things they are really attached to.

    Also, my girls were both raised in the same manor…encouraged creativity and reading with limited TV time and guess what? One wants to be glued to the computer and one would rather scout out the field and tree line behind our house. Go figure!

  • Valerie says:

    "If you don't establish the foundation before you build the house, anything that you try later is going to have a hard time staying solid"

    I get what you're saying, but this puts a lot of pressure on parents to get everything right, right now. And – you just can't. You can only do your best, day by day.

    Re: putting "no gifts, please" on invitations – Miss Manners will always tell you that it is absolutely not OK, because it implies that you were expecting gifts in the first place, when really no one should ever feel required to bring a gift (according to MM), even though we all know that when you show up at a kid's birthday party you are in fact expected to bring a gift and….it's an exhausting, twistic logic that needs to die. In this age of dwindling resources and overflowing landfills, it should be OK to say "we don't want/need any more stuff, thanks anyway."

  • Jacq says:

    Jenn, you are so lucky with your smart friends: my two sisters are absolutely hopeless when I ask them for present suggestions for my seven nieces and nephews. Thankfully, the kids are now getting old enough to tell me themselves what they'd like.

  • Sara J. says:

    I have a question for those who try to keep toys to a minimum due to space–how do you feel about handmade ones? I tend to knit most of the gifts for my cousins and friends' kids, because it's cheaper (let's not talk about my yarn stash. I'm not an addict.) and fun–but am I just likely adding to a pile of stuff? And possibly making them feel like they can't get rid of it in a purge? (I knit both clothing and toys, but I've found through sad experience that clothes are sometimes not the best as a newborn might end up looking like a sausage in the 6 month sweater you made him.)I never even thought about that before.

    @Jen S. 1.0- "And if they're too young, grit your teeth and write them. A one liner is sufficient (or emails if that how your freinds/family roll.) Thanks mean so much, truly. They make the world go 'round."

    That is so, so true. They make me all sniffly. My friend sent me a thank you video with his 4 month old–they live really far from me, and I don't know when I'll even meet the baby, so that was seriously so wonderful. So: if your kid's too small for thank you card-ing, I highly encourage videos of him or her balancing a knit Loch Ness Monster on his stomach.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    I highly encourage videos of him or her balancing a knit Loch Ness Monster on his stomach.

    Forget thank-you-carding: just send them to, like, strangers. For fun. Because: CUTE.

  • Sara J. says:

    It may have been the best video ever. Actually, I encourage any and all thank you videos, even if your kids are old enough to write cards–although I suppose that does not instill the thank-you-card-writing virtue for later in life. But videos! Of cute children! Especially if you're really far from the gift giver, they really mean a lot.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    I'll send you a video if you make one for me! (KNIT Loch Ness Monster? WANT.)

    Ah, Sarah, the joys of grandmotherdom! My boss is grandmother to a single and heart-rendingly cute child, and this, mixed with her inner shopper, has melded into a perfect storm of gift-lavishing. This child recieves more booty then the Infanta of Spain. Luckily, the deluge seems to siphon off into donations in a reasonable way, but it hasn't stopped her (or me from begging her to be my grandma–she's got killer taste in shoes!)

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Whoops, that last comment was to NZErin. Sorry!

  • Clobbered says:

    Been there, done that, I would have gotten the t-shirt if they were giving one.

    Two things:

    1. Amazon wishlists really do work. Stack them with books.

    2. Learn to let go. Any parenting ideas you have in this area will not survive contact with the enemy anyway. As soon as your kids hit kindergarten they will immediately covet the cheap sexist plastic marketed crap the other kids bring in for show and tell. You will weep in rage and frustration, and then you will realize that objects don't transmit values, people do.

  • Lisa says:

    @Sara J.: I too am a knitter, sharing a one-bedroom apartment with my son, so you could say that space is at a premium. (I turned the "dining area" into his bedroom with a room divider, and we have an eat-in kitchen.) I personally TREASURE any handmade gifts Sam receives, because that is my own esthetic, and I will find a way to keep those that had the most meaning to me (baby booties, a knitted crocodile with a cable hoodie (!!), a sweater he wore when he was a newborn, beautiful blankets…). The nice thing about knitted items, of course, is that they tend to be fairly small, and they are usally so charming that they can continue to be used in some alternate way when perhaps they are no longer being played with/worn: a knitted toy will remain a delightful decorative item on a shelf years after my son has outgrown it (admittedly, my decor is, well, eclectic), a special sweater will go into a memory box, etc. I am extremely sentimental that way because I know the love and and work and TIME that went into a handmade/knitted gift. However, I might suggest that you only give knitted gifts to people who APPRECIATE them: people that you know actually *value* things that are handmade, particularly those who are crafters themselves, who have some notion of the care and effort involved. I can't imagine someone like that resenting the space taken up by a knitted item, no matter how small their home might be. That being said, if you're really concerned, you can always knit something really compact and that will have play value for a very long time, like finger or full-size puppets…

  • Lisa says:

    Here's a picture of said crocodile, because: CUTE!

  • Lisa says:

    And if I may add a shout-out to @Clover: Oh my gosh, that is such an excellent approach and such wonderful advice to raise my son to appreciate and be grateful for all that he has, to be kind and thoughtful to others (both those who give him gifts, and those less fortunate who will enjoy his gently-used outgrown toys etc.), to enjoy an orderly space which only contains the things he needs and loves, and generally grow up not be an entitled, consumerist brat. I will so be doing that with him now that he is almost 2 and starting to understand a bit about Christmas and birthdays.

  • Bria says:

    Re: knitted/handmade things – I love getting knitted things for my son (6mo). Handmade gifts are awesome. That said, I do prefer knitted things that aren't clothes. The work that goes into a knitted project for a wee recipient just doesn't balance well, IMBO, with the amount of wear it's going to get. Honestly, I feel the same way about expensive store bought clothes. My kiddo is giant and grew REALLY fast up until about a month ago – it sucks to have gifted clothes that I know cost the giver a lot of time/money and only get worn a few times. Seriously, I have a few items in our Next Kid pile that were worn once, tossed in the wash, and by the next time I grabbed them from the drawer, they were too small. Is it an epic problem? Of course not. But I hate feeling like someone's gift didn't get its due use just because the window of time when it fit was so short.

  • Megan says:

    Slices, I loved the idea that Laura mentioned:

    For her son's first birthday, a friend of mine stated on the invitations that "gifts aren't necessary, but if you wish to make a donation to Toys for Tots, we'll collect at the party".

    Then you can greet people with a cheerful, "Oh, how lovely and generous of you. The donations are going in this pile."

  • Sue says:

    @Jen S 1.0 and NZErin, the BEST thank-you photo I ever got was of a small boy curled up asleep in the cap I'd knitted him. Second best were of the knitted squids and octopods I'd made for a friend who couldn't bring herself to give them away.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @Bria: Just another reason that buntings are awesome! http://www.fabulousyarn.com/fab_mhknitkits_bunting.shtml

    (That pattern looks more like a boyfriend cardi, but what can you do.)

  • Emmers says:

    This is totally tangential, and maybe just a problem I have, but I can't help *but* feel judged, a little, whenever a friend is like "Oh. MY children won't be playing video games." I love video games, and while I never had a system growing up, I enjoyed playing them on my friends' TVs.

    The key is definitely balance; if your kid is spending 18 hours a day doing *anything*, that's a bit much. (Even if it is Art or Sport or Frolicking With Unicorns. Even unicorn-frolickers should take swimming lessons.)

    Okay, end intensely self-centered tangent! :-D

  • Bria says:

    @Sars: that is awesome (though we already knew that [b]untings of all stripes are of the awesome persuasion).

    To be fair, though, I don't know if I would be able to resist putting a giant belt around that one and shoving B's feet into some uggs so I could take pictures of him all "what? No almond milk for my macchiato? Bummer".

  • Amy says:

    I'm with Sars on this. Put out some "wish list" things, but once you've done that, let it go. You really can't control what people buy and/or if they "hear" the message. Thankfully I'm a good auntie and recognize that my sister is much less commercial in raising her son than my other siblings, i.e. he doesn't watch a lot of tv, he doesn't have all the "hot" items with comic book/Disney characters splashed all over them, etc. When I ask what he wants for Christmas/birthdays she tells me (like you would) and I adhere to that. She'll straight up say "Educational toys" or "He's really into dinosaurs and sabre tooth cats." And I listen. Not everyone will get the message but that's not something you can control. Just make your requests and then sit back and be thankful for a loving family that wants to take part in Child's life.

  • smark says:

    My three year old wants "a crown and a race car" for Christmas," so wish me luck with that one.

    We usually ask for books or for pricier things they really need, like snowsuits. Have you considered asking for something like swimming lessons or dance classes?

  • katie says:

    @Emmers – your friends might be judgey for all I know, but not all parents of no-vidja-games kids are. My husband and I LOVE video games, but we don't think it's a good idea for our four-year-old to spend much time in front of screens of any sort (not least because he is basically guaranteed to be a media junkie with us for parents, so let's defend the fort while we still can.)

    And all kids will thwart you somehow. I'm aces with crafts and shit for pretend play (I try, I really do, but even two-year-olds see right through me) and guess which one my kid likes and which he totally disdains? On the plus side, my son actually does like the toys & clothes I make for him but he keeps asking if I can make some that talk or fly.

    @Sara J – I prefer knitted toys/blankets/sleep sacks to knitted clothing, fwiw. I always wind up feeling crazy guilty with clothing because it gets worn once, or doesn't fit, or there's a freak heat wave and it's a sweater, etc. I *love* the thought, but until the kid is two or three years old the lifespan of clothing is just so short. Blankets are great as are sleep sacks in 6mos+ size – they can be used for a much longer time. The type of yarn one picks can also be a thing – I've received scratchy acrylic baby sweaters that really sadly never could be used, and I'm almost guaranteed to never put anything wool of any kind on a baby – I can't stand wool personally, including cashmere, so I can't wrap my head around putting it on a baby. But that's just me, anyway.

  • Dana says:

    We had the same dilemma, but it actually solved itself. My kids seriously can't handle more than a few presents at a time. They get overwhelmed and go into meltdown mode. After one Christmas where my 18 month old daughter threw a category 5 tantrum refusing to open any more gifts (devastated the great grandparents, who had bought her a ton of stuff sitting there unopened)… Well, my family is now MUCH more reasonable. We remind them every year that the kids just can't handle an over abundance of generosity, and ask them to limit things to one or two small items. They are welcome to give as many books as they want, though.

    I also try to steer them with lists of appropriate stuff. I've found that craft kind of items work well – paint, coloring books, sidewalk chalk, things that get consumed. Dress up clothes / costumes also are great. There are lots of toys that are not plastic crap – and because the non-crap is more expensive, it also helps limit the sheer volume of stuff.

    With this said… Mimi still brings my daughter cheap plastic dollhouses and Gigi brings my toddler plastic cars full of small parts. It's inevitable. We say thank you, monitor them closely, and hide/donate them later.

    Use your best judgement, and don't fret too much. The holidays are crazy enough as it is! Enjoy your little one and have a great time watching her excitement :)

  • Esi says:

    What Roo said, times 1000. Absolutely limit whatever you feel strongly about limiting (when I buy my 12 yo nephew a video game, he knows enough by now not even to suggest one of the many war games out there). But know that if you emphasize creativity and imagination, those things will be important to your kids, no matter what toys they do or don't get. Over thanksgiving, my bro and I had an in-depth conversation about politics, a chat about the random stuff infants do, and a dissection of what we think is going down on Once Upon a Time. As long as you encourage critical thinking your kid (or kids) will apply that in all areas of their lives.

  • Alison says:

    If Cindy has other family members who are also receiving excessive gifts (U-haul renters), could there be a combined discussion for everyone around appropriate number of gifts? Unless of course, they're okay with it. Sometimes it makes it easier for all family members to get on board if they're hearing it as a consistent message.
    We've also started trying to get themed gifts for the kids. Both of my kids have birthdays within 6 weeks of Christmas. For my son, we asked for Playmobil trucks as he's really into them, and for my daughter we got a doll with all the accessories. This way family know the gifts will be played with.

    For friends parties, we've asked for no gifts- which didn't work, and also asked for photos for an album and books. These worked better, as people do like to bring something. For a first birthday, you could also let people know you're doing a collection of something practical (diapers, wipes) for the food bank. Wording like "We've had such a wonderful first year, we'd like to help out other babies as well. We'll be collecting gently used baby items and diapers for X".

  • Lg says:

    @slices- my kids are 6 and 3 and every birthday invite has said "no gifts please" or this recent variation: "bring a book for a book exchange". Some kids/parents bring a gift anyway, which we graciously accept and write a thank you note for. The challenge now will be convincing the about-to-be 7 year old to agree to keep the no gifts rule in force. But just this week she had remarked that she doesn't need anything for Christmas because she doesn't have time to play with all the toys she has now. And she spontaneously gave her little sister one of her dolls that she got for Christmas last year. So I think she is absorbing the messages I've been trying to send. We also do the "purge" like @clover but not as regularly as we probably should.

  • Kathleen says:

    As the mom of a eight year old ( only child/ half only grandchild) ( and a Liscensed Family Counselor) who has plenty of toys – the thing is, they love those loud flashy toys to death, and then they break or out grow them. Quickly. That toy that drives you nuts will be gone very soon. Very few toys have lasted more than a couple years around here. Our old pre school has an annual Rummage Sale & my son will happliy donate all kinds of things to it. He's also quite willing to pass things on to younger kids, or just donate to goodwill. Honestly this is a behavior that you want to encourage, I have a nieghbor whos yard/ house is full of all kinds of old nasty toys that her kids want to keep & so she doesn't insist. This is a temporary problem (unless you are a Dugger ;)

    So far the longevity winners are Duplo and now Lego, btw.

    Also, take a moment to considor the alternative – we have always sent birhtday and holiday gifts to my nieces and nephews. (they are a chunk older than my son) Every once in a while they will send something in between his birthday and the holidays. But usually they don't. He has only sortof noticed this so far, vaugley asking, "We sent something to New Jersy, did they send anything to me?" Honestly it bugs me more than it bugs him. I know when all their birthdays are, I can get to the book store, there's only one of him. I honestly belive it would add to their relatioship if they would bother to at least send a card, call, ask me what he'd like. Most of them don't bother.

    My friends story is worse. His wife is deceased, when he mentions to her parents that thier grandaughters birthday is coming up they say "Tell her we'll be thinking of her" 'cause they can't bother to aknowlege it at all.

    You can have your standards (I've been known to remove batteries etc). But you don't want your kids to primarily remember what you wouldn't let them do/have.

    P.S. when it says "no gifts," I bring a book.

    PPS Roo's story is hillarious!

  • Hillary says:

    My parents had ideas for our toys – no cartoon characters (they also had ideas about how much TV we could watch, and what kinds of shows), no guns or weapons, and no Barbies are what I remember most. At a certain age, the age at which sister and I could walk next door to our best friends' house, we just played with their Barbies, and watched cartoons on their TV, so at some point the prime influence becomes rather a losing battle. Mom got me to six or seven, which I guess was a pretty good start on life without Barbies, Scooby Do, and toy guns.

    I do have some suggestions from someone who isn't a parent, but does try really hard to get meaningful gifts for kids that both the kids and parents will love.

    1. Give rules with non-parent logic. Nothing bigger than X because our apartment is small. No play-dough because the dog eats it. I can see the adult logic in that. "No Bratz dolls because they will destroy my daughter's self-image" is parent-logic and though I respect it (she's your kid) I just have Barbie flash-backs and think "best of luck with that!"

    2. Encourage people to give "consumables" in toys, such as art supplies. I love doing this because they are multi-age appropriate, you can do this over and over, they make a big gift-giving splash. Take an assortment of brand new crayons and pencils, a huge pad of colored paper, tape and glue stick, and kid scissors and put it in a giant tub bag and that is great to open – but they are all going to be used up at some point, and not storage problem of parents any more. (I always ask the parents about including glitter and glue other than a glue stick – some houses have "no glitter" rules which to me is just WRONG but I respect it. I also never include paint becuase I like these parents). Kits to make felt puppets, pop-up books, balsa wood planes, etc. work too – because the fun is in making the thing, then you don't cry too much when you lose or break it. Better yet, I get to play with them too with the kid!

    3. Puzzles – put them together a few times, they are great for parties and guests, and easy to store. When you lose too many pieces, turn the rest into art projects. When they are too easy, sell at a garage sale. I love puzzles and are never offended to see them for sale, because I buy most of mine at garage sales. Kid falls in love with some trendy cartoon character, get it as a puzzle and make both parties happy.

    I love the idea of an Amazon wish list, but would also love suggestions about general catagories of stuff from parents so I can have fun doing the shopping. I went shopping the other day for a kid who wanted "zoobles" and I had to look up what that was. Then I had to look at the package for a while and wonder what you did with that. (I failed to discern what the "play" was in the package). And I had no idea if she had this set or not. Boring! Make it easy on your givers.

    In the future, control the presnt-opening environment for your birthday/holiday events and when people arrive with wrapped gifts, quietly ask "what is it?" before gift opening time. You can ask because you need to know how fragile it is, if you should allow kid to shake it, and if you can stack other gifts on top of it – not becuase you are critiquing the gift or the giver. If it is a birthday party with a bunch of other kids and lots of presents, let the gift opening happen with all appropriate fanfare, then if one gift quietly went away and waited to see if kid noticed, what would happen? Kid doesn't notice or peek under mom's bed for a while, to Goodwill it goes! Kid notices, pull it out and say "here it is!" I'm convinced now that happened with some of my presents.

    And my experience is that grandparents will give what they like, and you can't do anything to change it, so don't waste your time trying.

  • autiger23 says:

    If I could get away with it with my family, I would get my nieces and nephews all Heifer International presents. Sadly, I'd be mocked for years. Would someone with the materialistic family like to trade? I'd never say crap about 'you being mean' to your kid for not letting them have some stupid doll. My niece wants one of those stupid dolls- that jack wagon can buy it for her, because the hell if I'm going to.

  • Mary says:

    You know, when you say you want to encourage "reading, physical activity, and imagination" and "[giving] Child our childhoods", do you include your child having an awesome, relaxed relationship with your extended families and friends?

    I'm not criticising – maybe that's not your priority. But if that is a priority, you need to accept that the pay-off is having less control over your child's environment. Personally, whilst I am sure I will have giant scrannies about masses of super-cheap plastic crap at some stage, or grandparents coming out with some random political stuff that I would like to hide from them, the flipside that I'm going to keep telling myself is that kids benefit from strong, loving relationships with a variety of adults. And hopefully that will stop me wanting to shoot everyone.

    Just something to think about.

  • Sara J. says:

    Thank you, everybody! I've been transitioning more to toys lately, and if I make clothes it's usually a hat, in a 1 year or older size–Loch Ness baby's older brother wore his for a really long time (pictures of him during his first snow with the hat on? AWESOME.) so I feel vaguely safe with those. Of course, I made the same hat for my best friend's baby and his head was HUGE so his teddy bear wears it instead. Baby clothes are just so fun to knit, it's hard to stop myself! It's good to hear that toys/blankets/whatever are not a burden.

    @Jen S 1.0–Nessie is from Hansi Singh's "Knitted Amigurumi"–the book also has a bunch of bugs, sea animals, vegetables, and a Jackalope and Kraken. You could totally learn to knit and make Nessie, it's not that hard a pattern. :) (My knitting list: about a MILE long. No life til Christmas is over.)

    @katie–for kids I tend to go with really soft acrylic, blends, or in rare cases superwash wool, which is super soft and can be put in the washing machine. I usually ask about allergies/preferences before using wool, though. I have friends that insist that parents totally have time to handwash baby stuff…no. I am so not putting that burden on my friends!

  • Erin McJ says:

    Loved this letter and all the responses. I have to restrain my inner Grinch every year, though I don't yet have kids of my own, but I think the idea of using the obvious bounty as a chance to teach about charity is truly excellent.

    I have a follow-up question, though. Suppose you make a habit like one reader suggested of saying, "Now, Taylor, nobody needs more than three dolls, and you have four; let's pick one and donate it." Since kids are known for saying the darnedest things, as it were, what do you do if/when they blurt out stuff about this practice at family gatherings? Do you try to teach them to keep it secret what happened to the toy, and if so how do you accomplish that? Or do you trust that your relatives won't be too terribly offended if they find out their gift is going immediately into the donation box?

    Maybe wondering about this is just borrowing trouble — I don't know!

  • Jeanne says:

    I have two nephews and a niece, and I just get what my brother and sister-in-law tell me to get. Life is much easier that way. I've always had a hard time coming up with gift ideas, so I do like getting some direction on it. Luckily for me my family is all about giving things that will be liked and appreciated and don't care about anything being a surprise.

    For when the kid(s) get older, just make sure relatives know what their interests are. My oldest nephew just turned 7 and is a little science nerd in training (like his dad) and very into Star Wars (also like his dad) so for his birthday I gave him a moon phase lamp and a constellation projection lamp shaped like the Death Star. It's hard to say who liked them more, my nephew or my brother.

  • MsC says:

    @Erin McJ

    It's another one where you have to pick your battles. Like, my in-laws bought for my then 2yo a super fancy snow white stuffed lamb that my daughter has never once touched. But getting rid of it is not worth the wailing that would ensue if my MIL noticed it missing. However, many things they have picked out over the years have broken, been lost, (or, you know, been 'broken' or got 'lost'), or honestly simply outgrown as my daughter gets older and they are okay with that. So there might be a couple of things that are off limits for the donation bin, and probably as long as that's the case, it will prevent bad feelings about doll-from-two-years-ago disappearing.

  • Jennifer says:

    Cindy, I can absolutely relate. I definitely felt the same way when my boys were small. Over time, I haven't changed my feelings about plastic crap, unnecessarily noisy and/or large toys and video games. I have however changed my approach. As you're undoubtedly experiencing, setting "rules" about toys doesn't mean you get the toys you want for your kid, and also tends to put people off. Your kid will learn about your values by the way you actually live them, not by rules you put in place to shield him from external influences.

    Wish lists have helped a lot, as does positive phrasing "He's a big "Captain Underpants" fan right now, so books would be great!" For little-kid birthday parties, I'd ask the parents to have their child draw a picture for my son, and it totally worked. Less stress for the parents to go out and buy stuff, and we ended up with some unusual artwork for his room for a few years.

    But you ultimately won't control what comes in to the house, you can just help shape what your child's interests are. If book-reading time or art time are the most fun times in your house,that will work itself out. I didn't stop the wii or the Nintendo DS from coming in to the house, but I bought educational games. If my son is playing chess on his DS, he'll complain that it's boring and he'd rather play chess with my husband, which is a huge win. If I had outlawed electronic chess, it would be the most glamorous thing in the world. Instead, he's preferring to play with a person. Same thing with the wii, I buy sports games, but the kids say they'd rather play "real" football outside. By giving a choice between taking a nap and having a "reading rest" we've made reading the best thing ever (with help from Captain Underpants, of course)

    I'm hopeful that this way they'll have long-lasting preferences. I grew up in a really restrictive household, and then once I was out on my own bought a bunch of crap because I finally could. My parents minimalism made me feel deprived, and I overcompensated. So I am trying to let our kids feel a sense of having "enough" but preferring to spend time enriching themselves. They're perfectly happy to "pass along" toys that no longer hold their interest.

    If I could just get them to flush the toilet after using it, I'd be in good shape.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    "Reading Rest" is my new favorite. If you TM'd that officially, you could PAY someone to flush for your kids. Hee.

  • Turbonium says:

    The fact that your son got a Transformer for Christmas does not mean that you immediately must rush out to Wal-Mart and buy every other Transformer you can get your hands on.

    ****

    On the flip side, any gift-giver should have long since learned that you never ever ask what happened with the gift, unless it was something major (like, "a car" major). There's little more disappointing than learning that the sweater you agonized over at Ross's for two hours immediately went to Goodwill–or, more germane to the Vine, that the Most Fun Toy In The World never made it out of the box.

  • Bria says:

    On the flip-flip side of Turbonium's flip side, I highly recommend telling people when you end up really loving a gift they gave you (beyond the thank you note). We got a pretty ceramic pitcher from my FIL's on again/off again lady friend for our wedding, and it ended up becoming one of my very favorite things in the kitchen because it's the perfect thing to use to fill the coffee pot (the pot itself is useless due to a crummy pour spout design, another story). We had dinner with her a few years after our wedding, and just before the end of the evening I remembered to tell her that I love the pitcher and use it every day. She was SO delighted to hear it. Seriously, I will never forget the look on her face – she was just tickled to know that we really love her gift. It's nice to get a thank you note, but it's also nice to hear from recipients down the road when gifts turn out to be real hits.

  • Dukebdc says:

    So much good advice here. I am currently debating what to get for my best friend's two little kids. Each kid have more stuff than an entire kindergarden class (the parents acknowledge this and are overwhelmed), and I hesistate to add to the pile. But also hesitate to be the one "auntie" who brings nothing. Sigh.

    Your kids will be far more influenced by you and your husband than they will ever be influenced by whatever pile of gifts they receive. They will model your behavior and ideals (because it will be normal to them)and over time, will appreciate your outlook on consumerism and how to deal graciously with those who mean well but give you things you don't need. Above all, don't let your kids see your frustration with people who want to give them gifts. There are worse things than a child who is loved by too many people. :)

  • Kathleen says:

    @Dukebdc, DO you see these kids regularly, and do they know you? Could You print up a big fancy gift certificate that says " trip to the …. Zoo, Childrens museum, jelly belly factory, or what ever with Duke! transportaion, lunch and a small souvenier included. Take some pictures, too. Experinces can be just as fun as stuff.

  • meltina says:

    Chiming in very late, but here goes: if you emphasize love of reading, imagination, and a few toys used creatively to your child, it will eventually guide their choices and sway most relatives. Those who are not swayed… well, you just gotta roll with it.

    Before our 13 month old was born, we pretty much had decided: 1. natural toys whenever possible (but there is no natural alternative to the awesomeness of Legos, honestly); 2. no Disney princess crap; 3. as little TV as humanly possible until she's 2. Then we had the kid, and we had to deal with doting relatives (she's the first grandchild on both sides, and is likely not to have any cousins any time soon, so the most competition for attention she'll ever have is a new sibling down the line), and the reality of socializing with other parents.

    We bought all natural toys, until we were out at Katie's (pseudonyms here to protect the innocent), and my daughter became fascinated with the loud, talking singing stuff. She was in heaven. So we had to relent and say, "Ok, we're not gonna go crazy with plastic interaction, but having a talking musical table isn't going to kill us all". To date we still love the musical table 4 months later, but it only maybe takes up 5 minutes of our daughter's attention.

    Then we had to relent on the Disney princess crap, because well meaning but also stubborn relative decided that our "princess" needed princess themed feeding dishes. We had plenty of dishes, of course… but somehow the princess dishes got used once when we had no time to run the dishwasher, and lo and behold, the daughter somehow decided it was more motivational to self feed from them than from our character-free child dishes (she'd try to eat the food off the plate faster, so she could look at the princesses, I swear to god).

    The TV thing, we're holding fast to (if I can't watch it on Hulu on my own time, I don't see it). But when grandpa was visiting, which only maybe happens twice a year for logistical reasons, it somehow was more of a pain than anything not to let him watch the game, so of course the daughter ended up watching TV once or twice that week. And of course it was "Whoo! Shiny! Little people running around!" for her.

    What I'm trying to get at is, in the scheme of things, it's going to be hard to just be inflexible on those preferences, so how about looking at them more as personal guidelines that inform your own interactions with her, and just let go of the occasional deviations?

    My daughter knows what a TV is and does, but hasn't really watched TV except for maybe a couple of times total, and she might like pink a bit more than I'm comfortable with, and loves all things plastic at daycare, but she still has the most fun playing at home with the toys we play together with (i.e., the toys the husband and I find more educational value in), and interacting with the rich environment of books and "found" toys (small cardboard boxes before they're recycled, our cats' play tent, the mirrored doors of her closet, and her own shoes have at some point become "toys", despite a toy box full of stuffed bears, monkeys, and soft blocks). Ultimately, the grandparents have taken note of that (one set now asks for book suggestions and then buys those or similar books, the other just contributes to the college fund that she obviously will need ;), and if you can win over the grandparents to your thinking, other relatives will either follow suit, or will be a mere inconvenience once or twice a year.

    I guess the tl;dr version of the above is: you can't control every minutia of your child's life. Don't sweat it. Just try and make sure everyone involved knows and sees where your values lie. More often than not, they'll come around to them without you needing to push for them.

  • Charity says:

    I'll preface this by saying that we are not anti-technology-toys or anti-plastic-stuff in our house. In fact, we are technophiles but with a strong "hippy" bent (due to my upbringing). We are not anti much of anything that isn't a danger in some way. (We try to avoid Dora because she drives us crazy but that's another thing entirely.)

    Much like Sars' advice, we don't ask people not to get certain things. We instead talk up the things we like best. Doing this, we have a fair balance of the plastic or gadgety toys (My Little Ponies and things that sing the alphabet song) and the more "natural" toys (wooden pretend food, all sorts of dolls, dress up clothes, musical instruments). For something like a DS, I would limit the time and circumstances under which it could be used instead of saying no to it altogether. My goal is to find a balance, to follow and promote my daughters' interests, to keep us all sane, and to teach them how to moderate themselves both by setting an example and laying out the structure.

    And like others in the comments, I find that my daughters use the most commercial of their toys in the most imaginative ways. My oldest turned the electronic music table upside down and put her baby sisters on it, said it was a choo choo train, and "drove" them around the living room. That sort of thing is just priceless.

  • Nikki says:

    First: Sars said the bulk of what I wanted to say.

    Second: As your child grows up (or children, in the future), your family will be able to SEE that they play the piano, do a lot of puzzles, listen to books on tape, aren't allowed to watch TV/movies without permission, and have no video games or computer games that aren't educational.

    MOST people will be mindful of this and try to get your kids something they actually want and would use. SOME people will want to buy your kid something you wouldn't want them to have, and you can deal with that as Sars describes.

    Once your kid is older, I highly recommend the "for special occasions only" policy. So, keep the DS, and give it to them for an hour a week and/or when they're "extra good," and/or when you find an educational game you think could be good for them. Kids will adapt a "yes, but" policy a lot better than they'll adapt to a "no, never" policy.

  • Nikki says:

    @Video Games (PS)

    I work on video games professionally, and Over Thanksgiving, I showed a game to my 5 and 7 year old "nieces." They're my first cousin's children and she/her partner are exactly the way the LW describes her parenting style. It's a game where you make words from letters, and it has a panda theme (http://game.pandapoet.com). My cousin told me to bring her and her kids more games like this!

    Especially for girls, games do a lot more than teach hand-eye coordination (and I'm an expert at catching a ball now… should have seen me in junior high!), they foster competitiveness. Most girls really lack this in their professional lives, and psychologists usually recommend "a sport" – a video game or board game works just as well, and doesn't always require a team of people to attempt.

    And for boys (or all children), video games have been shown to quell natural "violent" tendencies – which is different than what the media would have you believe. If a child gets to hit something in a game, they're less likely to hit their sibling. It's a release for some of the aggression we naturally experience as humans.

    Not that they should be glued to the computer, but I wouldn't dismiss games out of hand.

  • Maria says:

    I know you see plastic crap and objects here….but your kid is Just Plain Loved by these folks and this is how they want to let him know. And his age, they're speaking his language.

    I didn't read all of the comments past the great advice about not trying to control others, but I will add this: you don't have to have all of the keepers underfoot at once. Rotate them out for more fun.

    If you're donating, daycares are a great place. Those toys wear out fast and the kids will love getting new stuff to use up.

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