The Vine: November 30, 2011
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
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.
Tags: etiquette happy hellidays kids the fam