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How To Deal With The Overzealous Gift Giver

An etiquette expert explains how to manage your kids’ feelings, as well as the onslaught of stuff.

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Every kid gets excited for the present-element of the holiday season, and many parents and grandparents enjoy shopping for these little people we love so dearly, too. Giving a gift to your kid or grandkid can be so exciting — it’s a way of showing how much we love the kids in our lives, and watching their faces light up when we’ve really nailed it is the greatest feeling in the world. Sometimes, holiday gifts are even a relief — maybe Grandma asked what the kids really need this year, and you were so grateful when she sent winter coats in the next size up to wrap and stash under the tree. Occasionally, though, a relative, family member or friend goes overboard with gift-giving, and it can be overwhelming for both kids and parents alike. It’s hard to keep gratitude at the forefront when your child is presented with an extravagantly expensive gift or a mountain of gifts from one person that dwarves all others.

If you have a very generous family member who tends to overdo it with gifts at the holidays, you may be hoping to find an appropriate way to navigate that situation. Should to you talk to the relative about toning it down a bit? Or perhaps offer some parameters? It can be really awkward to dive in to these conversations, but the situation is manageable, says Elaine Swann, an etiquette expert and founder of the Swann School of Protocol. She spoke with Romper about how parents can handle excessive gift-giving at the holidays, and keep their kids grounded when the onslaught of stuff feels overwhelming.

First, consider why they are giving too many gifts

The holidays are a particularly tricky time for navigating family relationships and even friendships, and we should remember to stop, think and tread carefully and with compassion, says Swann. “When people give gifts, the folks who kind of go overboard, they're going overboard for some sort of internal personal reason, and it could be a number of things,” she explains. Before you decide if and how to address the issue — whether its excessive spending, or sheer volume of gift-giving — it may be helpful to see if you can figure out why they give too much in the first place.

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Many common reasons for excessive gift giving are relatively innocuous, Swann explains. “It could be that they have that spirit of gift giving and that is their love language, and it gives joy to do so,” she says. “Some people over-give because they experienced some sort of lack in their own life and they’re overcompensating.” Still, some may have what Swann calls “a nefarious perspective,” perhaps including an element of wanting to show off. Even still, that person likely has an underlying reason for behaving that way, and that may come from a past hurt, or loss, or other sort of personal deficit. The point, Swann says, is that behavior like over-giving is likely tied to deep-seated personality traits, and so it’s very hard to isolate a conversation about their gift giving from a conversation about who they are, and why they do what they do. And those conversations can be painful and difficult, so they may not be worth having. “When you look at the possible reasoning behind it, this is when the task of trying to get a person to change who they are to be difficult,” Swann says. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t gently try to adjust the circumstances a bit, anticipate the excess, and help your child contextualize the meaning of gift giving and receiving.

How to handle grandparents or relatives who give too many presents during the holidays

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In addition to considering what drives the behavior of the person in your circle who gives too much at the holidays, Swann says that parents who find themselves in this position should do some soul-searching of their own. If you’re feeling stressed or anxious in anticipation of someone giving your child a gift that’s too costly, or too many gifts, consider why it is making you feel this way and what you might be able to do about it that doesn’t involve changing their behavior. “Ask yourself, what is the outcome that you would like to experience?” encourages Swann. “Is your goal to teach your children how to be grateful and accept gifts and not expect certain things? Is your goal to monitor or divvy out the gifts in a more even manner? What's your purpose, other than it makes you feel uncomfortable?”

For a person who is dealing with an excessive giver for whom the extravagant of gift-giving is their “love language,” Swann encourages parents to remember that asking them to stop or tone it down is akin to asking them not to love in a way that is part of their core being. Likewise, if a person is giving too much out of guilt, or even because they want to show off, that may be an issue that’s simply too big for you to take on. “We can't really fix this kind of thing,” Swann reminds. “The only thing we can do is change. We can’t necessarily change the person, but we can change the way we respond to their behavior.”

Practically speaking, Swann says that this means that taking the time to teach your child about gifts and gratitude. Rather than trying to change a fellow adult, focus on the kid — you may not be able to control the world around you but, as a parent, how your child understands the world is something that you do have some control over. “You're better off trying to help shape your child's perspective on giving and gift receiving,” she says.

Having age-appropriate conversations with your kids about gift giving and receiving can help

“The person that you really have the most influence over is your child,” Swann reminds us. Rather than focus attention on an overzealous relative, take the time to sit down with your kid and explain and share about your hopes for the season, and what gifting is all about.

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Even the youngest kids can begin to understand that some people give a lot, some may give just a little, but, “the spirit behind a gift is to share love in a tangible way,” as Swann puts it. Regardless of the volume of gifts or size of a gift, a gift simply represents a way of showing love, she explains, and kid can be respectful and grateful. Rather than placing value on an amount of gifts or the extravagance of a gift, parents can remind kids often that what is behind the gift itself — and matters most — is the fact that this person thought so much of you that they decided to go out and make a purchase on their behalf. “Love is love, and that's the thing that we must value most,” Swann adds.

Consider spreading the gifts out over time so it’s not so overwhelming

If you and your child are really overwhelmed by a large volume of gifts — particularly on a day like Christmas, when your kid may already be at a high baseline level of stimulation — you may opt to dole a lot of gifts from one person out at a pace that feels comfortable. Swann says that’s more than valid. “Instead of piling it on the child all at once, stretching out those gifts over time is a good option,” she says. It may also be helpful to explain that this level of gift-giving is not a normal thing, and remind them to appreciate the one thing that the other aunt gave, as opposed to getting lost in the ten things from this aunt.

Not just talking about gratitude, but helping your child practice it may be a good way to instill the value, too, Swann explains. “Helping them to sit down and write that thank you note — that’s where you'll have the greatest impact as opposed to trying to change a grown person,” Swann urges.

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How to talk to an extravagant gift-giver about your family’s comfort levels

Does all of this work, thought and consideration mean that you cannot have a conversation with the extravagant gift giver in your life? “Not at all,” Swann says. Rather, if you decide to have the conversation, she says to make it your goal to find out their “why” behind the giving, and then see if there's some way that you can work together to make it different. She suggests saying something along the lines of: “I noticed each year that you go above and beyond my comfort level with the gift giving, and I know that we all give for different reasons. Is giving your love language? Or is there a reason why?”

She says that if you come out and just ask, with kindness and openness, the person might just share their reasoning with you. “Don't strike up the conversation in an accusatory manner, just bring up the fact that the gift giving is greater than you expect, and it'd be OK with you if they don't give as much.”

If they do share their thinking, then Swann says that is really where you have an opportunity. “Maybe they say, I was just trying to help out. You could respond to that and say, You know what? Actually, here's what we are doing with the kids. Now, it’s more of a team effort.”

Lastly, Swann urges families to “do their own personal inventories” and consider carefully if these conversations will be worth it. “If this happens once per year, is it worth me even having a conversation?” she says. “Maybe the better part of your time might be to allow it to be a learning experience with your child.”


Elaine Swann, etiquette expert, founder of The Swann School of Protocol, and author of Let Crazy Be Crazy.

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