Gift Ideas for the Overindulgent Grandparent

Despite the fact that I am a bit of a tightwad — I love sales, consignment shopping and Living Social deals — when it comes to things my kids need or would really, really love, I have to sit on my hands to keep from pulling out my debit card. And it isn’t improving as the years go by. When my son Alex left for college, it was all I could do to park the red shopping cart and step away from Target before blowing our entire retirement savings. (What if he really needs a pastry cutter?)

That’s why when one of my friends with young children said that she hoped her parents wouldn’t go overboard again this year on gifts for the grandkids, my heart stopped. That could be me in a few years! If I have this much trouble resisting the urge to buy for my grown kids, what will I be like with my grandkids?

When I began researching this issue on parenting message boards I was shocked. One child received 87 gifts from his grandmother on his first Christmas! Another family, with divorced grandparents on both sides, felt that they were in the middle of a competition for which grandparent gave the most gifts — each wanting to be the “good” grandparent. Some parents complained about the amount of Dollar Store “junk gifts,” while others bemoaned grandparents who bought outrageously expensive gifts that the parents had forbidden. Many parents reported grandparents who became hurt, angry, or simply refused to comply when asked to limit the number of gifts given. One sad mother said she watched her child open one gift after another from his grandparents with all the enthusiasm of a “factory worker.”

Mary Lew, grandmother of seven grandchildren ranging in age from one year to 25, says she understands the urge to purchase for grandkids, “A lot of grandparents are depression era or post-depression era and have the attitude, ‘I didn’t have this and I want my kids to have it.’” She also said that grandkids can fill a void when a grandparent is widowed or retired.

“Though I am not in a position to overindulge my grandchildren, I don’t think I would anyway,” Mary said. “The thing I loved as a child was the actual physical presence of my grandma. I don’t remember a single gift she gave me, except a pair of roller skates. What I do remember is her delightful presence and her open heart. She is my role model.”

With this in mind, Mary gives her grandkids shared experiences instead of things. “What I like to do is give them index cards with promises on them of stuff they love to do. Each card has a different promise such as ‘Ice cream cone at Freckles,’ ‘Bake cupcakes’, ‘Frost sugar cookies,’ ‘Have a sleepover, ‘Watch a movie and stay up late.’ I always wrap the cards and put them in a pretty gift bag,” Mary said.

For older grandchildren Mary says she will give a “small amount of money,” though she says the offer for the sleepover is always open—“When they are 25 it is just as fun!”

“Giving gifts is part of the magic of the grandparent/grandchild connection,” said Susan Bosak, chair of Legacy Project, a multigenerational education project and author of “How to Build the Grandma Connection.” But she cautions grandparents not to:

• overwhelm your grandchild with too many gifts.
• try to buy their affection.
• go against their parents’ wishes.
• buy a big gift or one that will require special care or arrangements (e.g. pet, trip) without first consulting parents.

Here are some of her ideas for creative gifts that grandchildren will love:

• Gifts that encourage and support your grandchild’s interests — tickets to events/plays/concerts; lessons; musical instruments; sports equipment; a magazine subscription; posters or paintings; calendars; videos; computer software.
• “Big kid” needs, such as a radio, clock, camera, desk, bookcase, or bags for carrying things to school, for sports, or for travel.
• Books are always in style, and won’t break (see Books to Share with Your Grandchildren at
• A treasure hunt with clues your grandchild follows to find items hidden around your house.
• A disposable camera with a list of places and things they can find and photograph.

Ironically, grandparents often over-indulge grandkids in an effort to create a stronger bond, when actually the bond comes from time spent, not gifts given. There is also a desire to see a grandchild’s face light up and know that you caused that thrill.

But it doesn’t take a new toy to bring a child joy.

“Time is the greatest gift of all,” Susan said.

As Mary discovered, time coupons are “a creative way for both grandparent and grandchild to anticipate a fun, shared experience.”

“When I find myself wishing I could do more for my grandkids,” Mary said, “I remind myself that what this kid really likes is for me to lie on the floor and play with her.”

Mary’s words echo what one parent posted on a parenting message board: “My 4-year-old actually said, ‘Why does Grandma buy us so much stuff? I just want to play with her.’”


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