Thoughts of home.

Carolyn:

I am one of three siblings, and one is married with two young children. He can't afford to buy us gifts, and has suggested a gift moratorium. Quite frankly, I don't care if they buy me a gift or not, and I understand their position. However, I work hard and do VERY well financially and WANT to buy them presents, especially knowing that clothes/household items are actually things they need. The situation is dicey--his spouse has been none too subtle about her resentment of me. My other sibling suggested exchanging names, but that was a no-go. Any way to give gifts without creating World War III?

--L.

Interesting choice of metaphor. I was thinking "ballistic" myself--as in, what your sister-in-law will go when she opens a box of "household items" you think the poor struggling dear can't afford.

She's your equal, she's not Tiny Tim.

Meanwhile, I have a question for you: When people don't want your gifts, whom are they really for?

A: You. (Ha. That question was really for me.)

If the single sibs want to exchange gifts, hey, knock each other out. Buy stuff for the kids, even. But your brother has asked for a break, a little respect and, I'd venture, a day without a reminder of how VERY well you're doing. There you go--three gifts you can give him. Four: Ever offer to baby-sit?

Dear Carolyn:

My husband and I have two children, ages 9 and 5. My in-laws live 10 minutes away. My mother-in-law works full time, and spends all day Saturday and Sunday at a shelter with stray dogs. She also has 13 dogs at her house. She asks to see the grandkids about once every 4 to 6 weeks for a few hours.

This was fine until last Thanksgiving, when we invited her for dinner. She said she just didn't want to bother with having to get together and declined. She'd rather spend the day with stray dogs than us? This was quite upsetting not only to my husband and me but to our kids. This is the only grandmother they have. When she does see them, she tells us how great, sweet, wonderful they are.

My husband wants nothing to do with his mom. I feel the same; however, for my children's sake, I feel we must attempt to keep peace. Any suggestions?

--Confidential in Texas

Could be worse. Could be 13 cats.

'Tis usually the season to OD on the in-laws, so thanks for the counter-programming. Different in-law question, same in-law answer, though: Take 'em or leave 'em. You want her to love you your way, and she wants to love you hers. Who do you think wins?

Nobody wants to see wittle kiddies blown off by Grandma. But she's a grown woman, and will love however she pleases.

You, as grown-ups yourselves, can deal with this however you please. Do you want to take her life (and quite-possible nuttiness) as a personal insult? To believe that if he were a different son and you were a different daughter-in-law and if you had different kids that she'd prefer you to dogs? Does it have to be about you you you?

What a wretched way to go. Try this one: She prefers dogs to people, and if she expresses love for humans in three-hour increments once a month, then you'll invite her to join you in three-hour increments once a month.

If it's any consolation, I can't tell you how many people would buy their in-laws 13 dogs if they knew that would keep them away.

Hi Carolyn:

My parents have so many problems that every time I talk to them I end up in a serious funk. They argue all the time, and have gotten into such a vicious circle of defensiveness, accusations, verbal abuse, etc., that the most minor problems in life (not to speak of larger ones) tend to blow up because they can't cooperate.

My father, mostly, isn't willing to listen or go to counseling (they're both depressed, my father pretty seriously, I think). I don't know what to tell them anymore when they call to vent.

--D.C. Blues

If your phone rings in the forest and you don't pick it up, do your parents call?

Unless your cells thrive on guilt, I suggest you start screening. You're their kid, not their shrink; listening to their marital problems is not your job.

Meet your new response to their venting: "That's my mother/father you're talking about, and I won't get in the middle of this . . . middle of this . . . middle of this . . ."

I know it sounds frosty, but what choice do you have? They don't want your help, because it means they'd have to do some hard emotional work. If they agree to that, great, get involved. But at this point, they'd rather just flap their gums. They don't need your help with that.

Write to Tell Me About It, Style Plus, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or tellme@washpost.com, and join Carolyn's live discussion at noon today or at 8 p.m. Monday at washingtonpost.com/liveonline