Q. When I married for the second time, I gained a wonderful stepdaughter who shares her life and her children with me. These two little girls, now 4 and 5, are my grandchildren.
This family lives a few hours away, but I usually visit them every month, in addition to holidays and other special occasions. On these occasions I typically bring the girls a book, a small toy, clothing or all of the above, and now they look for these presents as soon as I get there. The 5-year-old even asks for things that are often expensive, although I’m not sure she knows how much they cost.
While I love to pick up gifts for my grandchildren, they are usually impulse buys, so it makes me uncomfortable to fill their specific requests unless it is for a birthday or for Christmas.
Am I overdoing these gifts? Should I cut back? Or is cutting back even necessary?
A. It’s hard to know who is more generous: your stepdaughter for inviting you to visit every month (and for special occasions, too!) or you, for treating your grandchildren to all those delicious presents.
The gifts you bring to your grandchildren should be based on your whims, however, not theirs. The girls will tell you what they want — children always do — but so what? Just listen to their suggestions, give them a grandmotherly smile and leave most of the toys at the store, especially if they are grander, fancier or more expensive than you can afford or better than they would get from their parents. That could simply turn gift-giving into a mean little competition between you and your stepdaughter, and she would win it every time. A mother’s love trumps anything you could ever buy.
But before buying another game or toy, ask your stepdaughter for her advice. You need to know what special presents she would like for you to give the children and what you should avoid. A game with 100 pieces is no fun for a mom who has to pick up 90 of them every week.
If you’re still in doubt, remember this: Most parents want toys that stretch their children’s imagination, make them laugh or can be played with for years. To give one of the best presents of all, consider a present that could come only from you. Your grandchildren might like a dress-up box, to which you add one of your old scarves or purses every time you visit, or a small file box filled, one by one, with your fine but simple recipes — but only after the girls helped you make the dish and told you that they liked it. Or best of all, give them an empty photograph album so you can add a picture of your husband — their grandfather — to it every month and then tell them a story about him.
If you give one of these time-consuming gifts to the girls, you may not have the time or energy to buy a lot of presents. But you still should ask their mother if you are giving them too many — and how many is “too many,” anyway? She’ll be frank if she knows that, whatever she says, your feelings won’t be hurt.
You shouldn’t let the girls place their orders every month or for Christmas and birthdays because giving is a two-way street, and it must be particularly encouraged in the early years when children are so self-focused. You can do that just by asking them, “What are you giving your mom for her birthday?” or saying, “I brought you some new crayons so you can draw a picture for your daddy.”
You have to plant the seeds of generosity a couple of months before a gift is due and then mention it a few more times. Maybe make a list of their ideas or take them to some yard sales or thrift shops to find an inexpensive present or a frame that fits one of their drawings. Although you will have given the girls a couple of dollars to pay for these gifts, money will still be a mystery to them until they’re about 8, so don’t expect them to understand it. For now, they know only that they have bought these presents themselves; they have wrapped them; and they will make the people they love very happy.
If children don’t experience this pleasure many times, they may grow up expecting the world to give them what they want, when they want it, but if they grow up knowing the joy of giving, they will be givers for the rest of their lives.
Send questions about parenting to email@example.com.