Care and Feeding

My Husband’s Family’s Gifting Traditions Are Rote and Joyless

How can I make them embrace surprise?

A gift catalogue with present choices circled in red.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Trevor Collens/AFP via Getty Images.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a low-stakes question, but it bugs me. Everyone in this scenario has similar (sufficient) economic means and is from the same social class and race and religion. In my family of origin, gifts are thoughtful surprises. We all take care and joy in seeking out presents that will be meaningful to the recipient. There is joyous beloved surprised excess at gift-giving occasions (and no off-season gifts). Giver and recipient derive happiness. Packages are wrapped at home, sometimes in fancy paper, sometimes in newspaper, sometimes in whatever paper would have been recycled but was instead painted by a child, etc. We mail these things across the country as needed in advance of the relevant occasions.

Now that we are adults, my siblings and I do not exchange birthday presents with each other, just our children, but we maintain the same traditions (and go all out for Christmas). But in my husband’s family, gift-giving is a commercial exchange. He grew up circling items in a catalog and having them arrive, just as requested, no surprises. Christmas presents were exchanged whenever they arrived, not under the tree. These days it is all very tit-for-tat (“my sister gave me $75 shoes, so we will buy her a $75 sweater”), gifts are rarely wrapped, and the whole affair is joyless.

When our children were little, there was no conflict as my in-laws would just give them little kid toys, and while often I had to wrap the presents, I didn’t mind that much. But now that my kids are 8 and 10, their grandparents and aunts/uncles are treating them in the same transactional way they treat one another, the way my husband was brought up (“please circle what you want in the catalog, up to $XX and we will send it to you”). In addition, the grandparents bring presents anytime they come to visit (I stopped protesting this because it was futile—and of course my kids are now miffed that my parents don’t do this too, so now we’re working on having gratitude attitudes).

Over 15 years of marriage, my husband has adapted to my ways, and he’s come to enjoy surprising me. He understands that when asked for a “wish list” I will provide some inspirational jumping-off points, not specific items. He generally finds shopping for my family fun, and if he gets stuck or frustrated I help, because none of this should be stressful (which he appreciates). I am getting increasingly frustrated by his family, though. Recently someone on the in-law side emailed me to ask what my son would like for his birthday next month. I replied, “Thanks for asking! I know he’ll love whatever you choose. Right now, he is into X, Y, and Z. He also still loves building things. His clothing size is M, and he likes shirts that are soft and pattern-blocked.
His favorite YouTuber is A, who has a merch store, and I’m sure anything from there would be appreciated. Hope this helps! xoxo.” She replied, “Oh, he has always been such an interesting kid! Could you please provide two items from here in that we should buy him?”

I honestly feel like they shouldn’t bother, but I don’t know how to say this (“If you don’t want to take the time to consider my children’s personalities and interests and what might be fun or interesting—and if you get it wrong, that’s what receipts are for!—then just donate to the college fund and be done with it!”?). Or maybe I should just forward all such requests to my husband? The problem is that he wouldn’t know what to choose. Last year he gave both of our children Lego sets they already own. He simply doesn’t pay attention, whereas I know where everything in the house came from and on what occasion—and if things were presents, I remember who gave them. (My husband’s family also doesn’t write thank you notes, but that is a hill I will die on: Our children write them.)

—In the Land of Plenty, Who Wraps the Presents?

Dear Land of Plenty,

You know, I don’t think this is a low-stakes question at all (and I don’t believe you do either, or you wouldn’t have written at such length about it). The stakes, it seems to me, have to do with control. You (and your family of origin) have one way of gift-giving, it works for you, it sounds very nice (if, to my mind, a little exhausting), and it seems to make you all happy. Good for you! Your husband’s family does things differently. Sure, the way they do gifts doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun, but that’s their business, not yours. In any case, you’re not going to be able to change it. It’s as baked in as your own traditions. And because you knew perfectly well what your in-law meant when she asked what your kid wanted for his birthday, I think it was a bit passive-aggressive of you to respond in the way you did (although I will stipulate that I understand the impulse) … and I think your impulse now to respond to that response with “Never mind then! Just send cash for college!” suggests that you might need a refresher course in gratitude attitude.

A few things to keep in mind:

First, your in-laws are never, ever going to give gifts in the way you would like them to, and it’s churlish to demand that they do. Second, your kids’ paternal grandparents are well within generally recognized grandparent rights to bring presents when they visit, whether or not it’s a holiday.

Third, your remarks about your husband and his gift-giving abilities and attention-paying habits versus yours suggest that your issues around control extend to your own household in a way that might not be entirely healthy for any of you (I also found myself wondering why the two of you are going out and buying separate gifts for the kids).

And fourth, if you feel that what your in-laws are asking of you is too much work (and you don’t trust your husband, which frankly I think you should—and so what if he makes a mistake? That’s what receipts are for, right?), pass the task along to the kid in question. They are both old enough to take on this responsibility themselves, and if you’re afraid it sends the wrong message, feel free to tell them that you prefer gifts to be a surprise, but that this is the way their dad’s family likes to do things. (They’ll find this out eventually anyway.)

Fifth: I’m with you on thank-you notes. Keep up the good work on that front.

—Michelle

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