Q My wife’s family like to spend a lot of money on presents. They are, in my opinion, overly materialistic and they all earn a significant amount more than my wife and I, even though we are very comfortable by any standards. We all have a couple of kids each and they insist on buying presents for each individual child. Therefore we have to do the same and the cost really adds up. Also, I hate that my kids get so many presents. They get overwhelmed and don’t appreciate them. How could they when there are so many? I know I can’t tell my wife how to behave with her family and that people should be allowed to buy each other presents but when there are kids with nothing, it really doesn’t sit well with me. I have suggested that we give presents to homeless kids instead and they looked at me as if I were mad. Can you help?
Allison replies: Have you spoken to your wife about how you feel? Families have their own norms and values around what makes Christmas for them. For some it’s the decorations and the food, for others, it’s spending time together or it’s all the above with bells and whistles and not a piece of tinsel in sight.
Presents hold immense psychological influence and power within a family.
It can illustrate the present giver’s status to the family as to how well they are doing and can reveal how they feel about the person they are giving the present to, or how they want them to feel about them.
If a present is given that is obviously lavish this may have made you uncomfortable in the past as it seems to be clashing with your value system.
This is what I would bring back to your wife, to explore the meaning of Christmas for you and what you hope for your family and then to be curious as to how she feels and to figure out what new family norms you would both like to see come into being and how to go about that.
Asking questions like: what was the best gift you’ve ever received, and why?
You may be surprised by her answer and possibly this could be brought to the family Whatsapp chat or a face-to-face. Explain honestly that you feel the kids are overwhelmed and don’t see what they have as there is so much, and ask what do they think?
Ask if they prefer to give or receive and why? A lot of people feel in the spotlight when receiving a gift and feel a sense of trepidation about giving the right reaction to the expectant giver’s face.
Leaving any judgment aside, it could open up a new conversation about Christmas presents in general to then gently asking if they’d be interested in possibly putting a budget in place.
This can bring real equity back into the present-buying game as it forces people to be creative and respectful that not everyone can afford to, or even wants to,spend so much on Christmas presents.
Giving options is always a good way to come at a problem. If you want to give a gift that has an impact, making the money smaller and the thought bigger is one possibility.
A Christmas experience day out could be one way to give the gift of spending time together that recipients will really remember and cherish.
When it comes to presents, less is more, as most are saturated with the over-commercialisation that kicks in the day after Halloween.
Presents are wonderful as they can be a reflection of how well you know and value the person you are giving a present to.
When the value is purely monetary, even the best, shiniest gift becomes somewhat dull amongst all the others.
Do you feel you have any other value clashes that occur outside of Christmas? Have you written out what you feel uncomfortable about; it would be an exercise worth doing.
Families can think differently to each other and still get along. Accepting them as they are can be an interesting first step.
Acceptance doesn’t mean you like it, but there’s a respect for each other’s differences.
If people ask ‘well what else can we buy?’, have some pictures to hand of some of the amazing gift ideas you have seen through one of the charities that means most to you and explain why.
Then ask who would they like to help and why?
Again the tone is curious and explorative rather than judgemental.
Don’t try to change the family’s present-giving norms.
Open up new possibilities from Kris Kindle, to capping amounts on gifts, even making it really low to make it fun.
Show them ‘Barnardos Gifts for Good’ such as ‘a good night’s sleep’, ‘warmth and well-being’, ‘feed their potential or ‘a new chapter of opportunity’ as just one example and say why they mean so much to you.
Check out the charities regulator online to help explore which homeless charity you may like to choose and ask for your present to be a donation to your preferred charity.
As Gandhi said, ‘be the change you want to be in the world.’
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