Q:My father is unemployed/early-retired, and has been since before last holiday season. We pretty much skipped gift giving last year, because we’re all adults here, and it’s the family-time that matters (like 98 percent, at least). My wife and I also happened to have brought two tiny babies into our family late last year, and taking gift giving off the list didn’t take a lot of convincing.
This year, our babies are older, we are less overwhelmed, and we are looking forward to exchanging gifts with family, now that we have a few months of solid sleep under our belts. So, my father (my sons’ grandfather) is still unemployed, and said “no Christmas this year.” I’ve since convinced him to come to our house, and agreed to skip gifts in favor of family time (e.g. “what matters,” see above).
BUT (I know, I’m exposing myself as a materialistic and consumerist sheep, but bear with me), I’m going to miss the gift exchange. I’m also worried about future holidays, and I want my sons to feel like ALL their grandparents love them and send gifts for birthdays and Christmas. I’m an only child, and my mom died many years ago, so I also have Tiny Family Syndrome, which means I’m probably foisting huge expectations on my dad. Do you have any advice for how to reduce my desire for a family gift exchange? Or, should I help my dad buy gifts for my sons?
—Sheepish Daughter Who Wants to Help
A: Dear SDWWH,
Be serious: Who doesn’t love gifts? Nothing wrong with that.
If gifts are a big part of your holiday celebration and you want your dad involved, sure, take him out shopping. Tell him you’re excited for the kids to open something he’s picked out for them and that you’ll happily foot the bill. Kids have a reputation for being demanding little snots, but the small ones really aren’t that picky when it comes to toys. So if budget is a factor, you can get some great stuff at a consignment shop or thrift store, and they won’t even know the difference. This way your kids get gifts, your dad doesn’t get left out, you get some bonus quality time with him, and there’s no weird money pressure. Gifts aren’t about the money, anyway.
And while I’m being preachy: gifts also aren’t about love. Oooof. I get what you were trying to say there, and it’s the holidays, I feel you. But you know what I’m going to say: gifts aren’t a measure of affection at all—the two aren’t synonyms. Some folks show their love with gifts, others don’t. Which is a great message to start to show your kids, especially this time of year. This is one of those life lessons that, I mean, you could just outright tell your kids. Sure. But how much better is it for them to also learn by experience? That pull to equate love with stuff you buy is REAL, and it can have shitty consequences (overspending to make yourself or someone else feel loved? We’ve all done it, I’m sure.) So here’s the perfect chance to start teaching them something different.
So, you could take dad out shopping, fill in the gaps for him, love on him while helping him love on your kids. Or, if he wouldn’t be keen on that (I get it; it sucks to be the broke guy), you can refocus your perspective on other ways love is expressed. So he can’t bring over a pile of toys, but maybe he can come over and bake cookies, help them make greeting cards, drive around with you guys to see the holiday lights. And instead of making a grand gift exchange the central part of your Christmas morning, maybe you can build it around making a meal together, playing games as a family, or watching some cheesy traditional movie.
Your dad’s instinct to cancel the holiday shows that maybe he’s feeling like he’s got nothing to offer if he can’t buy a gift. Don’t get sucked into that thinking. Your dad can still be a part of some meaningful holiday traditions, and your kids will be better off for it.
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