How to politely ask grandparents to stop spoiling your kids at Christmas

Some grandparents like to shower the grandkids with presents. How to balance their generosity with your desire for minimalism?

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Let’s say you actually have managed to pare down your calendar and prioritize family and worship this Advent and Christmas season. There’s still the matter of the gifts under the tree—and parents only have so much control over what (and how many) gifts their kids receive. If we’re trying to help our children resist greed and materialism, how do we deal with extended family, like grandparents and aunts and uncles, who perhaps give to excess?

As the holidays draw near, this is a topic I find popping up often as I spend time with my friends who are mothers. One friend described Rubbermaid tubs full of gifts from her parents each year, while another debated how long she was required to hold on to the presents before shoving them into a trash bag and dropping them off at a nearby thrift store.

To put it bluntly: how the heck do we keep grandma and grandpa from spoiling our kids?

First things first: teaching gratitude is the parents’ job

Before creating gift-giving boundaries with your extended family, parents must take responsibility for fostering the spirit of the season in their home. Sure, excessive gift giving might feed into spoiled behavior in children, but ultimately, thankfulness is taught at home, all year long.

“Ideally, gratitude is a virtue we foster and nurture throughout the year, not just throughout the Christmas season,” said Joshua Hawrot, a clinical associate therapist at Pastoral Solutions Institute. He suggested creating a habit of daily gratitude, discussing with children what they are grateful for and reminding them that those gifts were given to them by God.

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Pastor Stan Palmer of Our Redeemer Lutheran in Kinsley, Kansas agreed, encouraging parents to move beyond platitudes about the reason for the season and help their children explore why we celebrate Jesus at Christmastime through the practice of Advent.

“This is where observing Advent in the family devotions is very helpful,” he said. “Using the season of Advent helps right the focus onto Christ. Christ as the gift of the holiday season but also Christ as the one who comes to rescue us from our sin.”

A simple Advent wreath with five candles can serve as the centerpiece for your family table. Gathering nightly, or even weekly, to light a candle, read the Christmas story and discuss why we need the gift of Christ is an excellent way to point your children towards the hope of the Christmas season.

Invite family members to join in on meaningful traditions

It can feel a little harsh and unkind to say to grandparents, “Please cut it out with all the presents.” Pastor Palmer suggests, as a low-conflict and respectful way to approach the problem, asking grandparents to join your family in acts of generosity.

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There are endless ways we can practice generosity in our world. Angel Tree, a program created by The Salvation Army, provides the opportunity to buy Christmas gifts for the families in your community who are without the resources to purchase Christmas presents for their families. Heifer International allows families in the western world to purchase livestock for families in impoverished countries. Many worship communities around the country host free Christmas dinners, or put together a box of groceries for families who would like to cook Christmas dinner at home. Or an invitation to go to Mass on Christmas morning is an excellent way to celebrate together, outside of the space surrounding the Christmas tree.

Set clear boundaries, but be willing to compromise

Pastor Palmer cautioned parents confronting extended family about this issue to consider that giving gifts may be how they show love.

Instead of reprimanding them for their generosity, he suggested candidly sharing with them what you are trying to accomplish in your home. Express your hopes for raising your children to value the gift of Christ and to appreciate quality time spent with family during the Christmas season.

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Ask them to join with you in your mission by limiting gifts to one per child, or whatever number you have decided is appropriate for your family. If your family members don’t understand your values or are unwilling to honor your request, consider finding a compromise that makes everyone happy.

Andrea Salvador, a mom of two, had to strike a compromise when her grandmother wasn’t willing to limit her number of gifts for Andrea’s sons. They were able to agree that all gifts would be bought from a non-profit thrift store, so that the money would be directed towards helping the local community. And when her children are through with the toys, they donate them instead of allowing them to clutter up their home.

Offer practical suggestions

Of course, there are also practical ways you can help your family avoid excessive giving this Christmas. Pastor Stan Palmer suggested asking your children what they would like and then offering one or two ideas to their grandparents. This can naturally rein in the desire to give multiple gifts, providing them with a confidence that they are purchasing a single gift their grandchild will love.

Chaunie Brusie, mom of four, asked that her siblings chip in to buy one collective gift, instead of each aunt and uncle purchasing each of her children a present. She also provided ideas for what type of gifts would be most valued in their home, asking them to buy “activity” centered gifts, such as a sewing kit or a movie-making kit, instead of toys that would just be forgotten.

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As the owner of a small house, Kelly Burch, mom of one, noticed that the toys her daughter was being given were beginning to create clutter in her home, so she “asked the grandparents to please give experiences like dance lessons or visits for Christmas instead of more toys,” she said. “Not only will our house be cleaner, but I really think my daughter will enjoy those things more. And if they must give a physical gift, it can be a book.”

Experiential gifts keep giving back, instead of being lost or retired to a closet a few weeks after Christmas, and can provide opportunities for grandparents to spend time with your children throughout the year using the gifts they have purchased.

Finally, remember to enjoy getting & giving gifts

“We receive Christ first as the greatest gift,” pastoral counselor Joshua Hawrot shared as a reminder. “That allows us to receive and appreciate the gifts we are given by others.”

It is a wonderful thing to give generously to the people in our lives, and to receive the gifts we are given with gratitude. In your efforts to keep materialism at bay in your home and to avoid grandparents spoiling your children, don’t forget to joyfully celebrate with the people you love and to receive the generosity of others with open arms. Allow the getting and giving of gifts to serve as a reflection of the goodness of God and the gift he gives us in Christ this holiday season.

And if the doting grandparents still won’t budge? It might be time to drop the issue—and make a January trip to Goodwill a new family tradition.


Mary Sauer
Mary Sauer
Mary lives in the Midwest with her two daughters and husband. She enjoys writing about parenting, food and relationships.

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