The politics of gift-giving — especially in blended families — can be fraught with peril. With kids being human calculators, knowing the value of absolutely everything, each one will measure exactly where s/he stands in the pecking order. Yes, families need to have the wisdom of Solomon to navigate these minefields but there are ways to diffuse potential bombs instead of igniting them.
Here's what I've learned over the years to create holiday memories.
Sometimes, because of finances, you simply can't buy the kinds of presents that you could before. But parents have to be adults and not point fingers. Instead of saying, "Johnny, you can't get an X-Box and a bike because your Dad left with that woman and we can't afford it," you can say, "Johnny, there is a difference between luxuries and necessities. Right now, we can't afford to buy everything I would want, but you can have a choice between an X-Box and a bike. And at another time, I hope to buy you the other one."
That makes the choices value-based versus divorce-based.
Do not spoil your child to get back at your husband. This always backfires. Have faith that simple pleasures are still what kids remember, not the particular toy. Your attitude in dealing with changes will be the roadmap in how they deal with bumps along the way, so be as positive as possible.
Gifts for Stepkids
Unlike my childhood, where a gift might be signed "From Mom and Dad," and I didn’t get mad if Mom really bought the gifts, in a divorced household, a signature of "Jill and Dad" feels inferior and empty. It’s another example of a child being force-fed this new family.
Many stepchildren feel they are sharing their father with another family and already have only rationed time with him. When Dad picks out the gift, it feels more special — and I think they're right.
Therefore, the biological parent and stepparent should buy separate gifts for the stepchildren. It goes a long way if a stepfather buys something that is designed to tell his stepkids that they are on his radar. It shows that affection isn't solely manufactured because of his marriage to their mother.
This is a controversial tip, but one I believe in: a father who feels he is already donating resources to his new wife's family and live-in step kids can and should give his biological children extra treats on the holidays. These children often feel like outsiders visiting a new household with live-in stepkids. This gesture lets them know that their link with their father is not fraying.
However, it should be a nuanced gesture. It could be a card with a thoughtful inscription, a poem, a special promise of a weekend outing. Otherwise, fathers can fall into the trap of being a Disneyland Dad who spoils visiting children instead of creating an environment in which there are rules and expectations for all family members.
Gifts for Stepparents
The biological parent will get better gifts and more affection. Case closed.
I know that whenever a child calls with good news, my son will say "Guess what, Mom!" and with my stepkids it will be, "Hi Jill. Is Dad there?"
In the same way, a gift usually reflects the pecking order. Biological mothers are saints — but stepmothers are not necessarily sinners, either. A gift of appreciation for those stepmothers who make the effort to be inclusive, supportive, and loving is expected — otherwise feelings will get hurt.
Make sure the biological parent isn't clueless around the holidays. It is their normalcy that the child/teenager/young adult is attracted to around the holidays, so they may not be aware of a stepparent’s feelings of having second-class status in the household.
Jeannette Lofas, president of the Stepfamily Foundation, had a case where the stepmother was furious that the kids didn't buy her anything. Lofas told her that the blame should be on her and the father because expectations weren't communicated. Tell Dad to have the conversation with his children to clarify what traditions are expected in each family.
Once the tradition begins, it becomes a part of the annual ritual. Furthermore, the more years you're around, the more you become a valued family member. Live by the motto that no act of kindness is wasted, even if it's not appreciated today.
Gifts for Siblings from Relatives
If one parent has more siblings, his/her child will get more presents from aunts and uncles than a kid who has less of an extended family. In these cases, an extra hug or explanation can diffuse any initial jealousies. Focus the child's attention then on what they have instead of what they don't.
I know of one case where a grandmother was reminded to get her daughter's stepson a gift but clearly favored her two biological grandchildren with better loot. When questioned, she replied, "But they're not my grandchildren. They have other grandparents."
In being politically correct, we can't go overboard in expecting total equality. It doesn't exist. Appreciate all gestures from extended family members and just emphasize the importance of inclusion. My suggestion is to have extra gifts on hand in case someone clearly feels left out.
Stepfamily Bonus Prize For All Holidays
Ok. Here's the bonus. Not only do stepfamilies learn to be adaptive for the greater good, but stepchildren often take more holiday trips than an intact family. Furthermore, if you spend the holidays in more than one place, the law of averages means you get more gifts – and, with lots of effort – more love.
In conclusion, when families blend, relationships expand. They are no longer solely determined by biology but by ever-changing social relationships.