With the major gift giving holidays just around the corner, it's time to think about how to handle gifts for the children. Now that you're divorced or separated, it might seem that the answer is simple. Each of you will get separate gifts and the children will be happy because they will probably get more than they did when you were together. Beware, though, there are some hidden traps lurking in this situation.
Whether you are aware of it or not, divorced or separated parents often compete when it comes to gift-giving, especially at the beginning. If Johnny or Sally mentions something they'd like to have, they get it, no matter how costly or impractical it is. But with children being constantly inundated with commercials, ads, and catalogs to give them ideas about things they didn't even know they were missing, this can quickly escalate out of control.
Competing parents will often spend more money than they can comfortably afford, just to get Johnny or Sally the biggest, brightest, or best thing on their "wish" list. Then they expect the child to adore the gift and them, and to declare them the best parent. When the child doesn't react the way they want, they're disappointed or even resentful.
Nobody wins by competing for the children's affection through gifts, not even the children. While there might be a part of them that likes the extra attention and gifts, in the long run, they feel uncomfortable being treated like a "prize" in a contest they don't really understand.
There's another problem with gift-giving competition, especially when the parents have different economic circumstances. The less well-off parent resents feeling like his or her gifts are not as "good" as the other parent's gifts, or that the other parent spends lots of money on expensive gifts but refuses to pay for that extracurricular activity the children really want to participate in.
The parent with more financial resources resents the fact that he or she is the one who always gives the more expensive gift, or that the other parent does not use their child support money to buy nicer gifts.
So what can you do to stop this gift-giving insanity?
If there is ever a time for the two parents to communicate, it is around gift-giving time. If you have a decent relationship, meet for coffee or lunch and talk about gift ideas for the children – I mean really talk about it. What gifts have the children mentioned, and how much do they cost? What have each of you budgeted for gifts?
Make a list of things the kids have asked for and try to prioritize them in order of importance. If you need more information about cost, size, or availability of specific items, decide which of you is going to do the required research and report back to the other. After you have all the information you need, decide together who will give which gift(s) to the children.
Note that if you don't have such a great relationship, you can accomplish all of this by email.
Sometimes there is a gift that a child really wants or needs, but it costs more than either parent can comfortably handle on his or her own. Why not give the gift together, with each of you contributing towards the cost? Even if the gift is actually given at one parent's house, both parents can sign the card and/or attach separate cards.
When their parents cooperate in this way, the children actually get two gifts for the price of one. They get the item that was their heart's desire, and they also get to see the two people they love the most working together to put them first.
Seeing their parents communicate and cooperate, instead of compete, is the most priceless gift of all, and a life lesson that the child will carry forever.
© 2008, Mary Wollard, J.D., Family Solutions Center, www.cofamilysolutions.com