It’s that time of the year when it’s easy for coparents, stepparents and children to get caught up in the calendars, traditions, and negotiations for time together and time apart associated with the end of year holiday season. (We have some articles on those topics too: Tips for Managing Family Traditions in Your Stepfamily, 7 Tips for Managing a ‘Not-so-Joyful’ Co-parenting Christmas, and The Christmas See-Saw). The chaos of Christmas combined with everyday stepfamily challenges can lend itself to forgetting about the thing that can sometimes become the biggest and longest-lasting headache for a stepfamily at Christmas time … presents and gift-giving.
Gift-giving in stepfamilies can be a tricky practice. There are no hard and fast rules. Consider the possibilities: assorted levels of income among Mum’s household, Dad’s household, extended families, and extended stepfamilies; grandparents who may not yet accept stepchildren; unfamiliar traditions among new in-laws; and gift overload from multiple celebrations. An almost-certain result is that somewhere along the line, someone will receive more from more people than others and someone may feel left out.
As each stepfamily is unique, how they respond to the holidays will be too. But if you are struggling around what to do in the gift-giving department or didn’t realise that even the best intentions can cause unintended heartache in stepfamilies, here’s a few simple tips that can help guide you through this aspect of the holiday season:
- Stick to what you can afford. Sometimes you simply can’t financially afford to buy the presents you could before the separation, that your children are asking for or that you would like to be able to buy them. Over-extending yourself will only bring about stress and resentment. Instead, plan to have ‘the money talk’ with your kids well in advance of Christmas day, manage their expectations about what they might get and be open about what you (or Santa) can and cannot afford. Stress what Christmas is really all about and that memories far outweigh any present you could possibly buy.
- Don’t make it a competition. Avoid trying to buy a ‘bigger’ or ‘better’ gift or going out of your way to spend more money on presents than the Ex or their family. Make value based decisions about what you buy, not divorce based decisions driven by your feelings towards your Ex.
- Be fair. Remember to be seen to be fair in what you give to each child in your household even if the child doesn’t live with you full time or is not with you this year on the 25 December. What is considered ‘fair’ is somewhat age dependant. Most younger children couldn’t care less about the cost of an item. This is when it is more important to just be fair in the number of gifts given (or the size of the presents). Teens however are more likely to understand “value” and that their iPod cost over $100, so they might only be receiving one gift.
- Avoid duplication where possible. If you and the Ex aren’t able to communicate about who is getting what for your child(ren), have the kids prepare two lists for Santa and encourage them to ask Santa for different presents at each of their houses. Also keep receipts so that you can easily exchange a gift if necessary.
- Impact needs agreement. Presents that impact on both households (such as giving the child their first mobile phone, or an Apple watch for example) require agreement from both parents – before the gift is purchased and the children know about it.
- The gift belongs to the child. Try to avoid buying presents that you aren’t necessarily willing for the child to take to back and forth between their two homes.
- No ‘together’ gifts. Whilst possibly a contentious tip, biological parents should avoid buying ‘joint’ presents for their child(ren) together (particularly in the first couple of years following a separation). Not only can it can set the kids up with false expectations, allowing them to keep the ‘my-parents-are-going-to-get-back-together’ fantasy alive, it can blur the boundaries in terms of the biological parent’s adult relationship with their current partner/spouse. It can also create unnecessary parental conflict if there is no agreement about which tree the gift is placed under and which parent gets to watch the child open it on Christmas morning.
- Keep it real. Manufactured affection feels insincere and uncomfortable for everyone.Stepparents and stepchildren should give cards and/or presents that feel appropriate to their relationship (even if that is different from what you want to give or say in a card).
- Grandparents/Step-grandparents = equality. Ideally expect step-grandparents to provide a similar value of gift to grandchildren and step-grandchildren. Children do notice and make comparisons. It’s hard to explain to a 5-year-old boy or 11-year-old girl the differences in terms of what they and their siblings might get from persons they are all encouraged to consider as grandparents.
- Shared experiences. If the kids have too much already and trying to coordinate gift giving with multiple relatives is too exhausting, perhaps ask different family groups to gift your stepfamily a different experience (as opposed to giving individual gifts) For example – a family pass to a zoo or a theme park, an annual family pass enabling the family to use a local swimming pool, or a voucher to a Teppanyaki Resturant, a block buster movie or a broadway show.
- Spare gifts. Encourage appreciation for all gestures from extended family members and emphasize the importance of inclusion. However, our suggestion is to have some small extra gifts on hand just in case someone clearly feels left out.