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Holiday gifts when parents are divorced

How can parents who parent apart approach holiday giving? There are two sides to this issue.

Let's begin with gifts for the child. Ideally, both parents can communicate with each other about their child's wants and needs:

  • Wants are those things she says she can't live without, but you know aren't necessary to sustain life:
    • A new video game.
    • The doll that grows hair.
    • A trip to Disneyland.
  • Needs are those things that are necessary to have:
    • A new pair of boots for winter.
    • Underwear.
    • A new backpack for school.
    • And a host of other items that can't be avoided.

Once the wants and needs are determined, the parents can decide who will purchase which items from both lists. Balancing wants and needs is also much easier on each parent's budget. Children will enjoy having some of the items they have on their wish list and others they will use every day. Sometimes a child's needs are different at each household. In this case, the child may want to make a list for each parent of what they wish for and the parents may decide individually what to give.

Reducing gift-related conflict

Parents who parent apart can and do encounter pitfalls. Trying to be the parent who spends the most money on your children's gifts can turn giving into a contest where each parent tries to outdo the other with lavish and not very useful gifts. This is no gift for your child. Giving your child too much, too soon, that doesn't meet their real needs, is a setup for overindulgence.

Criticizing the other parent's gifts challenges your child's sense of loyalty to the other parent. When a child can't enjoy a gift because of your hostility, you are undermining your child's relationship with both of you. Be supportive, even if you don't share their excitement.

Sometimes gifts are specific to a particular household, and should stay there. Yet this isn't always the case. Remember, the gifts belong to your children and they should be able to enjoy it at both homes. This is particularly true when the gift helps comfort your child.

In addition to gifts for the children, parents should discuss gifts the children can give to each parent. If communication between parents is difficult, give your child different examples of how they can give to you and/or your family. Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Personalized coupon books for fun activities together
  • Having your child come up with a new tradition for a specific holiday or occasion
  • Breakfast in bed or a meal together

Remember, it's important to teach children that giving is not about the monetary value of the gift, but the thought and sentiment behind the gift.

We all want our children to learn the art of giving. It's important for parents to encourage children to give gifts to the other parent, as well as extended family members. This may mean helping them think about what to give, providing a reasonable budget, and shopping with your child. For young children who make gifts in school, talk with the teacher about allowing your child to make two items so that each parent has a plaster of Paris hand print or a macaroni covered box.

There are many ways that you can help your child learn the joy of giving. This will bring you closer to your child, and help your child be closer to the other parent. Everyone wins.

Rose Allen, Extension educator in family resiliency

Revised 2009; reviewed 2015 by Sharon Powell, Extension educator in family resiliency.

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