You watch your child gleefully unwrap a slime-making kit on her birthday, as you flashback to the Great Slime Accident of 2018, from which the rug still hasn’t recovered. Or maybe your family thinks it’s hilarious to give the kids so many holiday gifts they need a cocoa break in the middle of unwrapping — but you’re not laughing at the display of excess. Or perhaps a classmate gifts your child with a realistic toy gun, but your parenting style is firmly anti-violence. Getting a gift is supposed to be pure fun, but as parents with particular ideas about how we want our children to be raised, sometimes what’s under that wrapping paper can leave us feeling anything but appreciative.
What’s the right thing to do in these situations? Do you take away that loud drum set Uncle gifted or chastise the gifter? The good news is many times, you can actually avoid this awkwardness to begin with. We spoke with parents, as well as Christie Jenkins, who holds a masters in clinical mental health counseling and is a faculty member for Walden University, and Shanna Donhauser, social worker and psychotherapist, for tips on on how to tactfully handle these sticky situations.
Be proactive and guide gift-givers toward good choices up front
Speak up — even if you don’t know the gift giver well
The best way to avoid receiving an unwanted gift is to talk to the gifter ahead of time and steer them toward an appropriate choice. Just because the gift-giver isn’t a relative, don’t feel you need to hold your tongue.
Share with the person some of your kid’s favorite interests and activities, or even mention items on their wish list (which are, of course, vetted by you). Also, be upfront about what you don’t want in the house.
“If there’s a party that’s being hosted, you can include it in the invitation to say, ‘Billy’s really into X, Y and Z, and we’re a violence-free home, so please stay away from toys that have guns,’” Donhauser says.
If the gift-giver is a repeat offender, it’s even more important to speak up.
“If you don’t stop this now, you’re setting up a continued pattern of future unwanted gifts,” Jenkins says. But “less is more in these conversations.”
It’s unlikely you’ll convert someone else to your beliefs, so best to try to keep the conversations short and to the point to prevent them from tuning you out entirely.
Give options and alternatives
If you’re going to suggest items your child would enjoy, make sure they work for the gifter, too, and include a variety of price points.
Cindy, a mom of two from Orlando, Florida, via Los Angeles, says she uses an Amazon Wish List to give family and friends gift ideas for her 4- and 2-year-olds.
“You might say something like, ‘My kiddo’s really been into PAW Patrol lately, and they’re really into Legos,’” says Donhauser. “You’re offering different examples, and then afterward you can say, ‘You’ll probably be inspired by those things and find something they’ll like.’ Then, Donhauser adds, you can say, ‘The only thing that makes me uneasy is …’ and insert the thing you’d rather not receive.”
Ask for a donation in lieu of a gift
“You can always say ‘no presents, please,’” Jenkins says.
If people insist on giving something, suggest a donation charity of their choice or a cause your child is particularly passionate about, like donating to a local animal shelter.
Ask for the gift of an experience
Consider asking gift-givers to gift an outing or experience to your child. You can also ask them to contribute to a fund for swim or dance classes or a family pass to a zoo or museum. Be sure to include the giver in the fun.
“This doesn’t have to mean Grandma comes to ballet class every Saturday,” Donhauser says. “But it could be as simple as saying to the child at the lesson that we’re doing this of because so-and-so or maybe sending a photo of the child in action.”
Know when the conversation isn’t worth it
“There are people in your family that you know if you say something you’re going to get into a huge fight about it,” Jenkins says. “In those situations, if all else fails, you graciously accept it and figure out what you and your family are going to do with it.”
How to handle unwanted gifts
You can’t always avert unwanted gifts. Here are some options for when do you get them.
If you have gifts mailed to you and are unsure of their contents, you may consider deftly and discretely opening them first to ensure they’re appropriate. If one isn’t, you can remove it before your child sees it and gets too attached.
“I open all the boxes before we give them to the kids,” Cindy says, “and their dad and I discuss if there’s a question.”
Send it back — nicely
When an auntie or a grandma gives a gift with the potential to disrupt your home (think: anything messy or noisy), Jenkins suggests asking the gift-giver to take responsibility for it. Try, “This is such a cool gift for you and Grammy to do together. I would like you to keep this slime at Grammy’s house because she’s really good about where you can and can’t play with it.”
See if it can be altered in a way that makes you comfortable
Mom Priscilla from Denver, Colorado, found a way to make both her and her 4-year-old son happy: “[H]e was given a toy vehicle that had a gun attached. We yanked off the gun and threw it away.”
Many action figures, dolls and plastic toys can be easily altered to fit your tastes.
Put it out of sight, out of mind
Young kids, especially, may not even notice if a new toy suddenly goes missing.
“[My son] looked at it one day, and the next, we put it high up in the closet,” Priscilla says. “He wasn’t upset about it, mostly because it wasn’t one of his regular toys.”
Give thanks, then pay it forward
Many of us often find ourselves with way more toys and clothes than our kids will ever use. Think about donating them to a good cause and explaining to your child that they are helping others in need. Better yet, have them help select which toys and clothes they will give to another child, and involve them in the process.
Kathleen Porter Kristiansen, a minimalist parent to a 3-and-1/2-year-old and a 1-and-1/2-year old from London suggests showing appreciation for the gift before donating.
“For clothing, the children are photographed in an item for the giver,” Kristiansen says, “and then it’s donated.”
For kids who are reluctant to let the gift go, try getting them excited about something else they’ll love that they can exchange the unwanted gift for that you’re comfortable with.
Remember: It’s the thought that counts
When you receive a less-than-ideal gift, it’s important to remember that the intention behind it is still a good one.
“Gift-giving is a love language,” Donhauser says. “The trick in situations like this is trying to figure out how we can honor the beautiful intention of the present while still setting limits on what the present is or how it’s received or how many.”