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Favoritism and Other Family Issues During the Holidays

Dividing Up Holiday Time, Choosing Gifts Can Cause Family Conflicts


Grandparents must be especially careful not to show favoritism to grandchildren at Christmas.

Grandparents must be especially careful not to show favoritism to grandchildren at Christmas.

Photo © Jupiterimages / Getty

Nothing causes more strife in families than the issue of favoritism, and the holidays are a particularly tricky time of year for grandparents who try not to play favorites. Two issues are responsible for most holiday discord: gift-giving and dividing up holiday time. Clear communication among family members is key.

Gift-Giving and Avoiding Favoritism

Typical grandparents are expected to give gifts to their grandchildren, all carefully selected to delight the recipients. Also they are expected to not to show favoritism in their gift-giving. That the recipients may vary widely in ages, needs and wants is not supposed to be a significant barrier, but sometimes it is. Grandparents should decide on their gifting strategy well in advance of the holidays and let their families know what to expect. Ideas to consider include:

Spending approximately the same amount on each child and grandchild. This is the strategy used by most grandparents, but it does present a few problems. Two items that cost the same may appear to be unequal in value, especially if a smart grandparent got an especially good deal on one item. Also the cost of buying for grandchildren tends to go up as the age advances. It's easier to find an inexpensive gift for a toddler than for a teenager.

Keeping the number of gifts equal. Grandparents who use this philosophy concentrate more on giving gifts that look equal, rather than keeping the dollar amount the same.

Giving duplicate gifts. There can be no charge of favoritism when everyone receives the same item. This works fairly well for adult children. Gifts for the home, such as small appliances, may work for everyone. It works less well for grandchildren, who may be widely separated in age. Some grandparents give all their grandchildren in a certain age bracket the same thing. That works fairly well, since it is their age peers that they are likely to compare gifts with.

Giving money or gift cards. Some families love to get these one-size-fits-all gifts. Some much prefer getting something personally selected. It's important to know how your family members feel. Also, when younger grandchildren receive money or gift cards, parents have the after-Christmas task of taking them shopping. Some parents will consider that a burden; others will not mind.

Not giving gifts. This is a solution that is eventually adopted by many grandparents, especially as they advance in age and as their families increase in number. Some grandparents consider hosting the holiday celebration as their gift to their families. Some may spring for family outings or even vacations at other times of the year. Other grandparents who are on a fixed income may not be able to afford even small gifts. Grandparents who decide to opt out of gift-giving should definitely let their families know in advance, especially the first year that they decide to do so.

Giving Gifts to Grandparents

Many grandparents have arrived at a time in their lives when they don't need more stuff, and they may tell their children not to buy them anything. Their children should not listen. Grandparents should receive gifts, although they need not be lavish. Books or magazine subscriptions for readers, plants or flowers for gardeners, and wine or specialty foods for gourmets are examples of gifts that are sure to please. A gift card to a favorite restaurant gives grandparents a good excuse to splurge.


Getting Together

Getting everyone together at Christmas can be quite a trick. If children are married, chances are that they will have to spend some time with the "other side." While it may be possible for them to spend some time with both sides of the family if everyone is geographically close, more and more families live far away from at least one set of parents. Families where parents or grandparents have divorced can present even more challenges, as there may be multiple celebrations to attend. Resourceful families have come up with several ways to handle this dilemma.

Alternating years. Lots of young families spend the holidays one year with one family and the next year with the other. The side of the family that misses out on Christmas is sometimes awarded the consolation prize of Thanksgiving. Grandparents who have more than one child in this situation may wish to synchronize years so that they can have the whole family together for alternate years. Some grandparents have discovered that they actually prefer having some of their family with them each year rather than the alternate, feast-or-famine scenario.

Grandparents who end up alone for the holidays should keep these ideas in mind:

  • Don't overreact. It's not the end of the world. In fact, you might enjoy your low-key Christmas, if you let yourself.
  • Don't send your children on a guilt trip. You brought them up to be considerate. Don't penalize them for learning their lesson.
  • Don't whine. It's okay to say one time, "I really wish we could be together." It's not okay to say it 32 times.
  • If you are going to be without children and grandchildren, plan something else to do. Invite friends over, volunteer to serve a meal to the homeless or plan a mini vacation.


Celebrating early or late. Some grandparents who can't be with the kids and grandkids on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day host their celebration either early or late. Grandparents who wish to try this tack should be sure to consult their children about whether this will work for them. Some families who are rushing to get ready for the holiday may not be ready to celebrate a week early, especially if they haven't had advance notice.

Communicate Early and Often

The sooner that family members communicate their intentions to each other, the more smoothly the holidays will go. It's also a good idea to put it in writing so that there's no doubt what was said. Some families use a family website or a social network to exchange ideas and plans. As the holiday approaches, be sure to confirm plans. To avoid disappointment, grandchildren should be given some idea of what to expect under the grandparents' tree. A chaotic holiday with a dysfunctional family may make a good movie, but it's not much of a recipe for real life.

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