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Take the Stress Out of Gift-Giving

Take the Stress Out of Gift-Giving

Dear Dr. Gramma Karen,

I want to suggest you to do a column on gift-giving. I ask because I listen to people at work and in the store check-out lines stressing out about this. For example, my co-workers talk about their in-laws as being either cheapskates or extravagant. Then there is the topic of grandparents giving the grandchildren gifts that the parents have already said they don’t want the kids to have, e.g., cell phones, video games.

“The gifts are opened one at a time, and it’s a lot of fun.”

I’m happy to say we’ve solved all this in my large family by doing a grab bag. Actually, we do two grab bags, one for the adults and one for the children. Anyone who wants to participate puts their name in a hat. Names are drawn, and then, instead of buying gifts for 21 adults and six kids, one gift is purchased for the name drawn. (The parents of the kids in their grab bag buy the one gift for the child they drew.) The gifts are opened one at a time, and it’s a lot of fun. We’ve done it this way for years. It’s very stress free, except for the person who forgets whose name he/she drew; that’s why one person needs to keep a master list.

It’s amazing to me when I tell people about our family’s grab bag, everyone says, “What a great idea, I wish our family would do that,” but it seems no one has the courage to approach the topic with their family members (who might even feel the same way!), so the frustration, time, and expense mount up year after year.

So, although I’m not stressed about holiday gift-giving, I know many others are. I’d be interested in what you have to say.

Dr. Gramma Karen’s Response

People’s emotions and feelings about the holidays are complicated and mixed. When asked how they feel about the holidays, one poll indicated that 80 percent of the respondents found them stressful, yet in another poll asking the same question, 70 percent said, “I love the holidays!” For most it’s probably a combination: our fanciful selves (sleigh bells ringing, chestnuts roasting) love the holidays, whereas our practical selves (last-minute shopping, racing the kids from one relative to the next) can find them stressful.

stressHowever, one statistic that is consistent is that 45 to 55 percent of people polled said they spend too much money on gifts. Hats off to you and your family for finding a way to reduce, if not totally eliminate, the stress that can result from a long list of gifts to be selected, purchased, wrapped, and delivered, not to mention the time and expense involved. It’s worth looking at your point that others think the family grab bag is a great idea yet are reluctant to pursue it.


For many it’s a matter of family traditions, and traditions can be a mixed bag. On one hand, because they are established and practiced ways of doing things, traditions can be binding, predictable, and comfortable. In fact, in some families traditions are viewed as sacrosanct, so anyone, especially a newcomer to the family, suggesting to change them in any way can be going out on a limb.

Having a heart-to-heart talk with the older generations may be worthwhile, since they are typically the enforcers of the family traditions. If a grandparent decrees that the family gift-giving tradition is changing from one gift purchased for everyone to doing a grab bag, this can be a quick transition.

So for many, explaining to the enforcers of the traditions the reasons for wanting to do a grab bag, or some other variation on gift-giving traditions, may be a simple solution, especially when highlighting the stress and economic burden of buying everyone a present.

Change the Focus of Gifts

Another way to reduce stress is to try to change the focus of the gifts. That is, shift from material gifts to event and experience-based gifts. For example, parents can suggest to grandparents that they plan a special day with the grandchildren. Think how excited a child will be to open a gift containing a note that says Grandma and Grandpa are taking him/her to the circus, to the latest Disney movie followed by pancakes at the local diner, or for art lessons at the museum. The possibilities are endless.

Gifts of events and experiences shared together can provide enduring and cherished memories for all parties.

Keep a Gift Wish List

And finally, some communication about gifts between the parents and gift givers is crucial, as it is disrespectful for someone to buy knowingly a gift that parents do not wish their child to have. I thank my daughter for this idea of an easy way for parents to manage gifts by helping their children create a “gift wish list.”

“It respects the parents by communicating and collaborating beforehand with them about gifts for their children.”

At a very young age children learn to start a sentence with “I want…a new game, a certain toy, an electronic device.” The parents keep a running list of all these “I want” items for their child, and each time the child says, “I want,” the parent says, “Fine. Let’s add it to your gift wish list, and then we can consider it as a birthday or holiday gift.”

This approach honors a child’s desire to want something without forcing the parent to take any immediate action. Then when appropriate gift-giving time is on the horizon, the parents can prioritize the wish list with the child – some items will drop off and others will be added. When grandparents and others ask what they can get for the child, parents simply reference the gift wish list. In some instances, especially for older kids saving up for something more expensive (e.g., an electronic device or a school trip), the parents can suggest that the gift-giver contribute towards the purchase of the desired item.

In all cases, keeping a gift wish list for a child has several benefits: it helps him/her learn delayed gratification; it cuts down on disappointments; it eliminates the exchange frenzy; it helps gift-givers feel confident that they’re giving something that is truly of value or interest; it respects the parents by communicating and collaborating beforehand with them about gifts for their children.

I hope these suggestions help reduce some of the stress around gift-giving, as well as give an impetus to consider changing burdensome gift-giving traditions.


Karen L. Rancourt, Ph.D., writes an advice column for parents and grandparents at Mommybites.com and is the author of Ask Dr. Gramma Karen, Volume II: Savvy Advice to Help Soothe Parent-Grandparent Conflicts.

Christine Crosby

About the author

Christine is the co-founder and editorial director for GRAND Magazine. She is the grandmother of five and great-grandmom (aka Grandmere) to one. She makes her home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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