Gift Giving Tips for Divorced Parents

Molly used to love Christmas but now she can’t wait for it to be over.  Ever since her parents split, the holidays have turned into a gift-giving battleground.  Now during the holidays all her parents seem to care about is how they can outdo each other.  While getting nice gifts initially was pretty cool, it quickly turned into a huge stress fest.

One year Molly made the mistake of telling both of her parents she wanted a new phone. Christmas morning her Mom was super upset when Molly showed her the cool phone that Dad had given her on Christmas Eve.  Mom responded with “Well, I guess there’s no point in opening presents here this year.”   Molly felt horrible for hurting Mom’s feelings.   To top it off, she knew Mom really didn’t have the extra money and had made a special effort to save up for the phone.

Since her parents won’t talk to each other, Molly stresses every year over what she tells each parent when they ask what she wants for Christmas. She doesn’t ever want that to happen again.

Camden dreads the holidays just as much as Molly but for different reasons.   His gifts always come with strings attached.  Last year he got a really cool gaming system from his Mom. Camden was so excited he couldn’t wait to take it over to Dad’s house so he could play with his step-brother.   Camden felt gutted when Mom refused to let him take it to his Dad’s house. She said, “If he wants you to have one at his house, he can spend his own damn money.”

Sadly, Dad’s stance on gifts is the same as Mom’s.  Dad gave Camden a top of the line skateboard but insisted he keeps it at his house.  Camden doesn’t get to spend as much time at Dad’s so basically the skateboard just sits there gathering dust.

While two sets of gifts and multiple holiday celebrations seem like a big benefit for kids of divorce, for many it’s hugely stressful.  Although most parents have the best of intentions, when strong feelings get stirred up, it’s easy to overlook how choices about the holidays feel for our kids.

To help you stay on the holiday straight and narrow, here are a few tips for taking the hassle out of your children’s holiday.

Coordinate gifts

When possible make time to consult with the other parent about how to handle holiday shopping. If there’s an expensive gift on your child’s list, consider suggesting a joint purchase where you each contribute a certain percentage of money to the present.

If you don’t have a cooperative relationship with the other household, then do your best to purchase responsibly and save receipts.

When double purchases happen, don’t make it worse for your kids by making it a big deal.  Reinforce how lucky they are to have two parents who love them so much. Be excited with them about the gift from the other parent. To take the edge off the situation, offer to take your gift back and use it as an opportunity to shop with your child for something else.

Adopt a no compete clause

When it comes to gift giving what parent doesn’t want to see their kid’s face light up when the box gets opened?  While wanting to buy something special for your children is understandable, avoid getting caught up in a vicious game of “my gift is better than your gift.”

Keep in mind that kids are extremely perceptive. When parents try to outdo each other, it comes off as you trying to buy their love.

Yes, kids like getting gifts. However, the “newness” factor tends to wear off pretty quick. Before you know it, that fabulous thing you spent so much money on will probably just be another something that takes up space in their room.

Remember what does have lasting power, doesn’t come in a box. And that’s your time and attention.

Instead of focusing on the “best” present ever, consider investing your energy into creating memories and enjoying one-on-one time with your kids. Bake cookies together, go for long walks in the park, drive around looking at Christmas lights or spending the day in your pajamas watching your favorite holiday movies.  Years from now, those will be the things your kids will look back on and remember. Promise.

Cut the strings

One gift giving dilemma that frequently comes up for parents I coach is…where should gifts should live?  I believe if a gift is truly a gift, then kids should be able to decide what they want to do with it.

While it can be really hard to give your child something nice and see it disappear over to the other household, do your best to see it from your child’s point of view.

Imagine… your boss giving you a brand new fully loaded sports car as a bonus for doing such a great job.  As your boss handed you the keys, how would you feel if she said, “Hope you love driving it around the parking lot because the car has to stay on company property.”  Probably wouldn’t feel much like a gift, would it? And yet… it happens to kids of divorce all the time.

If you have any reservations about a gift leaving your home, then you’re better off not giving it.

So, is it okay to buy things for your kids that stay at your house?  Of course.  Just don’t give them as a gift. Instead, buy things with the intention of creating home for your child that feels comfortable and special.

Don’t undermine the other parent

Chances are you and the other parent may clash on the “appropriateness” of certain gifts.   When you don’t agree, steer clear of setting the other parent up by giving your child a gift you know will the other parent won’t sign off on.

For example, 12-year old Lily is dying for a puppy but Mom has said absolutely not. In her book, Lily isn’t ready for that kind of responsibility.  Let’s say Dad thinks Lily deserves a puppy but lives in an apartment that doesn’t allow pets.  Because he knows how much it would mean to Lily, Dad gets her a puppy any way.  He feels sure once Mom sees how happy Lily is she’ll cave on the no-pooch policy.

End result? Lily comes home ecstatic, Mom goes ballistic and says there’s no way that dog is staying in her house. Lily is devastated.  Mom is furious with Dad for trying to be the hero and making her look like a zero. Their co-parenting relationship just took a serious nose dive.

Regardless of how reasonable you think a gift might be, do your kids a favor and thoughtfully consider the other parent’s opinion before you purchase. When you bypass the other parent’s strong objection, kids usually end up paying the price.  Even if the other parent relents under pressure, your child gets stuck hearing about it.

Take the holiday high road

Children love doing special things for people they care about especially during the holidays.  Although doing something nice for your Ex may not be at the top of your holiday to-do list, it’s important to separate your feelings from your kid’s needs.

When children show up to special events empty-handed, they naturally feel awkward and anxious. To remove that burden from your kid’s shoulders, consider going the extra mile and help your children buy gifts for their other parent and any other important family members (i.e. step parents, ex-in-laws etc.). Not only does it send a message to kids about the joy of giving, in the long run it also says a lot about you and how much you love your kids.

Also, be sure to keep gestures appropriate and help your kids make good gift choices.  If your children want to buy Dad a shirt, don’t help them pick out the ugliest, cheapest shirt you can find and wrap it with glee.  Likewise, don’t encourage your children pick out something for Mom that’s two sizes too small.  Fantasize about it all you want but for your children’s sake, travel the holiday high road.

If money’s tight this holiday season, opt for lower budget options like homemade gifts, framed photos, special cards or baking Mom or Dad’s favorite dish.

If the other parent doesn’t reciprocate?

Remember, you don’t have to give what you get. The reason you help your children isn’t so your Ex will sing your praises this holiday season. You do it because it’s the right thing to do for your kids.

If the other parent isn’t willing to help with buying gifts, you can still make sure your children feel good about doing something special.  You could declare you want breakfast in bed or an obscene number of hugs and kisses for Christmas.  For older kids, you can give them some money to go shopping or request they spend an evening with you instead of their friends (which by the way is priceless!)

What tips do you have for dealing with gift-giving dilemmas? Have some wisdom to share with other parents? Chime in below, I’d love to hear your suggestions.

Wishing you and yours a very happy holiday!

Divorce and Children blog