What on earth do you buy kids when their needs (and sizes) are constantly changing? Holidays can be so hard because not only are you traveling, schlepping suitcases, and enclosing yourself in small places with family—at least, that’s what happens in our house, I’m not going to presume that it’s that way for everyone—but then there’s the added pressure of holiday gifts.

Some families love gift giving. Other families struggle mightily because they are already drowning in toys, or it seems like people give tons of presents that don’t work for you—so it feels like meaningless consumption and waste. So how do you communicate to your extended family or relatives what you’d really like, and what would actually be useful?

I want to share a few things with this post:

  • A brainstorm of non-traditional gifts that go a long way, to get us to think beyond buying more mindless stuff;
  • A way to say no to gifts if you don’t want things with redirection;
  • My tips for how to say exactly what you want in a way that is more likely to be heard;
  • My mindset for when I receive gifts I know I don’t want or need.

If you don’t want any gifts

This is so hard for other people to hear, because we live in a society that often prioritizes consumption—gift-wrapping, holiday spending, and excessive shopping are so baked into our cultural norms that they’ve almost become holidays themselves. Going against the trend can feel wrong and deeply uncomfortable, especially for people who feel like it is an essential part of the holidays.

First, I like to remember that someone who wants to give me a gift is likely trying to express love and affection. Those emotions are great. (If they’re engaging in psychological manipulation or anything else, ugh, I feel you, but let’s still do the best we can and assume they’re trying to be kind… right?).

Rather than wholesale rejecting all gifts, or asking people to stop doing something they either love or feel comfortable with, I like to come up with a replacement for traditional gifts and brainstorm alternative ideas that my family would actually enjoy. Like redirection in toddler parenting, this is redirection—but with our aunts, uncles, and parents.

A script for setting boundaries with gift giving:

For example, you can write:

“Hey loved ones! I wanted to send a note in advance of the holidays. We are currently swamped with toys and clothes for Joey, and don’t need any more things that are plastic or clothing. (Seriously: we’re trying to cram the drawers shut and we need to make a trip to Goodwill.) Getting more toys or clothes is going to make us feel overwhelmed and frustrated.

“That said, we wanted to share a few ideas for things the kids would love as a way to brainstorm, and a few specific items they really need:

  • Art supplies—they love drawing!
  • Going to a movie together and seeing a show (like Cars, or Frozen).
  • Ice skating trip or a hike in the woods.
  • Babysitting for a night out for the parents
  • Baking cookies or treats together
  • Going to pick out a Christmas tree together / going to see Santa Claus 
  • Going to the library and getting a huge stack of books for while we are there
  • Clementine oranges—the kids love those!

Thanks so much for understanding our desire to trim down and have less clutter. Truly, this makes us feel the most loved and seen, and we so deeply appreciate you and the gifts you want to share. If there’s anything you’d love to do or participate in, or something that is particularly meaningful to you about the holidays, please do tell me.” 

How the script works 

When sharing your wishes and desires, make sure to share what you don’t want, and as an added memory tool, link it to an emotion or feeling (“It will make us feel overwhelmed and frustrated”). If you can paint a picture of what will happen—the consequence—of that decision, it can be easier for people to understand. (“The drawers will be crammed and we’ll have to make a trip to Goodwill.”)

We live in New York City, for example, and we don’t have a garage, a backyard, or any storage space. It’s hard for people across the country to understand just how tiny the apartments are. My Colorado relatives, bless their hearts, can walk miles to get from one house to another. Me? I’m tripping over things in the hallway just to get out the front door.

When we first had a baby, we sent a shared Google doc to all of our family members with our baby registry, and I was a lot more blunt. “If you get us something that’s not on this list, it will likely go right in the trash or be donated immediately. Please ask us first if you want to buy us anything that’s not on our list—we’ve spent a lot of time figuring out exactly what we need, and we might already have the item you’re trying to get us.”

In this example, we shared the consequence of the behavior—if they purchased something not on the list, it would go in the trash.

Want to be more blunt?

You can be. Consider this your permission slip. We’re raised to be “nice” and to accommodate other people’s feelings, and as a consequence, we don’t say what we want. This is problematic for so many reasons—we’re inadvertently lying to each other; we’re teaching our children that we aren’t able to say what we want or stand up for ourselves and it makes it harder to stay connected to our authentic selves. When we lie to others, we’ll eventually begin to believe the lies, ourselves.

If you don’t want presents this year, consider this your permission slip (and script) to say so.

“Dear loved ones: We don’t want to spend extra money or purchase gifts this year. We’re opting out of the consumer chain. We’re happy to tell you more about the what and the why, if you’re curious. Please know that we have an abundant amount of love for you and enjoy being around you, and that’s everything we want. If you’d like to plan something together, let’s plan a beautiful meal. No gifts or presents, at all—thank you so much for understanding.” 

Be proactive

It’s hard to set boundaries and tell people what you really want. But remember: No one is a mind reader, and most people want to do things that help other people—they want to know what you need and want!

Sometimes even when you say what you want clearly, people don’t listen or hear you, either, which can be extra frustrating. The best you can do is say what you want, and then you’ve done as much as you can.

Redirection and gift forwarding

When we do receive gifts that we know we won’t use, we do a few things in our family:

  • We pass the gift along. First, thank the gift-giver for the spirit of the gift and for trying to express love, and receive the love. Then, pass it along. “I want this to be used by someone who truly wants and needs this, so I’m passing it forward and releasing it from my house.” No one needs a toy that stays trapped in a closet. The best gift is one that’s received with joy and helps the person who receives it.
  • Donate to a local shelter or gift-drive. Plenty of locations accept gifts for needy children, for single parents, and for low-income families. The gift you don’t need or want can do good beyond you.
  • Some items we’ll sell secondhand on our local parent swap, or trade them for things we really want.

Non-traditional gift ideas

If you’re looking for further brainstorms on non-traditional gift ideas, check out our gift guide for new parents (items include new bedding, meal delivery, and other postpartum care items).

Gifts don’t have to be purchased from a store. A local meal train, prepping frozen meals for a family, offering babysitting hours or cleaning help, or spending time with grandparents can make wonderful gifts. Events, activities, and experiences can be even more meaningful than a plastic toy that is only used for a few hours before being tossed aside.

Make it a beautiful holiday. Make it your holiday. You have permission.


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