There are times throughout the year that can cause tension in families regarding children's toys and gifts. Parents often want their children to be exposed to ethical, wooden, Montessori type gifts but are really hesitant or unsure how to talk to friends and family about it. Some parents just want to avoid the excess or overwhelm that can come at gift giving time. My eldest is nine so this is an issue we have managed with a lot of success and now our friends and family really give the best, most appropriate gifts! Discussion and a little education of friends and family is really important and can help to set up and maintain wonderful and really enriching relationships. Here are a few of my tips on how to talk to friends and family about children's gifts and presents.
- Educate friends and family about your parenting style or philosophy early. Do this in the way that the individuals will be most receptive too, don't overwhelm them. Email articles, share on Facebook, or share magazines. Not every Grandparent wants to read a book about the Montessori method but may be interested in attending a Grandparent's (or parent/family) day at your child's school, or might read an article here or there. If they get a feel for how you parent they will be more aware of or in tune with what gifts or toys you would like in your home. Make sure your friends and family know your beliefs and understand that this isn't a passing trend.
- Even before birth parents set the tone for the home. You choose what comes into your home. Feel empowered to make decisions. We know about the child's absorbent mind and how important the prepared environment is. Make decisions with your child's best interests in mind including safe and appropriate toys and materials!
- Be patient. In the first year or so we still received a few presents that I didn't love. However, within a couple of years, our family and friends were completely on board with our approach (they didn't necessarily agree with it but respected it). Don't expect everyone to catch on straight away, but show a long term commitment to your philosophy, don't give up.
- Set ground rules if possible, perhaps you choose no battery operated toys, no characters, no plastic. As much as possible be honest and upfront with friends and family. Being up front can help avoid confrontation or uncomfortable moments later. For example, if asked for ideas... "Otis really needs some new pajamas but we are trying to avoid any Star Wars or other characters". In the long term, it is best to be as upfront as possible.
- Lead by example. Have toys and materials in your home that reflect your beliefs (as much as possible). It can be hard to convince family not to buy character gifts if your home is full of them. If your family see your efforts to introduce ethical or well-considered toys into your home they are more likely to respect your requests.
- Be specific with friends and family if there are items you really need! If your child really needs some books or puzzles, new swimmers or lunchbox, express this to family and friends, most people love to help out but just don't know what to get or what you might need. If you really need a larger item like a child size table and chair or learning tower, sand pit, ask family members if they can go in together and help pay for the gift or "we are saving for a sand pit, perhaps we could go in together?". This can be difficult and I would put feelers out early.
- Share your favourite stores with friends and family all year round. Browse stores you like and near birthdays or Christmas send links to online stores. There are some stores where you just can't go wrong, where all of the toys are really wonderful or ethically made. My sister will shop online, so I can always send links to her. My mother likes to shop in person so I think about physical shops near her to give her ideas.
- If you feel comfortable or if asked for ideas, provide friends and family with a specific wish list. I have done with close family when my boys are wanting something like Lego, so we don't get double ups, I have given a list of the exact names of Lego sets the boys would like. With book sets I have given a list of the books my boys already have, again to avoid double ups. Always be reasonable with expectations and price points, giving a few ideas so the gift giver still has some choice without any pressure.
- Email gifts guides. There are lots of gifts guides and many specific to Montessori available online (we have lots of gift ideas here). Email these to friends and family if they have asked for ideas, they may not choose something from the list but it will give them a good idea of what you like and what is developmentally appropriate. If you have friends or family who use Pinterest why not start a Pinterest board of toys you like or a wishlist or tag friends and family if you see something special on Instagram. Many people love ideas for gifts as they really want to give something that is wanted and will be used and appreciated.
- If friends and family really aren't getting the message suggest alternative gifts such as experiences like family passes or memberships to zoos, aquariums, or planetariums (these are good for family Christmas gifts). Books are also good gift ideas and most people can find a book store, if you feel comfortable be specific, "we need a child's atlas" or "we love books by this author".
- Always be gracious. Remember relationships and friendships are more important than an inappropriate gift. Our children are watching us and looking to us on how to handle difficult situations and to resolve conflict.
- Do your best to provide friends and family with gift ideas if asked, even general ideas (like books or art supplies). I have found it not useful to tell them not to buy anything, they don't listen, even if we don't need anything or are trying to be minimal with toys, most family members will want to give a gift of some kind!
- Respect other people's wishes. When selecting gifts for nieces, nephews, or friends, try to pick up on their preferences, look around their homes to see what they like and be a thoughtful and respectful gift giver!
What to do with unwanted or inappropriate gifts?
- Keep it and put up with it. It depends on the toy if you simply don't like it but it's not harmful (and if your kids love it) perhaps you just need to put up with it? This is rarely my preferred option.
- Allow the children to play with it and the moment they forget about it - remove it. Then donate, give away or recycle.
- If the toy is seriously inappropriate put it away and out of sight as soon as possible.
- With older children, it is near impossible to put the toy up and hope they forget about it. Once the child is old enough it is important to talk to them about the toy, why you don't approve or why it is not appropriate. Possibly see if they can swap, return or exchange the gift.
If you want to read more, this is an excellent article and discussion - How to avoid relationship strain on gift-giving occasions at The Art of Simple.