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Should You Give Adult Children Holiday Gifts?

At my gym last week, a woman struggled to stay on a treadmill while handing her friend an iPhone bearing a photo of the gift she’s giving her college-aged daughter this Christmas. The friend took a good look, and then it became her turn to almost lose her balance: $595 Jimmy Choo Uggs.

Not many of us can or would consider buying such an extravagant gift, but it did raise questions (and heart rates) among the “seasoned” moms doing cardio about buying holiday gifts for their adult children. Do you or don’t you?  How much is too much? How little is too little?  

ParentDish.com debated this question via dueling essays by twenty-something Amanda Feinberg and baby boomer mom Nina Herzog.

 In “Unwrapping Never Gets Old … Even As I Do,” Ms. Feinberg wrote:

 “…when it comes to opening a gift from one’s parents, well, that’s just the crème de la crème of gift-getting. They just give better, don’t they? As a young adult in my 20s, earning a relatively small income, I look forward to any opportunity for my parents to treat me to that special item I cannot afford myself. A digital camera? A new pair of shoes? Maybe an iPod? What about that bracelet I’ve been eying online? Remember, Mom, the one I e-mailed to you twice (or three times or four)?”

 InAdult Children: Grow Up and Gift Out!” Ms. Herzog countered:

  “Teaching our adult children the value of hard work and financial gain is paramount, and the annual influx of gifts on special occasions tends to fiddle with those important life lessons…No matter how old they are, they will always be ‘our babies,’ but at some point the relationship needs to become more equal, and, eventually, the whole parent-child thing begins to resemble a beautiful variation on friendship. We can begin this process by halting childhood acts of giving and showing our love in other ways, with an occasional special treat on the side.”

Obviously a touchy subject as evidenced by more than 500 comments.  Many older commenters sided with the young Ms. Feinberg–parents insisting that they enjoy buying special gifts for their adult offspring, and those offspring responding with appreciation. Ms. Herzog’s supporters were just as emphatic, one calling Ms. Feinberg “a selfish little brat,” and another suggesting, “Why not just ask your parents for an annual donation?

 Ouch… not much holiday spirit there!  Ms. Herzog suggests that parents put a stop to the shiny packages under the tree or the eight nights of Hanukah gifting when their child reaches age 25, in order to teach important lessons about financial independence.  But aren’t there other ways besides a ban on gift-giving to impart those lessons? And shouldn’t instruction begin a lot sooner than age 25?

 The unabashed enjoyment displayed by Ms. Feinberg isn’t the same thing as peevish entitlement. Parents have every right to Just Say No when adult children present them with a laundry-list of holiday must-haves. Yes, even grown-up kids can turn bratty and conflate “wants” with “needs.”  And when that occurs, it may be time for one of those good old teachable moments – i.e., a frank discussion on the topic, rather than a lump of coal.

Sometimes we’re forced to buy gifts out of social or professional obligation. But delighting our adult children with presents is, for many of us, an act of love. Back when each of my children discovered there was no Santa Claus, I tried to ease the shock by explaining that sometimes there’s more joy in giving a thoughtful, special gift than in receiving one. 

We buy gifts for adult children for the same reasons we did when they were tots and tweens and teens:  to see the smiles (well, most of the time) and to share the joy. Why should this stop when they become adults?  

So how much is too much; how little is too little? That depends on your pocketbook and your personality.  So whether it’s boring staples like socks (I refuse), or fun gifts like a Trader Joe’s cookbook or intellectually stimulating like a New Yorker subscription or even over-the-top designer Uggs or countless other gifts, just do it!

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