Gifts and Toxic Grandparents

Toxic gifts and grandparents

In our previous blog, “When Gifts Bite Back”, we discussed the reasons why presents for children should always go through their parents. We talked about the benefits of focusing on quality gifts instead of quantity. We also talked about the unspoken control issues that arise whenever a person accepts anything for free. However, what we did NOT talk about was how to handle gifts from grandparents.

Grandparents are notorious for spoiling their grandchildren. It is part of the accepted job description for grandparents. However, usually the motive for the giving is a strong desire to support, help out, and express love for their children and grandchildren…or maybe a last-ditch effort to get into heaven.

I have very generous and kind parents. Lucky for me, though, there is a zero threat of my parents successfully spoiling any of my kids. My parents have 11 children and over 50 grandchildren. There is a built-in limit to how much spoiling they can do!

In contrast, I had a friend in the exact opposite situation. My friend’s husband was an only child, and so their daughter was the ONLY grandchild (as opposed to being the 50th grandchild). My friend’s daughter was showered with every gift imaginable from her doting grandparents, which was rather wonderful especially since their young family was not well off financially. However, it would have been even more of a blessing if my friend had used those generous gifts she could not have afforded without the help of the grandparents, to give her daughter something to work towards. Maybe as motivation to get chores done, or to practice her singing, or to improve her accomplishments in school. In situations like this, you want to find a way to make things work in the best interest of your child.

Families adopting Moneypants have to make sure gift-giving does not go overboard. If your child has already been given everything, there are very few rewards left to help motivate them when whatever they are working towards becomes difficult, boring, or tedious. This may be easier said than done however when dealing with grandparents. Things can get rather tricky and just plain stressful, depending on what type of grandparents your children have.

There are three basic types of grandparents who give gifts:

  1. Grandparents who love their children and grandchildren and want to help out in any way that they can.
  2. Grandparents who love their children and grandchildren, but do not understand, do not like, or do not support how their kids are trying to raise their children. They love you, but they simply do not agree.
  3. Then there are the toxic grandparents, who are not motivated by love, and are determined to sabotage what you are trying to do, simply because they do not like you or your spouse. Sadly, these types of grandparents do exist.

Of course, there are more types of grandparents and all sorts of motives for why they do what they do. We broke them down into three types because of the way you handle each one.

#1: Grandparents Who Love You AND Want To Help Out

Kind grandparents
Some grandparents just want to help however they can.

If your kids happen to have grandparents like this, be sure to thank your lucky stars! These sorts of grandparents are a huge blessing and support. All you need to do is sit down with them and explain what you are trying to do and why. It is that simple.

If for example, they live close by, you could explain that you want your kids to learn to work for the things they get, and you want their help. Ask if maybe the gifts could be contingent on them reaching a personal goal. “Sally, grandma says if you reach level 4 in piano by next month, she will take you to the hair salon!” Explain to the grandparents that your son is struggling in math, and you would like to use their generosity to help motivate him to get his homework done. When these types of grandparents see that they could help their grandchildren succeed, they will probably come up with more ideas that support your efforts.

Or maybe let’s say the grandparents offer to pay for dance classes for your daughter, something maybe your family could not afford, ask if it would be okay if your daughter could come over and help them clean house or work in the garden on the weekends for a time in exchange. These doting grandparents would probably love to have their grandchildren helping them. These grandparents would quickly catch the vision and enjoy watching their grandchildren progress and develop character as well as spend more time with their grandchildren. Chances are they will feel proud that their grandchildren are learning to be hardworking and responsible.

You might ask these grandparents to help bridge the gap for things outside your family budget. For example, I had one friend when her mother asked what her kids would like for Christmas, she requested season passes to water parks, museums, state parks, activities that the family could enjoy together. What a fantastic idea! The grandmother thought so too and was pleased that her help was on point. In fact, the grandmother was the one who told me about this smart request her daughter made!

Grandparents who love their children and grandchildren and are looking for ways to offer love and support. For the most part you just need to ask for what you want, and they are quick to step up and help in any way that they can.

#2: Grandparents Who Love You But Disagree With Your Style

Meddling grandparents
Some grandparents try to override your decisions as a parent.

Grandparents who disagree can be annoying and difficult to deal with. For example, my mother and father grew up watching tons of TV. They decided when they had their own kids that they did not want a TV in their own home for various reasons. It was their decision for their family.

However, my mom’s father thought this was sacrilege!!! Every time the topic came up, he would lecture my mother about how uncultured and socially inept her children would be. His grandchildren needed TV. So, every time he came to visit, he would bring a giant cardboard box filled with VHS tapes of TV he recorded, commercials and all! He was not going to stand by and watch my mother raise HIS grandchildren the wrong way!!! My mother always smiled and nodded as he lectured her, but I could tell she was rather bugged. She knew her dad loved her, but it was probably annoying and somewhat frustrating that he did not understand her or support her. My brothers and sisters and I on the other hand thought it was somewhat humorous that my grandfather believed we needed TV that badly.

One acquaintance of mine had an experience where she got divorced when her son was just a baby. She ended up living back at home with her parents for many years. Her parents began thinking of her son as their own son. They insisted on babying him and refused to give him any responsibilities. They let him have everything he wanted. To make matters worse it became evident that this boy was suffering with some mental health issues, which led to even more rescuing from the grandparents.

Later, this woman got remarried and moved to the other side of the country with her son and new spouse. Her parents were very upset about this decision and resented her for taking their grandson so far away after they had done so much to raise him! However, as time went by, this woman began to feel very hopeful. Her son who had struggled all through school, was finally beginning to take some responsibility thanks to their new situation and new environment. In fact, her son had gotten a steady job and was beginning to care for himself. His mother was so pleased and began to feel very hopeful that her son’s future might be better than she had ever previously believed. However, a couple years later, this woman moved back to the state where her parents lived. Almost immediately, her son went back to live with his grandparents.

That was the end. This woman’s son went back to having no responsibilities and never got another job. The thing to note about this situation is that the grandparents genuinely loved both their daughter and their grandson, however, they did not understand what their daughter was trying to do for her son, and so they did not support her.

This is not an uncommon situation, for grandparents, especially grandparents who live with their grandchildren or very close by, to override their children’s decisions thinking they know what is best.

Possible Solutions

Ask the grandparents to modify the types of gifts they give.

What are some options in a situation like this?

  1. Set up some boundaries. For example, tell your kids, “When Grandma and Grandpa give you a nice present, you smile, and say thanks, but then you go put it in your prize bag. If you disobey or if you complain to grandma and grandpa, you will not be allowed to earn that gift. And if you continue to disobey, we will simply not accept any more gifts.”
  2. You could tell the grandparents: “We appreciate the gifts, but I am worried that my kids are not learning to appreciate what they have, so we are trying to give our kids more opportunities to earn what they get, so they do not take it for granted. We want you on board with this. But if that is a problem or is upsetting to you, let forgo gifts and just enjoy your company. That is what matters the most to us anyhow, getting to spend time with you!” That is actually what matters most.
  3. Or you could explain to the grandparents, “We actually have too much stuff! We would really like to take the kids to museums, or water parks, or state parks. The kids would LOVE it and it will not add clutter to the house.” Point the grandparents to what you DO want. The great thing is that with season passes kids can still earn individual trips to the water park through good behavior, getting chores done, or reaching goals. A gift like that puts parents back in charge of having kids earn.
  4. Alternatively, you may want to learn negotiation techniques from the famous Chris Voss, a former FBI counter-terrorist negotiator. Use the techniques Mr. Voss uses to try to work things out with the grandparents who have a different viewpoint. Oddly enough, this may actually be the most effective technique to use.

Grandparents who love you but do not understand you or disagree with what you are doing, can potentially undermine your efforts, but chances are you can find some ways to work around the situation. If nothing else works, you might have to put a physical distance between you and the grandparents, so they do not have the power to override your efforts. But you can still stay connected and make visits.

#3: Grandparents Who Do NOT Love You And Try To Destroy Your Family

Hazardous grandparents
Some grandparents are hazardous, and you need to be cautious around them.

Believe it or not, these sorts of grandparents do exist. What qualifies them for this category is simply the fact that what they are doing is not motivated out of love. They are purposely attempting to undermine your efforts because they do not like you. This is actually a sad topic, because unfortunately it is a reality for too many people. In these cases, you may find grandparents who are purposely trying to pit parents against each other, or their grandchildren against their parents.

They may detest their son or daughter-in-law and may want to get revenge for some reason or another. Maybe they hold a prejudice against your religion or race. There can be lots of different motives for this group, but love is not one of them. And unfortunately, in these relationships, “gifts” are often used as bribes and have all sorts of unwanted strings attached.

Brent And Jessica

Here is one example of a grandparent that could not be trusted. I have a very close friend. We will call her Jessica. Jessica’s mother despised Jessica’s husband Brent. Although Brent was an excellent dad, treated his wife well, and made a very good living, it did not change how Jessica’s mother felt. Brent was no good in the mother’s eyes.

Jessica had four young children and after each birth, she called and asked her mother to come help with running the home.

However, Jessica noticed that although her mother was sweet to her, she seemed to be purposely making things harder for Brent whenever she came to “help”. For example, every time she pooped, she would magically overflow the toilets, so Jessica’s husband had to unclog them and clean up the mess on the floor. But maybe things like this were just accidents, they thought. However, it soon became obvious it was intentional and a much more serious problem.

The first time it happened they were not sure, but when it happened again it was confirmed… Every time Jessica’s mother would come and visit, she would place an anonymous call in to Child Protective Services making petty complaints. All complaints to Child Protective Services whether justified or not become permanent records.

Jessica and her husband were alarmed to say the least, especially when Jessica realized it was her own mother harassing her. What sort of mother would do that to her own daughter? But unfortunately, what was a “petty” way of getting revenge on her son-in-law could lead to serious consequences for their entire family. They could potentially lose their children. It was very dangerous. Jessica and her husband made a difficult but necessary decision. They decided they could no longer have Jessica’s mother around their children or in their home. For the safety and well-being of their family, they had to distance themselves from this toxic grandmother.

Unfortunately, in cases like these, where there is purposeful intention to undermine a marriage or the well-being of the family, the best option is physical distance. If your kids are young enough, you can get away with living somewhat near toxic grandparents. However, if your children know their grandparents, and are aware that they do not like one or both of their parents, this in and of itself can quickly become problematic. Sometimes children will use this disunity between parents and grandparents to get what they want. Sometimes children will be used to scrape up dirt on their parents. Sometimes these grandparents can use gifts to bribe their grandchildren to “be on their side” and stir up unwanted drama. You do not want your children to use their grandparents to manipulate you and you do not want the grandparents to influence your children negatively in some way in order to “punish” you or your spouse.

Stepmom And Stepson

For example, one step-grandparent never had gotten along with her stepson. So, when he became an adult with children of his own, this stepmother was all too willing to pretend to love her “grandchildren” but was secretly encouraging them to drink alcohol and disobey other family rules, in order to spite her stepson. She would take the kids on “outings” in order to get gossip about the stepson that she would post online. She would also gives some grandkids nice gifts while leaving others out, as a way to play favorites and pit the grandkids against each other. She actually enjoyed watching them fight. She used gifts as a manipulation to hurt the stepson and his family. It was sad. It was toxic.

These are the types of grandparents who you DO NOT want your kids to get gifts from because there are ulterior motives. When kids get gifts from people they think, “Oh, they are my friend! They love me.” They usually cannot comprehend when they are being used.

Possible Solutions

Pair of scissors
Sometimes the only solution is to cut ties.

Sadly, the best thing to do in these sorts of situations is to cut ties and try to create physical distance. Why? Because your number one duty is to your own spouse and you own children. This is not an easy decision that is made lightly. And it is probably impossible to process how parents could treat their adult children this way. It is awful and it does not make sense. But sadly, it does happen. In fact, there are many situations infinitely worse than what I described above.

Maybe you do not believe that it is possible for parents to not love their own children? Be grateful, because this problem does exist, and it is extremely difficult for the adult children still dealing with it. Just be grateful this is not your experience.

Sometimes awesome parents were raised in very difficult circumstances, and when they become parents themselves, they need a fresh start and room to make their marriage and home a success. Keep in mind this is not about you rejecting your parents and your duty to them. No, this about your parents rejecting you and purposely attacking and undermining your efforts in your own home.


In summary, in order to teach your children to work for some of the things they get, it is necessary that gift giving does not go overboard. However, even if a parent understands this, sometimes the grandparents do not. How, to address the issue with the grandparents may depend on what type of grandparents you are dealing with and whether or not they love you and want to support you. Ideally you want to try to get the grandparents on board and involve them in your life, but ultimately, it is your family and you need to do what you feel is best for your family.


Have you experienced grandparents who went way overboard with gift giving or who did not support how you were raising your children in general? What solutions did you come up with to handle this situation? How did it work out? Do you wish you had done something different? Share your story below.

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Hannah Judd

Hannah Judd

Hannah is the co-creator of Moneypants and is the mother of 15 amazing kids.

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