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Don't sweat the dollars-and-cents value of your kids' gifts

Your son can barely see over the stack of top-notch toys he gets from his auntie while your daughter is valiantly trying to feign interest in the dog-eared book that looks like it came from the remainder bin.

It's a seasonal hazard many parents dread: One child routinely reaps more – or better – gifts from a loved one at Christmas or Hanukkah than their sibling. We teach our children that it's the thought that counts. But what if a gift seems to suggest not much thought at all? While we try to ensure equal gift allotments for each of our children – down to the penny – we can't really hold others to account. Or can we?

Susan, a Toronto mother of three, (she asked that her name and identifying details be changed) has been struggling with one set of grandparents' unequal giving habits for years.

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"My in-laws favour my eldest child so blatantly," she says. On all special occasions (and even on routine visits) that child receives more – and more expensive – gifts. "It's so clearly unequal that I compensate for it," she says.

Yes, if you see a mom shopping on Boxing Day, she may be trying to balance the Christmas scales with a trip to the toy section. (Susan has had to do this many times for her other children.) Not only does this uneven gifting cause hurt and jealousy, but Susan says it also makes the fawned-over child feel badly, too. "I felt like I was being mean to my eldest, always trying to keep track, tit for tat."

The practice can leave a bad taste in everyone's mouth. Just ask Paul (who asked that his full name not be used): His late mother-in-law would dole out cards with cheques inside them to all her grandchildren at the family's annual holiday gathering. The children would all open them simultaneously and find different amounts. Some would get $100. Others, $50.

"Even those who were favoured didn't like her," Paul recalls. "Kids have common sense – they know right and wrong."

Toronto manners instructor Louisa Fox says parents must tread lightly in these situations. It's really not polite to ask a gift-giver to explain their modus operandi.

Ms. Fox has faced this conundrum in her own family. For years, her daughter routinely got a bigger cheque than her younger son from one uncle. He offered up an explanation, unsolicited, knowing that he might raise eyebrows with the differing amounts: "The thinking was that she had more school expenses than he did."

"It's an awkward way of thinking," she says. "But I just said, 'Oh, that's very thoughtful of you.'" And that explanation was adequate for her son, too, since it suggested that he would eventually see a more generous gift. Now that both are in their 20s, the gifts have evened out.

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So, Ms. Fox says parents should resist the temptation to immediately ascribe malice to the giver. People may have their reasons, she says. Maybe the gift-giver finds it easier to buy for boys. Maybe it happened by accident.

"People are not necessarily thinking logically and they forget that they've already got a gift for someone," Ms. Fox says. "They see something else and they end up with too much."

She says the same rules apply as when you receive gifts you don't like, or ones that don't fit or are completely wrong – "You wonder what they were thinking when they got you that Snuggie"– the recipient's job is to be gracious.

"Remember that it's the relationships you have with people that are important, not the stuff," she says.

In some cases, relatives may be simply giving kids what they've asked for. Toronto mother of two Heather Lochner says the dollar value of a gift can be meaningless if a child's wish list was consulted.

"My daughter is going to get stickers from my mother. She wants Rapunzel stickers more than anything," she says. "And my son is going to get a Smithsonian T-Rex Dig and Build set. So, order of magnitude, more expensive. But equal in how much they both want it."

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But when Susan feared that her in-laws' gift-giving ways might hamper their long-term relationship with their grandkids, she screwed up the courage to broach the subject with them.

"I wasn't sure that they were aware that they were doing it. So I pointed it out," she says, adding that while they were slightly defensive, the situation has since improved.

It's no wonder parents are fussing over the details of how much to spend – and how to ensure they don't stir up jealousies. Ms. Lochner says she and her husband used to try to spend evenly on holiday gifts (they celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas) for their two children, 4 and 6, but found the practice led to arguments and extra shopping.

"If we didn't hit what we wanted to spend on each child, we were trying to go out and make up for it," she says.

So they've shifted to agreeing on the total number of gifts. For Hanukkah, that's eight small gifts. And for Christmas, it's two gifts each plus a few to share.

Ms. Lochner says young children's radar is more attuned to the number of gifts than the value. "Even if your one gift is $100 and his two are only worth $20," she says the child with "only" one will feel envious.

And so far, she's stuck to her plan – even returning one gift to the store when she found another she knew her son would like better. In addition to fairness, Ms. Lochner says her family's new approach also ensures Christmas morning isn't over the top.

"If they get overloaded, they open one present, throw it away, and say, 'What's my next present?'" she says. "We're trying to show them the value of what is a present."

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About the Author

Tralee Pearce has been a reporter at The Globe and Mail since 1999, starting as a writer in the paper’s Style section. She joined the new Life section for its launch in 2007. She covers parenting and family issues for the daily section. More

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