Sunday, November 27, 2011

Gift-giving grandmother gets no graciousness

Every year, as the holiday gift-giving approaches, I begin to receive questions from readers struggling with the season.

This year, a reader from Southern California writes to report on her six grandchildren, "all very bright and excellent students." Her grandchildren range in age from 12 to 19 - three girls in one family and two boys and one girl in another family.

"We all get along," she writes. "No problems there!"

The children in the family with two boys and one girl "appreciate everything I do for them," grandma writes. "Even the 12-year-old sends me beautiful thank-you notes in his own words and handwriting." From these grandkids, she never fails to get a thank you note as well as a verbal thank you for checks, gifts, and "everything" she does for them.

The problem, however, lies in the family of two girls. Well, not in the family, but in the girls themselves.

"I have to ask the girls in the other family if they received their birthday check or gift," their grandmother writes. When the girls respond to her, "it's sort of a ho-hum, 'Yes.'" The ho-hum affirmation is immediately followed with: "I know you want a thank-you note, Grandma." So, after her call, she reports that she gets a two-sentence note, "not even signed with the word 'love' in it."

Over the years, the grandmother has done the same for all of her grandchildren when it comes to gift giving. But her inclination this year, she writes, is to be more generous with the grandkids who actually show appreciation.

"With Christmas approaching," she writes, "I would like to know what you think is the right thing to do."

Whenever I've received questions like this from readers, I've been very clear that a parent or a grandparent has no obligation to treat every child exactly the same when it comes to giving gifts, leaving an inheritance, or anything else that involves deciding how to dole out assets. Most parents and grandparents, however, do try to be as fair as they can be and treat each of their children and grandchildren as equally as possible. Perhaps partly this is to send a message of how none of the children is loved any more than another. It might also be a way to keep from creating a rift among the children brought on by jealousy.

There is no ethical rule, however, that the grandmother from Southern California must give grandchild A the same amount that she gives grandchild B or grandchild C.

But since the grandmother suggests she loves all of her grandchildren equally and maintains good relationships with all, the right thing to do is for her to ask herself if being less generous with one set of grandkids will really accomplish what she hopes to achieve. If the less-grateful grandkids don't know they're getting less, will it really matter all that much to them? If being less generous is designed to make the grandmother feel better, the right thing would be for her to ask herself if she'd really feel better by being less generous.

The appropriate response should be driven by what the grandmother really wants to accomplish. And it wouldn't kill the less-gracious grandkids' parents to remind them that it's a good and appropriate thing to thank people when they do something nice.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal
Responsibility in Today's Business
 and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apartis a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


Anonymous said...

Sadly, we're living in two different worlds as far as communication goes and relationships with children and grandchildren. This grandmother's story is unfortunately the reality nowadays. Sounds like she wins more times than she loses. The kids she describes who don't answer are taught by their parents so Grandma should take it up with the parents. Social media and texting is ruining communications in all age groups, and to a teenager or other youngster, a one word reply is the way they communicate. What really gets me is you watch a sporting on national TV and as the crowd is panned by the camera, more and more people are hunched over their cellphones doing their texting bit. And, don't even talk about adults driving while holding their cellphones, they're in another world, a large cause of accidents.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

William Jacobson said...

Jeffrey, I agree with both your and Charlie's takes. The grandmother is free to alter her gift giving as she sees fit to meet her needs but making less generous gifts to teach a lesson is likely to be ineffective. Since in this case, the 'ungrateful' grandkids know that their grandmother expects a thank you note, the lack of followthrough is on the parents and she should take it up with them. I suspect the parents carry the same ho-hum attitude towards the kids seem to.

William Jacobson
Anaheim, CA

Grandma Bee said...

"Dear Gomez and Morticia: It discourages me that Wednesday and Eddie do not give me the courtesy of a gracious thank you note for gifts. I love Wednesday and Eddie very much, and because I love them, it matters to me that they learn this important skill.

I find their grudging attitudes to writing thank-you letters very discouraging and insulting. It takes the joy out of giving gifts. Should they treat other givers with the same ho-hum attitude that they treat my gifts, they will offend people and possibly damage important relationships.

It is essential for their well-being that they learn to be gracious givers and receivers. I trust that you are working on these matters with them.

Love, Grandma"

Grateful Daughter said...

Grandma Bee said it best. When I was a child (about 100 years ago), we were not allowed to use/spend/wear a gift until we had written a proper, gracious thank you note. The lesson was so ingrained that when one of my sisters married, she left gifts boxed until the thanks had been sent.

M. E. Yancosek Gamble, Bethany, WV said...

If you give because you love your family, enjoy the giving. If you give to secure a note in return, don't do it. If you worry the gift/check will be lost, send the package with signature required.

I used to fume over my nieces/nephews/ friend’s children not sending notes, to the point I used to send boxed monogrammed notes as gifts to them, and then I realized --- this is NOT the reason to give.

If you see a gift as a vehicle for teaching gracious manners, don’t bother. The gift is only a manifestation of a larger problem. Lack of gratitude (and interpersonal skills) is much larger than the absence of a thank you note.

One cannot change selfish people/children. I say give anyway for the sake that giving.