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Holiday Logistics for Stepfamilies

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Gift Giving

Gift giving, whether for birthdays or holidays, can be another one of those stepfamily expectation minefields. You're blithely walking through a meadow, and “boom!” And you didn't even realize the expectation was there.

For their first holiday season together, Elisa knocked herself out making hand-woven sweaters for her fiancé's kids. She wrote each one a little letter, expressing how much she enjoyed them and how delighted she was to have them in her life. How she slaved! They opened the sweaters, shrugged, read the notes with blank faces, tossed them down and attacked the rest of the pile. Elisa couldn't believe it. She expected at least a little graciousness from them, a little acknowledgment of the effort she'd gone to.

When it comes to stepkids and gifts, remember these points:

  • Don't expect anything from them. That way you can be pleased as punch if they whisper “Happy Birthday” and seem to mean it.
  • Don't try to “buy” their love with expensive or large gifts. It won't make a whit of a difference in terms of how accepted you are, and it easily can cause resentment (from the kid or from your partner's ex).
  • You and your partner should discuss expectations and realities with the kids before the holidays. Financial matters may have changed. If kids are used to a lot, let them know ahead of time if things are different now.
  • Kids often can't bring themselves to offer thanks to a stepparent.
  • Many kids (stepkids or not) are rude and thoughtless. Others are simply blunt: “I hate red. Why did you get me red? Red is for babies.” How you handle their rudeness is up to your partner and you, though I think it's vital that your stepkids act graciously if your family gives them gifts.
  • Be fair! In a combined family, spend equal amounts on each child. This kind of fairness is more important than it would be in a natural family.
I Kid You Not!

It's easy to snap and lose it when a stepchild looks up from the piles of loot and asks, “Is this all there is? Dad will get a lot more for me.” Of course! It pushes all your buttons, that you're not caring enough, not rich enough, not liked enough…. It's vital that you don't bite, because that's bait on the hook. Take a deep breath and say, “I hope you enjoy your presents, Anna. We chose things that we thought you would especially enjoy this year.” Leave it at that. Excuse yourself. Go to the bathroom and cry. Things will be better next year.

Coordinating Gifts with the Ex

Tommy really wants a dump truck, a computer game, and a bike. Who's going to get what loot for him, Mommy or Daddy? Sonia really wants a Barbie doll, and while you and your partner hate the idea of her playing with such a sexist, materialistic toy, your partner's ex is all for getting her three, plus a Barbie Dream House.

What to do, what to do? Alas, coordination, conversation, and compromise with the ex is in order here. Once wee Tommy and Sonia have made their wish lists, it's time for the two bioparents to talk together to arrange which, who, and how much. This can be uncomfortable—it gets into big, bad money issues.

Encourage your partner not to get into a one-upmanship situation with one partner topping the other's spending. You guys should be the model of restraint; perhaps the ex will follow suit. Very often, reasonable behavior is actually met with reasonable behavior. Don't encourage your partner to buy joint gifts with his ex. Coordination, conversation, and compromise only go so far—joint gift giving falsely signals reunification, and it tends to confuse kids by blurring family boundaries. Your family is your family, the ex's is the ex's, and that's that, birthday or no birthday.

Where Do the Presents Get Opened?

Where should the child open the gifts? All of them on the actual day, no matter what parent she's with, or at separate celebrations, even if that means on a nonholiday? If you opt for all on the day of the holiday option, the nonresident parent won't get to see the gift opening, and it might be uncomfortable for the kid, and the ex. If you opt for separate ones, then the child's celebration is split. There's no strictly correct option. The only thing strictly correct is to discuss it with the ex and with the child, and come to a mutually agreeable solution. Nothing is carved in stone; just because you do something one way once doesn't mean you're doomed to do it that way forever!

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Stepparenting © 1998 by Ericka Lutz. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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