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QUESTION: As the holidays and an impending wedding approaches, my husband and I become more and more apprehensive about our soon-to-be daughter-in-law, and I think we need your advice. Last Christmas our son (my stepson) brought his girlfriend to our family celebration.
It is a tradition in our family that we give our blended family children and married spouses money and several well-thought-out gifts. If you are not married to one of our children, you can expect a couple of gifts.
This year, I spent months searching for just the right gift for each person. This woman, age 23, received four lovely gifts from the boy’s dad and me. In January, our family always makes a large donation of items to the Goodwill as we clean out our old stuff. The kids generally all bring over items they want donated, as well. In January, our son brought several bags over and left them in the garage with the rest of the donation pile. When we began sorting the items for donation, I could see that his fiancee had put all of her Christmas presents from us and from the boy’s mother and stepfather in a bag for the donation bin.
Now they are getting married. Her birthday, Christmas and their wedding are all coming up and I don’t know what to do. My husband doesn’t want to give her a gift of any kind but I think that will upset our son. My feelings have been hurt, and while I clearly understand my background place at the wedding, there is still the question of gifts, now and in the future.
CALLIE’S ANSWER: Tell her you’re having a hard time buying gifts this year. Ask her to go shopping with you. Of course there won’t be as much of a surprise but then she will get what she wants! A gift card is always a good idea — such as to the Apple store, or something for the home! Good luck.
LILLIE-BETH’S ANSWER: As difficult as this will be, I think now is the time to clear the air and give her a chance to explain what happened.
She is getting ready to join your family, and how you handle this can set the tone for your relationship for years to come. Maybe the items were left there by mistake; maybe she meant to tell you she didn’t like the gifts. All you can do is guess what she meant. Your hurt feelings are valid, and gift-giving between families can get really emotional.
But take out your emotion, and approach her gently, without accusation. If you ask for clarification and stay focused on this year instead of last year, then you avoid putting her on the defensive. Say something like, “We are happy you’re joining the family and want to make sure we help you. I noticed you placed some of the gifts we gave you last year in the donation pile. Is there something else you need or have in mind this year for your birthday/Christmas/wedding? What are your gift-giving traditions or expectations?”
Maybe she and her family exchange gifts in a different way or with different intentions.
You can always put less thought and money into gifts you. However, by asking her directly, you might prevent unresolved hurt feelings from simmering through the years until they boil over into something worse. You’ll be closer to understanding her expectations as she becomes part of the family.
HELEN’S ANSWER: How embarrassing for you and for your future daughter-in-law. There are several ways to look at this problem. You could ignore the fact that you found the discarded gifts and continue to give her gifts since she will be a family member, or ask her what sort of gifts that she likes since this family likes to give gifts for special occasions.
In a polite way, you might tell both the woman and your son that you found the gifts that you all had given to her in the Goodwill box and were very sorry that they were not what she had wanted, but that you still wanted to give her something she might enjoy — even a gift card.
Personally, when I give gifts, there are no strings attached, so if they go to Goodwill, so be it.
GUEST’S ANSWER: Devonne Carter, licensed clinical social worker who has taught etiquette classes at Oklahoma Christian University: It is obvious from this question that gift-giving isn’t always a simple thing. And the old adage “it is better to give than to receive” isn’t the truth in this situation; giving can be painful and challenging. This is a time that I would suggest you do the right thing anyway. It is the right thing to give your future daughter-in-law a gift. You are in the wrong if you stop doing the proper thing because your feelings are hurt. We cannot make everyone happy all the time, and you are still learning what your future daughter-in-law likes as far as gifts go. The attitude problem may be hers in that she isn’t a good gift receiver. Many people do not appreciate what has been given to them.
The healthiest thing to do in this situation is to tell her you found the gifts in the donation pile, in a gentle and kind way. Tell her you are sorry she didn’t like what you gave her as presents but would like to know some specific things she would appreciate. You need her to spell it out for you. If she doesn’t tell you what to give her, gift cards and money are always great gifts. We cannot please everyone all the time.
Callie Gordon is 20-something; Lillie-Beth Brinkman is in her 40s; and social columnist Helen Ford Wallace is 60-plus. To ask an etiquette question, email firstname.lastname@example.org.