Hi, Carolyn: Every Christmas, we host my parents and my brother’s small family. My brother’s family is kind but poor, and relies on help from family, friends and various agencies to make ends meet. When Christmas comes, they buy presents for the kids in lieu of a larger gift exchange.
My parents get gifts for everyone. My husband and I buy gifts for my parents. The question that comes up every year is: What do we do for my brother and sister-in-law? They’re the only ones we’re not buying gifts for and only because we don’t want to make them feel bad because they can’t reciprocate.
But that doesn’t feel right. We would like to give them something – even something small. What do you suggest? Is there a non-gift-giving option that we haven’t thought of?
You’re already using a non-gift-giving option: You’re giving your brother and his wife respect for their dignity. And you’re letting them off the hook of feeling they have to reciprocate; even “something small” becomes a burden to someone raised to want to give back.
The system you describe in your family is logical, because most people feel more comfortable accepting help from above – parents, boss, religious institution – than from peers. If your brother is comfortable with the way you all handle Christmas, then it wouldn’t be right to change it just to make yourself feel better. Especially not if you’re telling yourself that you’re making changes on his behalf.
If what you really want is to help your brother more, then offer money to your parents so they can increase what they give to him, either at Christmas or throughout the year. That way he gets more, you feel better and there’s no awkwardness about the source.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org.