Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: My mother is generous with gifts to my teenage daughter, but only with gifts she personally likes, rather than gifts my daughter likes.
My daughter mainly wants experiences – math camp, music lessons, concerts, etc., but my mom won’t spend money on that even when my daughter asks for it for her birthday or Christmas. My mom says that’s no fun for her. So instead of what my daughter wants, she usually buys her useless, pretty things that end up cluttering her room and closet, like pretty knickknacks, jewelry, purses, and fancy clothes.
This is upsetting my daughter more and more as she gets older and is trying to save for college. My daughter has cried when she’s opened up her closet to hundreds of dollars’ worth of clothes she has never worn, and realized they could have paid for the school trip she couldn’t afford.
She has tried talking to my mom about it, but my mom’s response is that it’s her money and she can choose to spend it how she wants. My mom acts like we’re ingrates if my daughter asks (or I ask for her) for money for a trip, camp or lessons.
Should she be grateful to get anything, even the wrong thing, or should she assert herself more? Should she say, “No, thank you” to these gifts, accept them grudgingly, or accept them and try to sell them?
On the one hand, I think it’s presumptuous for us to tell my mom what to spend her money on, but on the other hand, it’s very hurtful for my daughter’s wishes to be repeatedly disregarded. How do you recommend we handle this?
Your mom, actually, is not generous, not by any definition I’d aspire to. She’s giving purely to please herself. (Give her credit for owning that, I suppose.)
That said, of course, no gift should ever be assumed or expected – and you’re right that it’s fundamentally presumptuous to tell others how to spend their money.
Combine all these, and here’s where I end up: Sell it. Every sequin of it for every cent it can fetch.
Since gift-giving is, presumably, about the joy of bringing joy to another, there’s room for a recipient (or her agent, aka, you) to indicate politely what she likes. Only a purist would be comfortable with the idea of letting someone spend bundles on gifts that are painful to receive.
But since your mom has employed a purist’s technicalities to promote her own interests over your daughter’s, there doesn’t appear to be any practical purpose in trying to socially re-engineer her giving habits.
Fortunately, the “It’s my money” rule has a corresponding rule: “Once given, a gift is mine to use as I please.” Not only should your daughter cash these gifts in, but she also needn’t feel one bit of guilt.
As for the should-she-be-grateful question, the answer is, people should be grateful when others think of them, even if the result is off-target. In this case, your mother is thinking only of herself, so while your daughter does need to mind her manners and say thank you, she can be forgiven for not feeling grateful for these uniquely thoughtless gifts.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.