Grandparents and the holidays: Tips on gifts, expectations and more

Resident Scholar Ruth Nemzoff offers some advice for grandparents and parents of grown children


For grandparents, holidays can provide precious time with family, but they also come with challenges. Expanding families, other obligations for children, and fading and emerging traditions can complicate the holidays.

Ruth Nemzoff, resident scholar in the Women's Studies Research Center, has written two books that provide advice for parents of grown children and grandparents, "Don't Bite Your Tongue" and "Don't Roll Your Eyes." She took some time answer some questions from BrandeisNOW about some of the challenges grandparents face around the holidays.

What can grandparents and parents of grown children do to make sure they are part of plans during the holidays? And how can they create expectations that are reasonable, both for themselves and their children?

Ruth Nemzoff
Ruth Nemzoff

Try to see things from multiple perspectives. Don't think your kids are not coming home because they don’t love you, rather they may have many obligations.  Your children may be still climbing the success ladder and have less free time. You may have already achieved success and thus have more freedom.

As families get more complicated, some traditions may not work anymore. It might be helpful to have a discussion in advance about how you will use the time you have together. You may want to share your hopes and suggest some options for a shared experience for spending time with individual children.

Ask them what their hopes are for the holidays. To expect your children to spend every minute sitting at your feet is unrealistic. Reframing things with a positive view can be useful. If your children get up and clear the table fast, they may be trying to be helpful rather than trying to get away fast. If only two of your three children came home, enjoy what you have. Don’t bemoan what you don’t have.

Grandparents are often expected to host during the holidays, as families grow and time moves by, when is it time to relinquish that role, and how do you have that conversation?

If in the past you made the whole meal, and now you are feeling that is a too bit much work, you could ask everyone to bring something or have the family cook together. It’s not only a way to ease out of the role, but it can bring the family together.

Sometimes, it's the parent generation (children of grandparents) that sense it is time for change. They could offer to provide a dish, or a piece of a typical family tradition, as a way to ease into that transition.

In-laws and newcomers to the family bring in different faiths, values or traditions. What are some ways to handle this?

You may want to ask if they want to bring something from their holiday traditions. It's important to remember that people like to be included. Think about what would make a newcomer to the family comfortable. Remember they are giving up their own traditions when they share your family traditions.

Different ideologies and generational gaps can lead to arguments and hostility. How can that be avoided?

Take disagreements as an opportunity to learn about a different point of view. But if the gap creates too much contentiousness, try sharing an experience together such as a walk or a TV show. It provides a topic of conversation, and it reminds us we enjoy spending time with each other.

Remember that things change over time. Our children grow and develop, so do grandchildren and so do grandparents. Try to maintain a positive view. Maybe last year one of your grandchildren was obnoxious, maybe he’s grown up now. Don’t come into the holiday expecting each person to play the same role as the last time your gathered.

Are there good rules to follow for grandparents to follow when it comes to gift giving?

There are million gifts in the world, you might as well give what your children and grandchildren want.  Or, you can always give an experience. People who share experiences are often happier. For grandparents, especially ones who live a long distance away, sharing an experience with a grandchild can strengthen the relationship because it provides something they can talk about over the phone, both before the experience and long after it takes place.

What if you have a big family and the gift giving is getting out of hand?

Anyone in the family should feel it is fine to raise the topic of doing gift giving in an alternative way.  Being a secret Santa for one person or holding a Yankee swap are good alternatives. Or if you wish to de-clutter and save the environment, you could give “gently used” gifts. Grandparents might want to set out a bunch of things on the table and say they are giving them some of their own treasures in hopes that each person will remember the joys of being together.

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