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New York Times: Grandma’s Gifts Need Extra Reindeer

December 23, 2009

by Julie Scelfo

FROM the moment his twins were born in 2006, Jason Oranzo, a graphic designer, began having a problem with his mother and his aunt: they couldn’t seem to stop buying gifts.

“Literally, coming home from the hospital, I had like 19 baby blankets,” said Mr. Oranzo, 36, who lives in the West Village.

As the twins, Gus and Scout, have grown, Marjorie Oranzo, 65, and her sister, Nancy Stratton, 60, have graduated from clothing and blankets to toys and games — often buying more than one of the same thing “just in case they need them,” he said.

But at Christmastime, the gift-giving is even more extreme. Together, Mema and NeNe, as the children call them, typically put 8 to 10 presents under the tree — for each child. Last year, Gus’s booty included a wooden tool bench, a bowling set and two talking dolls. After opening his second present, a battery-powered Lightning McQueen from the movie “Cars,” though, Gus, then 2 1/2, had had enough.

“That was it,” Mr. Oranzo said. “He didn’t want to open other gifts.” (Eventually, the adults unwrapped the rest of his presents.)

Fearful of how this year’s Christmas blitz will overwhelm their already jam-packed apartment — not to mention their children — Mr. Oranzo and his partner, David Root, 39, the design director for boys’ clothes at Crewcuts, J. Crew’s children’s division, have tried to persuade Mr. Oranzo’s mother to limit herself to one or two presents. “I hate to see her waste money on stuff that I know they don’t really need, want or use,” Mr. Oranzo said.

But because he doesn’t expect their protests to make much of a difference, he spent last weekend filling several enormous garbage bags with the twins’ belongings, which will be donated to a charity to make room for new things. “I said that less is more, and my mom said I was a Scrooge,” he said.

While entire industries have sprung up to help people deal with problems like household clutter, few resources exist to help Mr. Oranzo and countless others like him who are navigating what many discover to be an emotionally laden issue: how to keep well-meaning loved ones from overdoing it with gifts for the children. Online message boards are filled with pleas from exasperated parents seeking advice on managing the endless influx of toys, and preventing what they see as the dual tragedies of creating waste — financial and environmental — and raising spoiled brats.

Carolyn Danckaert, a program director at the Center for a New American Dream, a nonprofit group devoted to encouraging what it calls “conscious consumption,” attributes the “stuff wars” between middle-class or affluent American grandparents and their adult children to the country’s relative affluence — even in a recession — and to the fact that prices of consumer goods have dropped over the last few decades.

Shoppers are able to “buy a lot of toys for not a lot of money,” she said, which has created “a crisis of overabundance.” And one result is that parents often feel tyrannized by their children’s toys, because “they have to spend so much time managing them, cleaning them and organizing them, instead of spending time on what matters most.”

Simply getting rid of gifts, however, can hurt the gift-giver — usually a grandmother or other female relative. “It’s grandma, not grandpa, because when it comes to gifts, women tend to do even more than 80 percent of the shopping,” said Marti Barletta, a marketing consultant in Chicago and author of “Marketing to Women: How to Increase Your Share of the World’s Largest Market.”

One grandmother recently posted an anonymous message on grandparents.com asking for help dealing with what she sees as ungrateful behavior: “Am I unreasonable to expect my daughter-in-law to keep the clothing and toys I give my granddaughters for a while before she gets rid of them?” she wrote. “It seems like everything I purchase or make for the girls is given away or ‘lost’ after a short time. It upsets me to the point of tears.”

Susan Linn, a psychologist and the author of “The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World,” said she has experienced firsthand the desire to delight grandchildren with new playthings — she has two granddaughters of her own — but knows from decades of working with families the damage that can result from inundating a child with toys.

“For some families, there’s concern that relatives will have hurt feelings or will feel rejected if they’re asked to cut down on gift-giving,” she said. “But when children have too much stuff and they constantly get more, we’re creating an environment where children are dependent on the things that corporations sell for amusement and soothing, instead of depending on their inner resources. The patterns of consumption learned in childhood can last a lifetime.”

Mrs. Oranzo, who manages a delicatessen in Guilford, Conn., with her husband, said that she knows her son wants her to “let up” on buying gifts for the children, especially because they receive gifts from so many people, but she also thinks he needs to be more relaxed about letting the toys take over the apartment.

“He’s too tidy,” she said. “I raised him in a totally different environment. He and his brother had full reign of the house and toys everywhere and paint here and paint there. I just see from a grandmother’s perspective that I want to provide that for the kids because it’s good. They do a lot of pretend play.”

Her sister, Mrs. Stratton, agrees, and insists that she doesn’t buy more toys for the twins than she bought for her own children. “It’s not like we arrive at their doorstep with bags of toys,” she said, explaining that they usually bring gear like Play-Doh and crayons. “I’m totally conscious of his space thing.”

While Mr. Oranzo complains about what he calls “the constant flow of cheap junk” — small plastic toys that break the first time they’re used — Mrs. Stratton said her nephew needs to accept that many of the playthings children like most are a domestic blight.

“Before they had their kids, their whole concept was that they were going to have all these very cute wooden toys, you know, like really nice things,” she said. But once children are exposed to TV and movies “like ‘Cars,’ which his son loves,” she added, that’s what they want — and “there’s no wooden toy with a ‘Cars’ thing on it.”

Scout recently saw “Snow White,” and she has likewise become enamored of anything having to do with the movie. “If you go into the store and look at where they sell the Snow White stuff, it’s junk,” Mrs. Stratton said. “There isn’t a place where you can go to the store and they sell a nice Snow White thing.

“You have to accept that the plastic stuff comes, and when they’re done in a few years you get rid of it, and you have your space back.”

For Molly Bondi, a nurse in Berkeley, Calif., the problem is that she simply doesn’t have enough room in her 826-square-foot house to accommodate all the toys her mother buys her children, Corina, 9, and Amedeo, 6.

“Dollhouses are what sent me over the edge,” Ms. Bondi said, explaining how for Christmas three years ago, her mother, Judith Greden, 66, gave her daughter an enormous Victorian dollhouse she had spent hours building herself, as well as several plastic ones, each full of dolls and furniture.

Because the houses were too big to fit on a shelf, they resided for several years on the living room floor, as did many of the other toys Mrs. Greden bought, before Ms. Bondi and her husband stored them in the garage and basement to make room for more gifts.

Dealing with the toys felt like a part-time job to Ms. Bondi, who said she has devoted more hours than she can count to ensuring the items didn’t go to waste: “We sold stuff, donated it, gave it away, wrapped things up for birthday presents for my kids’ friends.”

Then one day she had the idea of putting excess toys where they would be out of the way, but her children could still use them: her mother’s house in Alameda, Calif., 15 minutes away.

“Now she has two entire bedrooms filled with toys,” Ms. Bondi said. “That actually really helped because she had to start sorting through all the stuff and faced the same dilemmas I had.”

Mrs. Greden, Ms. Bondi’s mother, admits she can “get carried away” when it comes to buying for her grandchildren. “I like shopping,” she said. “I like giving to them. I try to find things that I think have good play value.”

Her own experience growing up in Minnesota after the Great Depression, she added, may have contributed to her buying habits. “When I was a child, we got one gift a year” at Christmas, said Mrs. Greden, who still recalls her disappointment when she was 8 or 9, and didn’t get the ice skates she wanted.

Making her grandchildren happy, she said, is one of life’s best experiences. As long as she can afford it, she reasons, her gift-giving doesn’t pose a serious problem. “I have a relatively large, empty house. There’s two of us here and three empty bedrooms, so I’ve turned most of the bedrooms into play rooms,” she said. “When they wear out the toys, I just move them to my house and, in many cases, contribute them to the day care center in the neighborhood.”

For her part, Ms. Bondi said, she is so grateful for all her mother does, including baby sitting for the children while she attended nursing school, that she hasn’t made as big a deal of the gifts as she might have otherwise. “My mom is a wonderful grandparent and she does a lot for my kids,” she said. “I’m sure she’s well intentioned.”

Other parents are less understanding — some because they worry that too many gifts will make children grow up to be too materialistic.

Janis Winogradsky, a communications specialist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who lives outside Atlanta, said she was stunned several years ago when her best friend’s mother, Joan Hall, gave her daughter, Grace, not one but “all 17 Disney Princess dolls,” along with a life-size stuffed polar bear family and several other gifts for Christmas. “I told Gracie to pick out three she liked, and we took the rest back for store credit."

The following year, there was an enormous stuffed golden retriever with five or six puppies, as well as a dozen miniature Madame Alexander dolls, which cost at least $65 each. Not wanting to hurt Mrs. Hall’s feelings, Ms. Winogradsky didn’t say anything beyond “please don’t do this” and “it’s not necessary,” she said, but she began to have concerns.

She appreciates that Mrs. Hall “adores Gracie and Gracie adores her, but I want Gracie to adore her for reasons other than she gives her gifts,” she said. “It kind of sends the wrong message.”

Mrs. Hall, 77, said she doesn’t remember Ms. Winogradsky complaining, but that it wouldn’t have mattered anyway because she likes to shop, especially for little girls. Grace is “the only one that I have really to buy for,” Mrs. Hall said. “I don’t have any grandchildren and it doesn’t look like I’m going to have any now that my girls are in their 50s, so I have to take it out on poor little Gracie.”

And buying in exorbitant quantities, she admits, has been a longtime habit. “If I give one gift, I always give more than that,” she said. “I never stop at just one. I don’t know why, I just do.”

One mother in Northern California, who asked not to be identified because she is afraid of damaging her “fragile” relationship with her stepmother on the East Coast, said she has grown to fear the doorbell. It often means the arrival of yet another enormous box of presents from her stepmother — and not just at Christmas and birthdays.

Several days before Thanksgiving, the woman used a question from her young daughter as an opportunity to discuss the importance of gratitude. “She asked me whether there would be presents on Thanksgiving, and I told her no, this holiday is not about getting things. It’s about being grateful for what you already have.”

Soon after, she said, they opened the front door “and there on the porch was an enormous box addressed to my daughter. Of course, she was so excited. But I was like, here we go again.”

Despite her frustration over the packages — which she said have become a “a moral issue” owing not only to her daughter’s expectations but to all the cardboard and plastic foam packaging that ends up in a landfill — the woman is reluctant to discuss her objections with her stepmother.

“I think it’s a matter of perspective,” she said. “They’re wealthy and they live in a huge house. You can always find room for a few more stuffed animals in a big house. But we live in a small, one-story bungalow.”

Last month, however, she did send a group e-mail message to all the grandparents — “although it was really intended for my stepmother,” she said — announcing that her children had more than enough clothes to last them several years.

“I really struggle with this,” she said. “Not everyone has generous, loving, thoughtful grandparents to shower your kids. So I feel really grateful. At the same time, I feel a little bit fed up and disgusted with just the waste of it all, and all the excess.”

But often, what parents object to is not the number of gifts, but what is being given.

Michelle Jewett, 41, considers herself lucky to have been able to persuade her mother to devote half of her $200-a-child Christmas budget to savings bonds that can be used for college. But several years ago, she said, she was horrified when her sons, Kai and Elias, then 6 and 8, each unwrapped a Nintendo Game Boy. “She knew we didn’t let them play video games,” Ms. Jewett said. “I think she thought we’d be in an awkward spot and just let them keep them, but I was like no, they’re going back.”

Janet Werneid, Ms. Jewett’s mother, said she was unaware of her daughter and son-in-law’s objections, but respected their decision. “When my children were growing up, I felt it was my and my husband’s decision what they received,” said Mrs. Werneid, 71. “You have to pass that on.”

In the last several years, Ms. Jewett, who lives in Albuquerque, N.M., has begun e-mailing her mother a list of direct links to toys her sons want that are acceptable to her, a system that pleases Mrs. Werneid, who lives in San Pedro, Calif.: “I know when he opens his gifts on Christmas morning, it will be all the things he loves.”

This year, she said, she was happy to receive an e-mail message directly from Elias, who is now 11, asking for “a tripod for his camera and earphones.”

Molly Bondi inadvertently discovered a different approach to curbing her mother’s shopping: pricey toys. Her daughter, Corina, loves American Girl dolls, which cost at least $95 each, and her son, Amedeo, likes video games. “She got him a Nintendo DS system, and the video games themselves are $40 each and they’re really little, the size of a pack of gum,” Ms. Bondi said. “When my kids were young, they had so many presents, they didn’t acknowledge or bond with their toys — it was like next, next, next. Now with American Girl stuff, that can’t happen.”

And this year, Ms. Bondi said, although she still doesn’t want her mother to go overboard with presents, the recession has slightly altered her perspective. She has been looking for a job ever since graduating from nursing school in March, and her husband, who works for the City of Oakland, recently had his pay cut by 10 percent. Now, she said, she is grateful that her children’s wish lists will be taken care of even before she and her husband spend a penny.

“In a way, this year I’m kind of appreciating that she’s picking up a lot of the slack that we can’t,” Ms. Bondi said. On Christmas morning, Corina and Amedeo will surely appreciate that, too.

New York Times, December 23, 2009

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