Prev Next
Alpha Mom logo in blue and raspberry

The Spoiling Boundary

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

I have an in-law dilemma (who doesn’t, right??). On the surface it seems like such a petty little thing, but I think it’s turned into a power struggle. I’m not a confrontational person and I avoid conflict like the plague, and to top that off my in-laws are emotional and take things VERY personally. So I’m having a hard time deciding how to communicate the issue with them.

We have a 2-year-old daughter, my in-laws’ only grandchild. They are extremely loving and generous with her. My problem is that they don’t seem to have the same kinds of boundaries I would expect them to have (based on my own parents/upbringing). The specific issue, for the moment, is clothing.

They LOVE to buy clothes for our daughter, and the majority of the clothing they buy for her looks (to me) straight out of the Jersey Shore show wardrobe closet—a lot of metallics, lace, fur, logos, etc. I’m a turtleneck and corduroys kind of girl.

It’s not uncommon for them to show up with a stack new outfits, coats, and shoes—not inexpensive ones–put them on her immediately and take dozens of photos of her like she’s a dress up doll. They will do this when I am napping or not home. I should add that they live hours away so maybe this is their way of seeing her in stuff they bought since they don’t see her daily. Or, they have picked up that I don’t use what they buy and are making a desperate attempt to dress her the way they want her dressed.

Because I’ve never had the guts to say “I hate that, please take it back,” I’ve tried other tactics. I’ve said “oh, she really doesn’t need a lot of new clothes, she has so many and she outgrows them so quickly.” Completely ignored. I’ve asked them to bring receipts “in case we need to exchange something.” Ignored. I’ve suggested they buy books and other things that she won’t outgrow so fast—still the clothes arrive. My husband has told them bluntly several times to ease up on the clothing purchases (we’re running out of space!), and it never stops. In fact, once they actually snuck in clothes, left them in their guest room, didn’t mention them to me, dressed her up and took photos when I wasn’t around, then took the clothes home with them. Weird, right??

In contrast, my mom always brings a receipt for the occasional things that she buys, tells me she won’t be offended if I exchange, and gives the clothes directly to ME, not to my toddler. This seems normal to me.

They are good grandparents otherwise, but this feels intrusive. They are not wealthy people and it really is a shame to waste good money on clothes that I will never, ever dress her in when they’re not around. In fact, I’d feel that way even if I did like the clothes – no child needs that much stuff. I feel like I can’t buy clothes for her that I like, because she has a huge closet full of clothes they bought at home. Plus, I wonder where it stops—if they are buying trashy clothes for a toddler, what will she get as a pre-teen? What other requests/boundaries will get trampled over? They don’t seem to pick up on my efforts to minimize the whole princess/clothing-obsessed thing.

So, do I just come out and say “Seriously, stop buying clothes—you’ve had your time to dress up your own kid”? Should I bother trying to direct them to buying clothes that I would actually use? Should I just ignore the whole thing because after all it’s just clothes (but maybe not really)? And why do they do this?? Our daughter has no idea yet that they are giving her gifts so it can’t be to gain favor with her. Is it reasonable to expect them to buy her things that they clear with us first (they have also shown up with big elaborate “surprise!” toys, wrapped, and given them directly to her so it’s too late for returns)? They always complain that their own parents had no boundaries when it came to ‘spoiling’ my husband, so you’d think they’d be more sensitive. Do they just need to get a hobby (maybe a doll to dress up on their own time)? And by the way, we have baby #2 due soon–I don’t know if that will make it better or worse. The thought of this little game going on much longer makes me want to really limit the time with the in-laws, which is a shame for everybody.

Mother of a Real Girl

Oh man, do I ever sympathize, because we’ve got one of These Situations going on at our place, too. Just replace “tacky sequintastic clothing” with “religious books and DVDs.” Books show up mysteriously in the boys’ room after a visit, DVDs arrive wrapped and are given to the kids directly as gifts (so then they immediately beg to watch it, giving me zero chance to screen it first). And I’m not talking about just Noah’s Ark or the nativity story — think creationism, the crucifixion, born-again, full-on afterlife salvation stuff here. Just because it’s presented via cartoon characters doesn’t make me any more comfortable with it, and like you, there’s a distinctly frustrating sense that our boundaries and decisions are being trampled and they Do. Not. Care. We asked them to cool it on the religious stuff — it mostly just confuses/bores the kids and we’re just not onboard with their version of super-duper fundamentalism. No dice. I remove the books and discard the DVDs; they figured out what I was doing and basically doubled their efforts to “save” our children from their godless upbringing.

In our case, they’re doing it because (I imagine) they see defying us as something like a mission, and that it’s justified in the grand scheme of our children’s eternal souls. For the life of me I cannot figure out why your in-laws are displaying similarly sneaky-creepy-determined-as-all-GET-OUT levels of passion about your daughter’s wardrobe. I mean, there’s wanting to buy girly clothing because it’s “cute” and all, but…sneaking in clothes, taking pictures and then taking the clothes HOME? Okay, yes. That is SUPREMELY weird.

Other than buying these people a twee little purse dog with a variety of sweaters and jackets, what else can be done to stop the onslaught of unwanted clothing? It sounds like maybe your husband could try being a bit more explicit — rather than “ease up” tell them bluntly, “no more, we’re done, I mean it.” But they could very well ignore that, too.

Honestly, I would probably just box up all the clothes and donate them. Your daughter doesn’t need a closet full of floofy princess wear, but it sounds like there’s enough to make quite a few other little girls very, very happy. It’s obviously not what your in-laws intended for the purchases, but at this point they’re clearly aware that the gifts aren’t exactly welcome and spending the money anyway. Donate it all to a local shelter or charity and rest assured that the clothing will be put to good use and thus no longer be a “waste.” Then dress your daughter how YOU want her dressed, because she is YOUR daughter.

If they arrive and get bent out of shape at the sight of her streamlined closet, your husband can nicely remind them that you guys tried to tell them that she simply had too much stuff and outgrows it very quickly and seriously, guys, enough with the clothes. She’s not a doll, she’s a toddler who needs a basic set of rough-and-tumble play clothes and that’s it. Maybe suggest they start helping you stock a dress-up trunk or something, so they can indulge in the costume-y stuff in a more appropriate way. (While you fill out the collection of tiaras and fairy wands with doctor and firefighter outfits, and continue to edit down and donate princess stuff along the way.)

As for non-clothing-related spoiling, yes, I DO think it’s reasonable to ask other people to “clear” certain presents and gifts with you first. Especially big, elaborate ones or things that some families might have an issue with, like toy guns or video games. I also know from experience that many, many people will not do that, no matter what. My family tends to buy everything off wishlists and confirm purchases via text message before hitting the Buy Now button, but my husband’s entire family prefers the “Here. SURPRISE!” approach. Sometimes this means we end up with expensive toys that the boys pull out of the box and play with ONCE, or barely at all, and sometimes this means my carefully-chosen Christmas gift gets completely overshadowed by HOLY CRAP LOOK WHAT UNCLE T US SENT OMG. I’m just like…whatever, about it all now. I’m still the adult with the keys to the car and the knowledge of where I can donate the stuff later to bring the toy level back down to normal.

And about your concerns about the future and visions of words-across-the-butt hot pants arriving for your 12-year-old, that’s probably something you’d be able to shoot down with a “I’m sorry, but we simply don’t allow her to dress like that, her school has a dress code and we have rules about modesty. Can you give us the receipt so we can exchange that for something more appropriate?” If that causes hurt feelings, so be it: there’s a big difference between “gifts that just aren’t to my personal taste” and “gifts that are completely inappropriate.” The first kind you say “thank you” and then quietly give away or return, the second kind gets a foot-down talkin’ to.

It’s also possible that they’ll eventually lose interest in playing dress-up with her as she gets older and less pliable about it, or once she’s not the only grandchild, OR they’ll continue to buy her tacky little-girl clothing that causes her to roll her eyes because GOD, it’s like Grandma and Grandpa think she’s still five years old, or something. Don’t they realize she’s SEVEN now? Ugh.

Right now, at two, she’s willing to just stand there and play the baffled part of the dress-up doll. But I would bet cash money that will probably stop soon, within a year or two. She’ll start developing her own tastes and opinions about her clothing. And while I do not have a little girl, I do have quite a few friends who, despite making their homes a 100% princess-free zone, ended up with little girls who zeroed in on a pink sparkly tutu in the store one day and never looked back. And then there are little girls who want nothing but pants and more pants and hate getting dressed up. Your daughter might one day tell Grandma that no, she doesn’t want to wear that stupid outfit and pose for pictures, she’s busy playing right now. Or she might regularly go change her clothes five times a day even when your in-laws aren’t there and insist you take her picture and sleep with her favorite ladybug boots on. Just like you and your in-laws enjoy dressing your daughter to your respective tastes, one day her tastes are inevitably going to rise up and trump everything.

But in the meantime, remember that your boundaries can be occasionally crossed but never plowed down permanently. They do go home eventually, at which point the ugly gifts can go in the donate pile and your daughter’s wardrobe is once again your domain. If your daughter really likes something they’ve brought her — be it a pair of glittery shoes or a faux-fur capelet — add it to the dress-up box instead of her closet. As she gets older, involve her in the donating process and teach her about helping others who are less fortunate.

Lately I’ve been asking the boys if they have any questions about anything their grandparents talked to them about or read. So far, I don’t think they’ve absorbed a single lick of any of it, and the books resonate on about the same level as Knuffle Bunny or the Three Little Pigs. (And obviously a lot of it is similar to other, non-religious takes on “be a good person, tell the truth, be nice to others, etc.” that we read to the boys.) But in the end, we’re their parents. We’re with them a lot more, and right now, we exert a lot more influence.

That won’t always be the case, but I guess I should consider this a practice run for the days when peer pressure kicks in and I’m left behind, hopeful that my years as Number One Guiding Influence were put to good use and I managed to raise confident, critical thinkers. Who aren’t necessarily just carbon copies of myself. Just like you might one day end up with a princessy princess who only wants to wear sparkly pink things, I might end up with a kid who decides that God and church and religion makes him (and his future family) happy. And it’ll be my turn to respect his wishes and choices. It’s like the circle of life and grandparent karma, I suppose.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

icon icon