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What to Do When Grandparents Play Favorites

What to Do When Grandparents Play Favorites

By Amalah


Thank you so much for answering my question regarding my husband’s family and their gender bias ways. I am happy to report, that while the problem isn’t 100% solved, it has gotten better. I finally got the nerve to call out my SIL when she called my son something along the lines of a “rough boy” while completely dismissing her daughter’s behavior. I somewhat nicely said that I didn’t think it was fair to have a double standard on the kids when they are the same age. She was very apologetic and has been better (at least around me) since. We’ve also been hanging out with them less (adding a second kid will do that), but I think the biggest change is my attitude towards it. I think you are totally right about the special snowflake parenting being a big part of the difference, and keeping that in mind while we are together keeps me from getting so annoyed about it. So thank you for that!

So that brings me to my follow-up question. I casually mentioned that Grandma favors my niece in both attention and present giving. This behavior cues so much momma rage in me and then you pretty much wrote my exact thoughts on the issue at the end of your response (“And P.S. Grandma being unfair with presents. Dick move and should be pointed out to her. By your husband [since I assume it’s his mother] tactfully and in private.”) and I was all YES YES YES. But before I make my husband follow your advice and send us down that blazing trail, I feel like you need the full story.

So Grandma is actually step-grandma. My MIL died years back, and FIL got remarried recently. We have all made a serious effort to get to know her, like her, and make her a part of the family because we are so happy that FIL is happy and has a companion to do life with. But, her current behavior has me pretty much hating her and it taints everything she does.

Step-MIL has two sons, and clearly resents not having a girl (she has mentioned how she was disappointed that her second was a son, which is so terrible to say!). This helps explain her behavior towards my niece. But she makes it so obvious and terrible and it makes me angry to no end. For example, my son and niece are very close in age, so have birthday parties within weeks of each other. She showed up to my son’s birthday with a very nice present for him, and an equal girl version present for my niece. Then showed up to my niece’s birthday party with 7 (I kid you not, 7) really nice presents for her. Nothing for my son (nor would i expect anything because that’s rude). Christmas was the same (but worse). They each had a big bag filled with 3-4 of the same things, then niece had 2 more things.

Grandpa love love loves both of his grandbabies and treats them equally. But is a super quiet man. The year he went shopping for both kids they both got the same exact things, so he’s not the issue, but would also never call out or fix the issue. He did make an embarrassed comment to my husband about it when they walked in with all the presents at niece’s birthday, so he does see it.

I’ve spoken/vented to all of my regular confidants (husband, best friend, sister, mom) and they all agree that there’s nothing I can do about it and I will just have to stop letting it get to me. My sister also thinks it might be related to the fact that my SIL and her husband are at a lower income level than us, but I think that’s no excuse.

So now that you have my full side, what do you think? Can we call out step-MIL? Lost cause and I just have to get over it? Can I stop inviting her to parties (haha, in my dream world, I know this is not actually possible)?

Thanks in Advance,
Raging Mom

Yeah, I still stand by my original opinion that this kind of blatant favoritism needs to be called out, although the fact that it’s a newish step-parent does make me rethink how the actual calling out needs to happen.

Your husband needs to involve his dad, and put pressure on him to do the right thing here and TALK TO HIS WIFE. He’s noticed and he’s (rightfully) embarrassed, and he’s also a grown man who needs to speak up. If he loves his grandbabies equally (which I believe he does), he needs to sack up and intervene before the kids are old enough to notice the disparity and your son gets his feelings hurt.

As for everyone telling you to just get over it…I generally don’t think it’s worth sweating when there’s a minor one or two present difference in a sea of other Christmas/birthday gifts. And it’s pretty obvious this is more of a selfish wish fulfillment sort of thing for your MIL (“Girl stuff is so fun! I always wanted to buy girl stuff!“)  rather than a reflection of Which Grandchild She Loves More. It’s possible that you’re fixating on the gift aspect a bit more than you should given the other gender-based favoritism/discrimination you’ve felt on your son’s behalf.

BUT! Man.  I’d have a REALLY hard time if a relative brought a birthday gift for another child to MY child’s party, and then went completely overboard again just a few weeks later. (With my child being excluded from round two.) That’s like one kid getting the $100 Lego set and giving the other a grab bag of crap from the Dollar Store. This is something that cannot repeat next year.

Your FIL felt embarrassed, and I sincerely hope he did say SOMETHING to her at some point, even if it was just a weaksauce “honey you need to chill.” Would your husband be able to talk to his sister about it? Just because her daughter is the “favorite” doesn’t automatically mean she’s okay with such a blatant display of unfairness. (Not to mention that a buttload of unnecessary presents can end up really being a pain. I’ve flat-out begged my in-laws to please please go light on the birthday/Christmas haul because we simply have no need or space for half the crap my kids receive. One present is plenty! Or a couple bucks in a card! ) (They will never listen. Ah, grandparents!) I’d personally be pretty annoyed with such over-the-top spoiling, DOUBLY so if it was coming at the expense of my nephew.

Perhaps your SIL and your husband can present a united front to your FIL and ask him to please talk to his wife about it? And if he won’t, the two of them together can go over his head and right to MIL (so it’s more about the fair and equal treatment of the cousins, rather than your husband complaining that your son didn’t get enough “stuff”). Her favoritism in general is super annoying, but to start I would focus mostly on the birthday situation, since that was clearly so blatant and over the top. And I would recommend letting go of the more minor examples, stop counting/adding up price tags, and remind yourself that this is about HER and not actually about YOUR SON being loved “less.” She just doesn’t have as much “fun” shopping for “boy stuff” and that probably will never change. Reminding her to not let the “fun” blind her from being fair is reasonable, but you’re probably going to have to let the occasional impulse buy/extra gift roll off your shoulders.

(I am 99% sure my niece gets more “girl stuff” from my MIL for similar reasons, right down to having sons and wanting daughters, but luckily we live seven hours away and don’t spend Christmas or birthdays together, and also I DON’T CARE, STOP BUYING THEM SO MUCH STUFF ANYWAY.)

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

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.

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  • LR

    March 16, 2016 at 9:29 am

    Please take this in the spirit is intended. But you will do yourself a huge favor if you don’t take everything as a slight. Perhaps the gender bias and gift giving are worse than what comes across here, but if you focus so much on everything being equal all the time, you are going to drive yourself crazy!

  • Holly W.

    March 16, 2016 at 9:39 am

    Amalah’s reply is a great one, of course! I do wonder how much the income-equality comes into play here. Both my family and one of my best friends’ families has suffered from this. Mine in terms of my parents doing a LOT financially for my three siblings, all of whom need a little help financially on ocassion, but…never for us. And on the one hand, I don’t really care, I’m independent and am proud of the life my husband and I provide for our family. HOwever, when the “financial help” extends to paying for free vacations, a new car for a sibling who doesn’t bother holding a job, etc… gets to me. I’ve brought it up ocasionally, and the (polite) answer I always get is “its our money, we’ll do with it what we want.” 
    My friend, however, has the SIL who had a son very early in life, and since then has remained on a variety of government supports to avoid working/providing for herself and her son, now a teenager. And those in-laws spend huge amounts on VERY expensive gifts for their grandson, while in turn buying chochkee presents at the dollar store for their four other grandchildren from a family who works hard to provide for themselves….gets on my friends nerves a ton, as you can imagine. I both of these cases though, it’s seemed like there’s no changing the ingrained habits of grandparents….

  • MR

    March 16, 2016 at 10:51 am

    When we were little, my Grandpa used to bring us gifts when he would come visit, and he would ALWAYS slight my brother. My brother had an accident and was in the hospital for over a month, and got TONS of presents and attention for that, where the rest of us didn’t, and as a result, my Grandpa seemed to think he needed to even the score or something. I distinctly remember one visit, he gave my oldest brother a really nice pocket knife, another brother a watch that had been passed down through the family, my sister and I each got jewelry that he had made, and he literally gave my other brother a cheap little like 50 cent wooden airplane kit thing. It still had the price tag on it, so there was no mistaking how cheap it was. I was trying to be all, “that’s so cool!” because I knew my brother was hurt, and so we put it together and he went to fly it (it was supposed to be like a paper airplane kind of thing), and it didn’t even fly and broke right away, causing my brother to burst into tears. I will NEVER forgive my Grandpa for that, and he has been dead for many, many years. It was really, really hard for me to have any sort of relationship with him because of that. You just don’t do crap like that to kids. Step-grandma is the adult and needs to act like one. And the other adults absolutely need to call her out on it. And Grandpa needs to step in, because otherwise the grandkids are going to start resenting him for not doing anything.

    • Sara

      March 16, 2016 at 11:58 am

      My parents and grandparents were always, as far as I recall, scrupulously fair in treating me and my three siblings equally. When I was 6 or 7, my parents came back from their first big vacation without us (a week in France!) with lots of delicate dolls and neat kits for all of us. Mom also brought me back a soft blue blanket, for I was a blankie devotee. Years later, she admitted that she had cut the Air France tag off the airline blanket because she realized she’d brought me one fewer present than my siblings. I could barely count, then, so I would really never have noticed — admittedly, I also felt totally secure in my equal treatment, so I was not primed to notice. The delicate dolls were given away years ago, but I still sleep with that airline blanket (and a few more I stole along the way). And mom still worries about whether she’s gotten equal gifts for each of us, even though we’re in our 30s now.

  • Paige

    March 16, 2016 at 11:01 am

    In my experience and in most other people’s around me, the grandchildren of the daughter and the son in law rather than the grandchildren of the son and daughter in law, are always favored. There is an interesting theory in evolutionary psychology that suggests that our Neanderthal brains only trust what we can prove paternity of and therefore creates unconscious biases. Whether that’s true or not, it just always seems to be the case for whatever reason. I spent the first year of my first baby’s life being upset at how he was treated by my in laws compared to how my husband’s sister’s kids were treated, until I just accepted that most people’s families seem to behave that way. The daughter’s kids are more exciting than the son’s. It’s not the right or kind way to act but sometimes just accepting that and realizing it has nothing to do with your child, can bring you some peace to the situation.

    • Myriam

      March 16, 2016 at 11:25 am

      That might be an explanation, but that’s not an excuse. 

  • Myriam

    March 16, 2016 at 11:28 am

    I would at least ask that the step-MIL refrain from giving extra gift on occasions when all the kids will be there. She could always give gifts when she visits independently. I would still ask her to curb the over the top thing (through Grandpa…)

    • Kay

      March 16, 2016 at 12:02 pm

      Yes, I think that’s key.  I honestly don’t think it’s that big a deal if she buys one child more than the other for whatever reason — gender, income, impulse, whatever.  The problem is making it obvious and blatant and impossible to ignore.  

  • s

    March 16, 2016 at 11:58 am

    Or just don’t let it get to you. My children are the only grandchildren on their fathers side. Their paternal grandfather at christmastime? ‘We don’t see them enough so we aren’t getting them anything’ (I should add here that all sets of grandparents live within 10 minutes of us.)
    They are 2 and at the time a couple months.
    They don’t make themselves available and plan ALL activities for times/places when kids can’t be present.
    I’ve since cut contact and let things be how they are.
    Some things you either ignore or you take control of the situation.

  • Kelsey

    March 16, 2016 at 12:08 pm

    I cannot stand when people bring presents for a kid who is not the birthday kid to birthday parties. My BIL and his wife have a 2 year old daughter, and my SIL is a single mom with a 4 year old son. My in-laws tried to bring presents for our nephew to our niece’s birthday party (his birthday is 5 months before hers and the entire trunk of their car was full of presents for him at his party), and thankfully my BIL put his foot down and told them that NO, if they wanted to give him presents they could do it on their own time because it was not his birthday and he could not open presents at his cousin’s birthday party. My in-laws treat every get-together as an opportunity to give presents to my nephew, but rarely my niece…I don’t have kids yet but at least I know not to expect a lot from my in-laws as grandparents, they’ve always only had eyes for our nephew. So sorry your SMIL is making things so hard for you guys, I hope everything gets resolved before your sweet boy is old enough to realize how unfairly he’s being treated by Grandma.

  • Maggie

    March 16, 2016 at 12:47 pm

    And then there are the grandparents who favor the firstborn grandson over all others and tell him, in front of all, You are our favourite! Some people are unbelievable. I choose to ignore at the time, but afterwards point out to kids at home how wrong the behavior is.
    I agree that if she wants to overload the Special Girl Child with extra presents she should do it privately. Good luck!

  • Michelle

    March 16, 2016 at 1:05 pm

    As a child, I was favored by my paternal grandmother over my sister, for the sole reason that I looked like my father and my sister didn’t. Yes, my grandmother was mentally unstable. However, this didn’t make it any better for my little sister who didn’t understand why she didn’t get nice presents and I did. My parents did call her out on it, and eventually cut ties with her for issues far bigger than this when I was a tween. This is all to say, you do need to say something, but frame it as, “Look, we get that you love buying little girl stuff, and we’re so happy that you get a chance to now. However, we’re afraid our son might soon notice that she seems to get more, and we want to make sure he doesn’t have hurt feelings or be upset at you. So could you please try to keep things equal when they’re together and give your extra girly stuff when he’s not around?”

    My SIL has a much lower income than my husband and I, and her daughter definitely gets more presents from my in-laws. While I’m annoyed at my SIL’s dependence on my in-laws, I don’t begrudge her daughter getting more from them. My kids are better off in the long run, since they don’t have my SIL as a parent!!

  • Karen

    March 16, 2016 at 10:16 pm

    The whole tone of this letter is utterly obnoxious. Sure there are all sorts of etiquette and equality infractions here, but it’s just so focused on me me me and my kid my kid my kid and stuff stuff stuff. Life is supposed to be fair all the time? I had no idea! 

    • Isabel Kallman

      Isabel Kallman

      March 17, 2016 at 10:03 am

      Karen, you have been an amazing longtime Smackdown reader. But, these types of comments are not helpful and I think are damaging longterm. Please don’t shame the letter writer for coming to us for help. Over the last almost 10 years, Amalah, myself and especially You (the collective Smackdown readers) have created a safe space where parents feel like they can ask honest and anonymous questions to a neutral third-party in what has become a very caring, super helpful and most importantly judge-free zone. You may not think this question is worthy. But others may. Amalah did, that’s why she answered it. But what I more concerned about is the possible longterm effect of others reading your comment and being turned off and not feeling safe to come to us with their questions in the future for fear that they will be get judged harshly or shamed for their questions.

      • Karen

        March 17, 2016 at 1:58 pm

        Thanks Isabel, for your note. I actually thought it was a really good question, it deals with hard stuff that can tear families apart. I do some volunteer work with a local organization school provides housing, support, and services, to families who are transitionally homeless. So maybe everything was going well and then the breadwinner lost a job and now they are living with family or in a motel until things turn around. The organization has a great success rate of helping people regain their footing. I had just come from dropping some stuff off there when I read the column and it was a difficult juxtaposition. 

        • Isabel Kallman

          Isabel Kallman

          March 17, 2016 at 5:36 pm

          Karen, thank you so much for coming back and touching base. I totally hear you, and thank you for kindly listening to me. 🙂

    • Caroline

      March 18, 2016 at 8:13 am

      For me, it was the ”bringing many gifts to another child’s birthday party… not for the birthday child”. Not on. Everything else is small potatoes and of course the lady in question can do as she wishes, but my kid will not watch someone else get 7 (seven!) gifts at his party. The comparison and ”but… why…” is just too obvious and so my response would be ”thank you so much for coming and for the wonderful xys gift, little Jasper adores it, here’s a photo of him wearing / playing with it, but here’s the thing; pull that *shower the favourite with gifts at my shindig again, and you will not be invited back, m’kay?”.
      Of course life is not strictly fair, and of course some people love girl stuff or boy stuff or whatever more, so to an extent, fine. Until it’s not, and this way, way crosses that line.

  • Carole

    March 17, 2016 at 9:23 am

    If grandparent gift giving was my biggest worry, I would count myself pretty lucky. 

    • Caroline

      March 18, 2016 at 8:16 am

      But this is what this column is for, asking advice of this nature. There is absolutely always someone worse off, isn’t there? Think you’ve got problems!! Think of the blind orphans in Calcutta, starving to death in rubbish dumps… stop moaning… etcetera. This issue is serious to the writer of the letter and has been addressed as such.

  • Saffron

    March 17, 2016 at 12:32 pm

    I was you, but it was my husbands step dad that was playing favourites.
    He has 3 sons and 4 grandsons from his first marriage MIL has one of each both with children and 1 of each grandchildren from each child. Step FIL’s family live 100’s of miles away and were visited once a year and presents were cheques. I spoke to step FIL about this once and he said: that he believed when the sons grow up and have a family they should then be on their own and self sufficient where as a daughter is your responsibility for life, when I thought about it and spoke to a step SIL all sons and their children got the same it was just daughter and her children who were the special flowers. My niece got married last year … step grandad walked her down the aisle! her mum (husbands sister) is remarrying next yr – 3 yrs after becoming a widow but wants my husband to walk her down the aisle, thats peed off my step fil 😀 ‘after all he has done for her!!’

  • S

    March 21, 2016 at 6:23 pm

    My mother in law is like this. I try not to let it bother me. She has many many mental issues. She did not have girls so she showers the girls with stuff. It’s all about her. My son said in the middle of a holiday, the best present is time with your family. The looks on my in laws faces was priceless. My son had taken our values which is to appreciate what you do have not to worry what you don’t have. He also sees his sister toss the unwanted gifts to the side at home. We try and donate the excess, new stuff to someone else. So we even out the excess. When I was out of work, my son even picked up on how neighbors helped us by leaving us food, gave us clothes, toys etc. people left things just for him. We returned the excessive girl clothes and got one pair of new shoes for him and one for her. So maybe it can also be a teachable moment.
    At the next excessive gift session coming up soon, just remember you aren’t alone, some of us have been there.

  • Rachel

    March 22, 2016 at 3:30 pm

    I think the socio-economic difference might be the issue here, not just the gender stuff. If one kid is getting more gifts, but they are both getting gifts, I would not address it. As a recent addition to a family who is showing up with presents and a respectful attitude, I would not take well to someone keeping score like this. Let gifts be given as the giver wishes, don’t count other people’s gifts. “WHY DID SHE GET MORE?” is not the same as being ignored or left out.

  • visitor3

    February 11, 2017 at 7:23 pm

    The power lies with the gift recipients who can do what they want once they reveive gifts. Would be lovely show of affection and fairness for either generation, parent or kid, to say, “Cousin, I see you are interested in playing with this [newly received gift], and I would like to give it to you to take home.” While ideally this would come from the over-gifted cousin in front of the biased grandparent, it can first be demonstrated by the less favored child who has enough anyway.
    See if it catches on and is reciprocated. If not, what a great new insight RE gimmie-gimmie behavior, for a bargain cost of one unnecessary trinket.

  • Brooke

    October 23, 2017 at 5:06 am

    Stop crying and raise your kids, grandparents CAN and WILL have favorites. If you threaten to “take the kids and never let them see them again” you’re being petty and childish and harming the child who DOES have a great bond with grandparents.