Same Birthday Gift Produces Double Trouble

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Dear Miriam,

I just found out that my parents and my in-laws both got my son the same birthday gift. What’s the best way to handle it?

Signed,

Double Trouble

Dear Double,

One of the things I learned early on in my marriage is how many different ways there are for families to relate to gift-giving.

In my family of origin, for example, we all email each other lists of desired gifts before Chanukah and birthdays and then reply all when we buy one of the things. It takes the surprise out of gift-giving, sure, but especially when kids and multiple relatives are involved, this structure ensures that gifts will be used and appreciated and not duplicated.

My husband is used to gifts being surprises, and he thinks, in effect, we’ve just created a holiday-based wedding registry. (Upon further reflection, I realize he’s right, but I still don’t see a problem with it!)

Whatever the gift-giving systems are in your home, they’ve somehow broken down with this birthday and, as a result, you have an interconnected web of relationships to manage between children, parents, in-laws, grandparents and grandchildren. The most important thing is to remember that no one did anything wrong, and that, while annoying, this is an error made out of love.

If there’s a way to talk to your own parents in advance of the birthday and/or party, I would see if you can say something like, “It’s amazing that both of Jack’s grandparents know him so well that they knew he would love this! I was wondering if it’s possible for you to exchange it for something else, though, so he doesn’t have a duplicate. I’m happy to suggest other things he might love just as much.”

Maybe there’s an expansion kit to the first thing, or something else related, or maybe this could be an opportunity for your son to try something new. If you think your in-laws will be more receptive to this conversation, ask your husband to talk to his parents first instead.

If either set of grandparents will be with you in person for gift-giving, that should be the original gift he opens. If they’ll both be there, it’s even more important to sort this out before the birthday. If neither will be there in person, you have more leeway in terms of buying a replacement gift yourself, saying the one gift is from both grandparents or talking with your son about how they both knew what he wanted and got him the same thing. Then he could choose to have two, to try to exchange one or to give one away to a friend for a future occasion.

You may at some point be tempted to keep this a secret from everyone or to ask your son to be surprised even upon opening the second gift, but I caution against this approach. You really don’t want to ask your son to lie, and the likelihood of the truth coming out in an uncomfortable way at a family gathering should give you an incentive to have an uncomfortable conversation in advance instead.

As frustrating as this is now (especially if you actually did try to manage the gift-giving and it still backfired), hopefully you’ll be able to laugh about it someday. One way to make sure this is a funny event of the past is to put some other systems in place now to avoid the same situation in the future.

Even if it means fewer surprise gifts, it hopefully means fewer unpleasant surprises, too.

Be well,

Miriam

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