Grandparents, Gifts and Giving

Children benefit from relationships with grandparents, aunts and uncles and other extended family members. These relatives express love in many ways, including gift giving which some parents say can be excessive and difficult to manage.  Finding ways to set limits and preserve relationships can be accomplished with clear, respectful, assertive communication skills. Assertive communication can work wonders in channeling well-meaning generosity for your child’s benefit.

Avoid Blame  Using “I messages” is a communication tool that reduces the chances that grandparents will become defensive, increases the likelihood of problem solving and preserves relationships.   You own your feelings and do not blame the other.  Notice the difference between these two statements. Which feels blaming?

  1. “You are always giving the children junk. What were you thinking?”
  2. “I am concerned that the children have too many toys.”

The ‘A’ statements are examples of “you messages.” “You messages” blame and provoke arguments.  The ‘B’ statement is an example of an “I message.”  “I messages” allow the speaker to claim his/her own perspective without blaming the receiver.  “I messages” often start with the words “I feel, I want, or I need . . .”

Notice the use of ‘I messages’ in this conversation opener:

“I would like to talk to you about something that is very important to me.  I value our relationship and appreciate your generosity towards my children. I am concerned that the children have too many toys. I need your help to find ways to manage the amount of things my kids receive.”

Stay Calm Tone of voice, body language and choice of words all have an impact on the outcome of a conversation.  When emotions rise in us, and in others, it is a signal that something important is being discussed.  It is a good time to find common ground through a technique called “AIKIDO” communication.  This 4-step tool helps restore harmony and begin solution seeking with overly generous grandparents and other relatives. Notice the “I messages” used in each step. Start with a deep breath to calm your body and collect your thoughts.

Step 1 Alignment – As a parent, put yourself in the grandparents’ shoes and see the situation from their perspective.

“I would want to feel special to my grandchildren.”

“I can see how fun it is for you to see joy in your grandchildren’s eyes.”

Step 2 Agree – Find common ground.

“I agree that we both love the children deeply and want the best for them.”

Step 3 Redirect – Move the conversation forward.

“I value our relationship and want to work this out together. Let’s find a time before the next holiday to talk about this.”

Step 4 Resolve – Begin the solution seeking with a suggested action step.

“I am confident we can find gift ideas for the children that will strengthen your bond with them and be manageable for our family.  Let’s make a list of ideas and see what feels right for you and me.”

These 4 steps may smooth the way for some great problem solving.

Be Clear If emotions are still running high or aggressive communication or behavior continues, allow time for everyone to calm down.  Then you can use the following technique to be clear, respectful and assertive without compromising your needs.

The DESC communication technique helps to set clear expectations and reduce defensiveness. DESC is an acronym for Describe, Express, Specify, Consequences. Pick one option from each step below or modify it to fit your situation.  Then, follow the steps in order to maximize the results. Don’t try to tackle all the issues at once.  Deliver your “speech” on one issue as if you are giving a report. Use an even tone of voice, calm facial expression, and be patiently persistent. Writing out what you want to say or practicing with a trusted friend before you talk to the grandparent can be helpful.

Step 1 – Describe the situation, stating your observations using ‘I messages’:

“I know you love my kids and want them to see you as their special (grandmother/aunt).  I noticed that the gifts the children received for the holiday are (broken, ignored, not appropriate for their age/abilities, too many for our home).”

Step 2 – Express your feelings:

“I am concerned that (pick one of the following):

  • The toys go the landfill quickly.
  • The children are overwhelmed and will not be able to use/appreciate these gifts.
  • The child is not old enough yet.
  • We do not have space to store/play with them.”


“I want my children to learn the value of (education, saving, working toward what they need, appreciating what they have, family relationships, etc.)”

Step 3 – Specify your needs:

“For future gift giving, I want the children to receive more gifts of time/experience/savings like:

  • special activity with the child
  • family pass to zoo/pool/park/museum
  • dance/music lessons, camp registration
  • money (investment for college, savings bond, etc.)
  • story-telling about your childhood”


“I prefer that the children receive tangible gifts such as:

  • Practical items such as clothing, grocery/farmer’s market cards/coupons
  • Needs or wants from a list created by the child
  • Gifts that can stay at Grandma’s house to be enjoyed at sleep-overs, etc.
  • Money (1/3 for saving, 1/3 for charity, 1/3 for spending)
  • Open-ended toys that encourage thinking, imagination, movement. (See for “Understanding Children; Toys” for age-appropriate toys.)
  • A family heirloom and story.”

Step 4 – Consequences result when what is specified (in step 3 above) occurs or does NOT occur.

“When the children receive gifts of time/experience/savings, then they:

  • Create a special bond with you.
  • Enjoy the gift and are not overwhelmed.
  • Learn important values of (education, saving, work, appreciation, family relationships, etc.)
  • Will remember your generosity when they get older (you will provide a legacy).”


“When the children receive too many toys or things they cannot use, I will return or donate them.”

If at first you don’t succeed at getting your family’s needs met around gift giving practices, keep trying to communicate as positively as possible.  Your child needs her extended family for support throughout her lifetime.  Avoid communication that feels blaming and destroys relationships. Commit to assertive communication to preserve relationships and find positive solutions.


Anthony Bower, Sharon. The Assertive Advantage, A Guide to Healthy and Positive Communications.  National Press Publications, 1994.

Bodnar, Janet. Raising Money Smart Kids: What They Need to Know

about Money and How to Tell Them. Kaplan Publishing, 2005.

Rosenberg, Marshall B. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. Chicago: Puddledancer Press, 2003. See also

Kristi Cooper

Kristi’s expertise in caregiving, mind body skills and nature education inspires her messages about healthy people and environments with parents, professionals, and community leaders.

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Gratitude Diaries

Little girl looking at her mother
Little girl looking at her mother

I’m reading the Gratitude Diaries by Janice Kaplan and loved the chapter on Raising Grateful Kids.  Her stories about UN-grateful preteens and young adults who resented the sense of obligation that comes with “thanking” their parents made me think about how we approach gratitude with our kids.  Do we demand that they be grateful for all we do for them?


Modeling appreciation is the best way to teach gratitude.  How often does our family hear us express gratitude for our job or coworkers? For the checker at the grocery store? For access to safe, nutritious food? For the privilege of transportation to get where we need and want to go? When was the last time your kids heard YOU say thanks to their other parent for something that just gets done at home? Have your kids seen YOU handwrite a thank you note to a friend for taking time to have lunch together? or bringing in the garbage cans that blew down the street?  Appreciating the small things keeps us from taking things for granted. Learn more ways to raise grateful kids in this video Teach your kids the gift of giving.

My granddaughter signs ‘Thank you’ to her Papa when he gets her a drink of water.  My heart swells when I see her learn this simple act of gratitude.  It starts early and extends throughout our life.  I started using the Five Minute Gratitude Journal to keep me focused on looking on the bright side of life.

Thank someone this week for who they are, or what they did, or that they are in your life. . .  and tell us what happened to YOUR heart. To their attitude. To the relationship.

Kristi Cooper

Kristi’s expertise in caregiving, mind body skills and nature education inspires her messages about healthy people and environments with parents, professionals, and community leaders.

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At Home with Nature

Children running on meadow at sunset

My childhood memories of nature include holding soft baby kitties, bicycling on the dusty gravel road, watching ants in the grass, hanging upside down in the swing in the big oak tree, collecting rocks, and digging tunnels in snow drifts. What are your favorite outdoor memories? Did you know that those experiences, in an unstructured, extended time frame, form the foundation of curiosity, learning and development of empathy? Scooping and dumping sand, making mud pies and stacking wood scraps were how you might have begun to learn physics and mathematics? Climbing a tree, running on uneven ground and carrying branches help a child develop body awareness, strength and visual spatial skills. Want your kid to be able to parallel park when he learns to drive? Give him outdoor experiences manipulating large natural materials and chances are he’ll be at the head of his driver’s ed – or graphic design – class. Kids also learn to manage risk and problem solve when they have early experiences in natural settings. Pokémon Go the virtual reality game may be a way to get kids outdoors, however unless they pay attention to the surroundings and explore those spaces, it does not substitute for actual experience with nature. Geocaching is another way for families to explore the out of doors.

I’ve been a certified Nature Explore trainer since 2009.  Thousands of Iowa early childhood professionals – teachers, child care providers, naturalists, parks and rec staff and parents – have learned to use tested design principles to help children connect to nature. Imagine my joy when I was invited to participate in a research project on Nature Explore backyards in Iowa City.  It was magical to watch  families embrace the concepts and open their backyards to transformation.  My memory of watching a toddler explore sound in his family’s new outdoor ‘classroom’ sustains me whenever I do a design consultation or teach a workshop. Excerpts from that research are in the book At Home with Nature.

My own backyard contains the Nature Explore principles and I’m having fun seeing how they will change over time as my 16 month old granddaughter grows up. Watching her pick and eat berries for the first time, check out the wren’s nest and sing back to the momma and papa birds, stack river stones, fill a pail with pinecones, turn sea shells over and over in her tiny hands and swing in the mosquito netting hammock all fill my heart with gratitude and hope for her future.

How do you help your kids connect to nature?

Kristi Cooper

Kristi Cooper

Kristi’s expertise in caregiving, mind body skills and nature education inspires her messages about healthy people and environments with parents, professionals, and community leaders.

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When they are 30. . .

You’ve heard great ideas on the value of chores and what’s appropriate for different ages. I’d like to take a life review look at the value of teaching kids responsibility at home. This quote stuck with me while I was raising my children. . “Don’t do for your children what they can do for themselves.” I’m sorry to say I can’t remember where I got this bit of wisdom, but it guided my parenting and will continue to guide my grandparenting.

You may know a 30 year old who still brings his laundry home to mom (in her 60’s) to do his laundry. Its’ not because he doesn’t have the money or the time. It’s because Mom doesn’t think he can do it right and will do it for him. . . forever. Or the college graduate who claims she doesn’t know how to fill out a dry cleaning form, saying “My mom will do it’. I remember a teenager who didn’t have her favorite jeans for a particular occasion. She had experience washing clothes.  Laundry was on the ‘chore list’.

Teen (in a shrill tone of voice): MOOOOM, my jeans aren’t clean! I have to wear them today!
Mom (calmly in an even tone of voice): Do you remember how the washing machine works?
Teen: (with an eye roll and ever so slight affirmative head nod.)
Mom: “What are you going to do about not having your jeans?”

It was painful. For her. For me. But we survived and she’s particular about her own laundry now (20 something).

Doing chores builds skills and self esteem, creates confidence and problem solving skills. Doing chores helps a child develop a work ethic, persistence or ‘grit’, and a sense of accomplishment. Don’t deny your children that opportunity to build their character. When they are adults, their peers will be amazed, their employers impressed and their own children capable. When they are 6-8 years look at what children can do!

So when my granddaughter makes a mess, I’ll teach her how to clean it up. And be patient with imperfection. And think of how she will be when she’s 30.


Kristi Cooper

Kristi’s expertise in caregiving, mind body skills and nature education inspires her messages about healthy people and environments with parents, professionals, and community leaders.

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Spoiling Grandkids

This week we welcome guest blogger Kristi Cooper. Human Sciences Specialist in Family Life and new grandma.

were grandparnetsI had no idea I’d be taking my own advice years after I wrote about the overspending of grandmothers and aunts on new babies. I’m very excited to provide my 11 month old granddaughter with as many new experiences as she can handle.  Her parents are practical and their home is small so the oodles of toys, clothes and other baubles that are bestowed upon her by well-meaning relatives create stress. Besides, my grandgirl is pretty happy with simple household surfaces to pound and pull up on, and a human or two to keep her entertained.

Marketers of baby stuff focus on female consumers – aunts and grandmothers in particular – because their hearts are as big as their wallets. By keeping our wallets closed and our hearts open we can avoid turning our grandchildren into beggars and entitled teens. Here are 5 ways to love those precious little ones without creating strained relationships, stress over stuff and maintain our financial wellbeing.

  1. Gift of Talent/Skills We all have the need to contribute to our family and community. Share age-appropriate activities with your grandchild or grand babyPlay together – Teach a game from your childhood such as kick-the-can or hide-and-seek.
  2. Gift of Words Talk Together – Encourage grandchildren, nieces, and nephews by highlighting the positive values you see in them. Ask about their goals in life. Talk about how they can reach those goals. Point out the characteristics that you admire in them.
  3. Gift of Time Nothing says, “I love you,” like full, undivided attention – sharing conversation and activities. Work together  Do household chores, homework, bicycle repair or volunteer in the community with your younger generation. Working together teaches skills, work ethic and the value of contributing to others.
  4. Gift of Objects – We all like to receive objects that have been thoughtfully selected just for us. Keep material gifts to a minimum and consider the life-span of the object.  Create together – Choose toys  and consumables like art materials that stimulate critical thinking, imagination and are age-appropriate. Ask yourself, who is doing the thinking – the child or the manufacturer?
  5. Gift of Touch/Self Care – Wrap these gifts in plenty of hugs and kisses, bedtime backrubs, tickles and laughter. Practice relaxation techniques so you can be fully present for your grandchild.

YOU are the best gift your grandchild can receive!

Kristi Cooper

Kristi’s expertise in caregiving, mind body skills and nature education inspires her messages about healthy people and environments with parents, professionals, and community leaders.

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1, 2, 3 B-R-E-A-T-H-E……

As we come into the busy-ness of the holiday season, we asked a special guest blogger (Kristi Cooper) with expertise in stress relieving techniques, to help us share some thoughts with you on how to breathe more through the next couple of months.

I remember being so frustrated at not being able to calm a crying baby that I walked outside and around the house several times before I was calm!  Stress levels rise for parents and children for a variety of reasons.  Children take their cues from parents and when parents’ are feeling out of control, children will sense the stress and respond with clinginess, crying, and other comfort seeking behaviors.  As a young parent, I knew that removing myself and calming down was important.  I just wish I had had a few more self-calming tools in my repertoire at the time!

Now I know that some very simple breathing techniques can lower my heart rate and take the stress down a notch! To calm yourself and a child, start by noticing your heart beat. It is probably racing like your child’s! Now take a deep cleansing breath and pay attention to each inhale and exhale, slowing down each exchange for about 10 breaths.  To help you pay attention you can silently count to 4 on each inhale and count to 6 on each exhale.  This will slow down your breathing and heart rate and bring down your child’s anxiety level at the same time. You can teach your child this technique as well, asking them to imagine their belly as a balloon blowing it up gently on each inhale. On the exhale, they can imagine blowing a cloud across the sky. Pinwheels or blowing bubbles are also good ways for a child to regulate their breath, thus reducing the stress response.

Breathing . . .

Kristi Cooper

Kristi’s expertise in caregiving, mind body skills and nature education inspires her messages about healthy people and environments with parents, professionals, and community leaders.

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