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Holiday etiquette: When is it OK to stop buying siblings' kids presents?

12/10/2014 03:41 EST | Updated 02/09/2015 05:59 EST
TORONTO - It's a discussion some families have in the lead-up to the holidays. Others avoid it because it can be awkward; everyone isn't always on the same page.

But side-stepping dilemmas rarely solves them, so let's just put it out there. If you buy holiday gifts for the children in your extended family, does there come a point when you can stop?

When do "the kids" stop being kids?

Do you buy till the children in your extended family stop putting toys on their wish lists? Till they graduate from high school, college or graduate school? Do you buy for them until they have kids, then add the next generation to your holiday list?

Sadly, there appears to be no single answer, no neat protocol like "forks on the left, knives on the right" that makes it a simple call for all concerned. But some etiquette experts have offered suggestions to help.

Let's start with the doyenne of etiquette mavens, Judith Martin. Martin — perhaps better known as Miss Manners — says an important point to keep in mind is that there is no need to stop buying gifts for nieces and nephews. If you enjoy doing so, you may continue.

"It's one way to keep in touch," notes Martin, who addresses the social dilemmas of "gentle readers" in her thrice-weekly syndicated newspaper column as well as in a number of books.

Should you wish, however, to at some point transition from giving gifts to sending a seasonal letter or card, Martin suggests a surprisingly tender age as a potential demarcation point.

"The first cut-off would be ... children who have learned to write but don't," Martin says with a bit of bite to her delivery.

She refers, of course, to children who do not pen thank-you notes to express gratitude for the presents they have been sent.

"I would give them a year or two to see that this is a pattern. And yes, if one is not demonstrably pleased with presents, why give them? You can assume that your presents are annoying them."

Anna Post of the Emily Post Institute suggests the point at which children stop going out for Halloween might be a time when you could think about altering gift-giving patterns, if that is a goal.

Post's great-great-grandmother — after whom the Burlington, Vt.-based institute is named — was one of America's premier etiquette experts of days gone by.

Anna Post says different circumstances may affect the timing of a decision like this.

"It can also change when you have your own children," she notes. "You know, you might give to nieces and nephews, but then when you have your own family, you may get a little absorbed by them instead."

Karen Cleveland, the Toronto-based writer of the blog "Finishing School," suggests the point at which nieces and nephews start to earn an income might also be a reasonable time to discontinue gift giving.

All three agree the question isn't simply "when?" but "how?" For instance, if a family contains several children, buying for some but not others could lead to hurt feelings.

Post suggests using transition gifts, moving at a point to buying a small token gift — a lovely Christmas tree ornament, if Christmas is the holiday being celebrated — rather than a larger present. Or buying a present for the family as a whole, instead of for each individual child.

Letting the future former recipients of your gifts — or their parents — in on your plans is good form, says Cleveland.

In fact, if your family is one where you buy for your sister's children and she buys for yours, you should let your siblings know of your intentions — and well before Christmas. It is probably too late to do that this year.

"The earlier you make changes to established traditions, the more time people have to get used to the idea," Post says.

Another way to handle this type of change would be to get all involved to agree to a system whereby people draw names. Instead of buying for all your siblings' children, you could buy for one. But this too takes planning — and general agreement, the experts says.

If you are going to stop buying gifts for a niece or nephew who is older, you could discuss the change with him or her. For instance, you could indicate that this is the last year you will be sending a gift or that this year you will not be sending a present.

"At that point you should send a warm Christmas letter so they think it's not an accident," Martin says.

Post favours having a conversation rather than sending a note, to ensure that there are no hurt feelings. The point to get across is that this isn't about something having gone wrong in the relationship, but rather is inspired by the passage of time.

"We often write notes when we don't want to engage with people. And this is the right time to engage," Post says.

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