Grannies and mums war over the children’s presents

When we were growing up, there was one thing drummed into us at this time of year: Santa had a naughty list and a nice list.

And we all knew the potential consequences: woe was the child who ended up on the naughty list and sacrificed all their presents just because they couldn’t behave themselves.

Behind this message, of course, was an important lesson about behaviour, discipline and gratification. If you were good, you would be rewarded — not immediately, however, but on Christmas morning. If you were lucky.

And I can’t help but feel that message has been lost over the years. Today, children seem to be given material rewards for just living and breathing. Gifts are a near constant aspect of their lives — there’s no longer any notion of waiting for Christmas for a special treat.

And at this time of year they don’t just get a few gifts. They get endless gadgets, toys and luxuries, from every friend and relation.

Treats: (pictured left to right) Katherine with sons Dylan, Freddie and Finley and mother Suzanne. Katherine gives her mother strict instructions on the gifts to buy her children

Some mothers shower their little ones in gifts, much to their own thrifty mother or mother-in-law’s disapproval. Other grannies delight in indulging their grandchildren, often in a way they didn’t with their own offspring, much to the horror of the children’s mother. The upshot of all this can be an almighty power struggle on Christmas morning.

The simple act of present-giving all too often exposes simmering tensions between the generations, which boil down to disagreements over the very act of parenting.

Roles in many families have changed, with grannies increasingly being asked to step into the role of mother during the week as more women juggle their children and career. The roles between the two women are now blurred, and one way of asserting ‘motherhood’, especially at Christmas, is to buy big pressies.

Whether you’re a mother feeling guilty about working and wanting to ‘reclaim’ your child, or a granny who almost feels like they are the mother, it may seem as though you can win the child’s affection through gift-wrapped boxes.

All this might sound minor — really, what’s the harm in spoiling kids for one day? But there are serious consequences of indulging children in this way, no matter who is doing the spoiling.

I’ve just written a book on willpower, and in the process spoke to former MP Graham Allen, who campaigned on the importance of a child’s early years. We discussed how willpower — a vital psychological component in becoming a healthy, well-rounded adult — can be eroded by many excesses.

If children are rewarded with endless ‘stuff’ and don’t know the value of things, it damages them psychologically. They can’t make the connection between good behaviour and reward, hard work and positive outcomes.

I remember being at university some 30-odd years ago and having so little money I couldn’t afford to buy Christmas presents for my family.

Divided: (pictured left to right) Tara with son Leo and mother Valerie.I want Leo to look back at Christmases with his Nan and remember the laughs and the cuddles — not a huge stash of stuff bought for the sake of i

Divided: (pictured left to right) Tara with son Leo and mother Valerie. Valerie thinks Tara is a scrooge for limiting the gifts she buys for her children

Desperate, I resorted to making things: chocolates for my mother and a tie for my father, which the poor man then felt he had to wear, despite my complete lack of skill with a needle and thread.

My goodness, how those days have gone — as these fascinating family stories show. Here, three mums and grans reveal why they’ve gone into battle over the kids’ festive haul…


Katherine Calvert, 24, is a stay-at-home mum and lives in Hertfordshire with her husband Andrew, 27, a membership consultant for a leisure company, and their sons Dylan, 16 months, and four-month-old twins Freddie and Finley. Her mother is Suzanne Gates, 52, a retired secretary. She is divorced, and lives in Hertford.

Suzanne says:

It’s safe to say that Katherine is going to kill me when she sees what I’ve bought my grandsons for Christmas! She thinks I bought Dylan a lot last year but doesn’t realise I’d actually held back because he was so little.

The police bike I’ve got for him this year was £32, reduced from £70, and Katherine told me in no uncertain terms that I mustn’t get him anything else.

But I just kept thinking, ‘Well, it was only £32…’. So, I started buying all sorts of extras at the start of November and now he also has a sack full of clothes, toys and books to the tune of £200.

I’ll turn up on Christmas Day arms laden and wait for my daughter to start yelling 

The twins are tiny, so I’ve spent less on them — around £100 each. Katherine keeps saying, ‘Don’t go mad, Mum, because where would I put it all?’ I just have a wry smile to myself as the urge to spoil my grandsons is irresistible.

I can’t wait until Dylan, Freddie and Finley are old enough to enjoy the magic of Father Christmas. I’ve promised that at that point I will curb my spending so Santa is the star of the show.

As for how I plan to break the news to Katherine that I’ve got piles of gifts for them this year, I think I’m just going to turn up at their house on Christmas Day, arms laden with presents, and wait for her to start yelling.

I’ve got a feeling her payback will be sending half of the presents to my house as she won’t want them cluttering up hers. My living room will resemble a toy shop. At my age, that is wonderful.

Katherine says:

My mum’s instinct, now she’s a nanny, is to spoil the children rotten. She means well but I’ve had to give her strict instructions not to go over the top. Knowing her, she’ll have ignored everything I’ve said. She can’t help herself.

Aside from the fact that my sons are currently too young to understand what Christmas is and won’t appreciate or remember their presents, there’s also the issue of where to store everything in our three-bedroom house. It’s already a squeeze with all the baby paraphernalia.

Last Christmas was Dylan’s first, and although he was only five months old Mum bought him a sackful of presents including Thomas the Tank Engine DVDs, clothes and Winnie-the-Pooh toys. Like most little ones, he was more interested in the wrapping paper and boxes.

Splurge: (pictured left to right) Alisha with Addisson, Elijah, Harleigh, Kennedie and mother-in-law Carol. Carol believes the family should spend less on the children's presents

Splurge: (pictured left to right) Alisha with Addisson, Elijah, Harleigh, Kennedie and mother-in-law Carol. Carol believes the family should spend less on the children’s presents

Though I wouldn’t have dreamed of having a go at her and spoiling her moment, I’m torn between understanding that she wants to indulge her grandsons, and yet not wanting them to grow up expecting lots of gifts and not appreciating them.

Plus, there’s the expense for Mum. I’d like her to spoil herself with a spa day, a holiday, or a new outfit, rather than spend so much on the children.

Besides, I want them to feel the magic of coming downstairs on Christmas morning with butterflies in their tummies to discover something truly special by the fire. Not a mound of ‘stuff’.

Yet mum has already revealed that she’s bought a ride-on motorised police bike for Dylan, and I dread to think what else she’s got him besides.

MY DAUGHTER IS too miserly

Tara Lyons, 32, is a crime fiction author and lives in North London with her partner and their son Leo, five. Tara’s mum is Valerie Lyons 50, who is a full-time carer for her 82-year-old mother. She is single and lives in Wembley, North London.

Valerie says:

Every time I ask Leo what he’d like from Santa, Tara gives me that ‘look’ I’ve come to know so well. Even for his first Christmas when he was only two weeks old I bought countless toys, teddies, a mobile for his nursery and a dinky Arsenal football kit.

Tara let it pass that year but the next Christmas, rather defiantly, I ignored her and lavished him with gifts again. She gave me a right ticking off.

While I understand she doesn’t want him to be spoilt, I can’t help myself. I also worry that when Leo returns to school all his friends will be chattering about what they got from Santa and he won’t have much to talk about.

 Mum thinks I’m Scrooge but I don’t want Leo to have too many presents

When I was Leo’s age, all I got was an apple and an orange in the stocking over the fireplace, plus one gift from Santa. Perhaps that’s why when Tara and her brother Ben, now 25, were growing up I’d buy them so many toys, books and games that you could hardly open the door to the living room on Christmas morning.

In hindsight they were overindulged, but that’s what Christmas is for. Their father and I saved all year to pay for it. Once we even took out a £500 loan, and repaid it the following year.

The most we spent was £1,000. We sacrificed meals out together and clothes for ourselves in order to save up. But it was all worth it to see the thrill on the children’s faces on Christmas morning.

I remind Tara that these magical Christmases while Leo is so young will be short-lived and she’ll treasure the memories of seeing his face light up when he unwraps his toys. I hold those images of her very dear myself.

I’m learning to bite my tongue rather than let Santa come between us. I have agreed to limit myself to spending £50 on each of my two grandchildren this year. I’ll do my best … honestly.

Tara says:

Mum thinks I’m a bit of a Scrooge as I only buy four gifts for Leo at Christmas — something he wants, something he needs, something to play with and something to read.

But we really clash because Santa only delivers one present. She thinks Leo should have to fight his way through all the gifts on Christmas morning just as my younger brother, Ben, and I did when we were children.

There would be so many that we’d still be opening them as Mum carved the turkey, but many would never be played with. Looking back, I can see that Mum wanted to make it magical, but it was all so excessive that it feels obscene.

My parents weren’t wealthy but they worked hard and saved throughout the year so that they could afford to buy everything from our Christmas lists.

I adored it, although I struggle to remember a single ‘special’ gift. How could anything be special when there was so much of it all?

I want Leo to look back at Christmases with his Nan and remember the laughs and the cuddles — not a huge stash of stuff bought for the sake of it 

She tries to do the same for Leo and asks him most days, ‘What would you like from Santa, and Nanny will sort it for you?’ It infuriates me as she knows my stance.

I’m very sensitive to the fact that not everyone wants or can afford to spoil their kids. Equally, there are children who get a mind-boggling amount of presents.

It would be all too easy to turn our children into a nation of greedy little consumers, who rate everything in life according to price and quantity.

That is not what I want for Leo. If I saved, yes, I probably could afford to put a PlayStation in his stocking, but I don’t think I’d be doing him any favours if I did. Why can’t Mum see that? I don’t want him turning into a spoiled child who expects piles of presents.

I try to avoid arguments by giving Mum a few suggestions for things that Leo might like or which would be useful or educational, but she rarely listens to me.

I want Leo to look back at Christmases with his Nan and remember the laughs and the cuddles — not a huge stash of stuff bought for the sake of it.


Alisha March, 31, lives in Chesterfield with her husband Julius, 46, who owns a joinery company, and their children Addisson, eight, Harleigh, seven, Kennedie, two, and son Elijah, seven months. Her mother-in-law is Carol Wall, 70, a retired medical secretary, who lives in Chesterfield. She is married to David, 68, a joiner.

Carol says:

My memories of childhood Christmases in the Fifties are of them being magical — more so because I had very few gifts so the excitement was intensified.

Typically I’d wake to find a cuddly toy, a new dress and an orange in my stocking. Even when Julius and Sarah, now 42, were young we didn’t spoil them at Christmas. What presents they did get from Santa were essentials such as books or clothes.

They certainly didn’t receive anything like the number of gifts that my grandchildren get, most of which I think are unnecessary.

In fact, Alisha and Julius’s kids get so much at Christmas that they don’t know what to play with. In my experience, very young children like Kennedie and Elijah are more amused by the packaging and wrapping paper.

I only spend between £10 and £12 on each of my grandchildren, and don’t feel an ounce of guilt 

My view is they are all far too young for modern technology and shouldn’t be getting phones and iPads until their early teens. Books, crayons and educational toys would be much more suitable.

Determined not to add to the problem, I only spend between £10 and £12 on each of my grandchildren, and don’t feel an ounce of guilt. I tend to buy them a little outfit each, or a new hairbrush for the girls as a stocking filler.

I never buy them toys as they have so many already — some get broken, while others are never played with at all. The amount of money Alisha and Julius spend on them horrifies me, too. I worry that although he works very hard they stretch themselves too much.

They should have at least told Addisson and Harleigh that they must save their pocket money for a year to contribute towards an iPhone for Christmas.

Alisha says:

Unlike many women I have a great relationship with my mother-in-law. But, boy, does she like to have her say about how much Julius and I spend on our children at Christmas and what we buy.

This year her main beef is we’ve indulged our eldest two daughters with the £300 iPhones they’ve been begging us for all year, and bought an iPad for our two-year-old so she can play educational games.

We’ve spent over £500 on Addisson and Harleigh, £300 on Kennedie, and around £100 on a baby walker, soft books and toys for baby Elijah.

We pay cash for everything and never buy anything using credit cards or finance. If we can’t afford something, we save up until we can. After our summer holiday we start putting a bit of money aside each week for presents.

Still, Carol thinks it’s the most appalling waste of money and that they should receive much cheaper, age-appropriate gifts.

I can’t deny that we are being extravagant, and I’d love it if my older daughters still played with dolls. But the reality is that, like most kids these days, all they want is phones and tablets — and nobody wants a sulky child on Christmas morning.

Last year I spent a fortune on lovely science and jewellery making kits for them but they are still unused in their cupboards.

Rather wisely, Julius sits on the fence when Carol and I disagree over the children’s presents.

I do respect her opinion but she doesn’t seem to understand that we live in a different time to when she raised her kids. Life has moved on and she needs to accept that.

ROS TAYLOR is a chartered psychologist. Her book Willpower: Discover It, Use It and Get What You Want, published by Wiley (£10.99), is out now.

Interviews by Sadie Nicholas