Q: I have a delightful 6-month-old daughter. She's the only grandchild in my extended family and has been spoiled so far with love, attention and (even as I try to prevent the rising tide) toys. It's gotten a little better, but I still have several relatives who bring gifts every time they see her, which is frequently. On my husband's side of the family, it isn't quite as extreme. Recently we spent time with family friends whom I had not seen in years, with daughters who were ages 8 and 5. The girls were a handful, to put it mildly. They were constantly fighting with each other to get their parents' attention, needed tablets at all times but were "sooooo borreedddd" and more. I thought maybe they were having a bad day until their dad commented at how well-behaved they were being. I want to know how I can prevent what I witnessed. I'm mostly concerned that my extended family, whom we spend a lot of time with, will never want to "be the parent" with my daughter, and she will grow up encouraged to be the center of attention and given everything she wants.
A: While your daughter is only 6 months old and you are already worrying about scenarios that may never come to pass, there is something to be said for clarifying your family values early on.
First, a small defense of your family. Yes, consumerism in the United States is disgusting, and we should all be embarrassed. Our children are given too many junky toys, and they don't appreciate them. But the first grandchild is almost always met with the greatest of fanfare. For nine months, grandparents and aunties and uncles have been watching you grow and anticipating your daughter's arrival. Whatever is going on in the world, large and small, most humans are buoyed by the site of a new baby in the family.
For better or worse, your family shows love by bestowing gifts, both wanted and unwanted. It matters not if you have requested "no more gifts." It doesn't matter if your baby already has 40 sweaters, here comes the 41st.
You have two options. You can stamp your feet and become resentful, or you can relax into this dynamic. You can judge your family and worry for your daughter, or you can graciously smile and accept the gift. And believe me, I detest waste as much as the next person; I too have stamped my feet and wished my family would just stop giving (I am embarrassed to type that). But in hindsight, I see these gifts as how their love manifested and how very fortunate I was, as well as how spoiled I appeared in my lack of gratitude.
So, accept these gifts, use them or place them in a closet. You can give them to those in need. You can regift them. You can simply allow them to sit there. But try not to lecture your family on how they show love. Before you blink, your child will be 11, impossible to buy for, and you will ever so grateful for the sports equipment or cash Grandma sends.
When you say you worry that your family "won't be the parent" as your daughter gets older? You can let go of that worry. Your daughter is lucky; she has you. No one else is meant to parent your daughter but you (and a partner or spouse). The grandmother who spoils may also become an amazing sounding board for your daughter as she gets older. The aunt who gives too much now may love to take her shopping or on exciting vacations. It's your job to hold the boundaries. This perspective shift will help you immensely as your daughter gets older.
In terms of this other family you saw, where the behavior of the children was abhorrent and "spoiled," I will warn you against hasty judgment. I've sat in restaurants and inwardly shaken my head at the tech usage and bratty comments from the children around me, but here's the deal: You don't know what's going on in the family. You don't know about their struggles or recent triumphs, and maybe what you were seeing is significantly better than their day-to-day behavior. There is no sense in comparing your 6-month-old to any behavior you see in other families. Is it appropriate to form opinions around tech use in your family and how you want it introduced to your child? Absolutely. Can you desire that you want your children to not fight with each other (assuming there will be more children)? You bet! But I would not encourage you to find your parenting voice by comparing yourself to others. It is 100 percent normal to compare, to see other scenarios and judge them. I certainly don't blame you for wanting better. Yet when you ask how you can prevent bad behavior, I must be honest: You can't.
Humans are messy and imperfect, and children's behavior is meant to be a bit all over the place. You will not, no matter what, raise a child who will behave perfectly. If you don't want a spoiled child, then don't spoil her. That means that you should never, ever withhold love, but if you create a boundary, keep it without seething anger or resentment. If your child cries, that's good! Allow the crying and welcome the expression of emotions. As the good people at the Parent Encouragement Program say, stay "firm and friendly," and don't have so many rules that you are a broken record of "no's."
But all of these rules I just gave you? It all depends on your child. You don't know who she is yet; you don't know if she is sensitive or shy or extroverted or full of energy or quiet or thoughtful.
You have two jobs: totally respond to the needs of your child while leading the way with a strong ethos. These are paradoxical because one demands that you utterly react while the other stipulates that you adhere to a theory. If this sounds simple and difficult, that's because it is. Creating reasonable boundaries and holding them will be your life's work, and as soon as you get good at it, your child will change, and you will have to reset.
Take comfort: The longer you parent, the better you may get at this. But for the mother of a 6-month-old? This is not your work yet and, as my teacher Karen Maezen Miller says to me, "Don't make trouble." There is no sense in worrying about a future that's not here yet.
So here's my advice: Enjoy the baby, say thank you for gifts, and offer support and compassion to your friends and their children. One day at a time. Good luck.
Meghan Leahy is the mother of three daughters. She holds a bachelor's degree in English and secondary education, a master's degree in school counseling and is a certified parent coach.