Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Grandmother Is Too Generous

My mother and I never had any conflict at all about my two children (her grandchildren) until after my father died and she got a very small inheritance. Before that, she and my dad were generous with their gift giving at holidays and birthdays, and we all enjoyed it.

But since my father died, she insists on giving them cash beyond what my husband and I think is reasonable and within the bounds of our comfort level with helping our growing children.

I have talked with her about this numerous times about how uncomfortable I feel. I ask her to restrict her cash gifts to Christmas and birthdays, she will angrily agree, and then she will give more cash. 

I know she means well. I believe she wants my children to remember her well. But the fact is that she may need her money, and the other fact is that it makes me furious and angry because I’ve told her to stop giving these gifts, and she does not respect my wishes. 

Sometimes I feel that her thinking is that she is in charge of making decisions about “her grandchildren” as though she was back in the time when she had her two girls. 

Some may think that a grandparent being “too generous” to the grandchildren is an enviable problem to have, and although I may acknowledge this sentiment, I appreciate that there are several reasons why you are frustrated with your mom. For one, you feel she is being disrespectful by not honoring your repeated requests about the amounts and frequency of her gift giving to your children. You feeling this way is certainly understandable, so first, I want to discuss some of the possible reasons why she continues with her gift giving in ways that she knows will upset you. Then I will make some suggestions.

Possible explanations for why your mom has not accommodated you:

  • She has conflicting needs and her need to give to her grandchildren in “her way” is stronger than her need to please you.
  • She resents what feels to her like role reversal – that is, you are assuming the role of the parent and treating her as a child.
  • Giving money to her grandchildren is a grief-coping mechanism that gives her some joy.
  • She simply doesn’t understand the long-term implications of her financial gift giving.
  • You are needlessly worrying about her financial gift giving; she is giving within her means.

I want to make some suggestions within the context of the five bullet points, starting with: You need to break the loop you and your mom are caught up in. That is, you ask her to give gifts to her grandchildren according to the timing and amounts you want, she ignores you, nothing changes, and you both end up upset. Rather, I suggest that you start a new conversation: “Mom, I want to apologize for seeming ungrateful and harsh in talking with you about the money you’ve been giving the kids. I am not happy with the way I’ve tried to share my concerns with you. I have not done a good job of thanking you for your incredible generosity.”

This is a good opportunity for you to let your mom know that things might often feel overwhelming for her and that you are available to help her with all the important medical, legal, and financial decisions that she and your dad used to make together. Tell her you want to be her partner, not an adversary. Emphasize that you want to do whatever you can to help her make decisions that are in her best interests. Ask her if it would be helpful to introduce you to her doctors and lawyers and have meetings with them that include both you and your mom. Let her know you would like to work together to help her understand her options and their short- and long-term implications.

Regarding her financial situation, you say “she may need her money,” but it sounds like you don’t have the facts about her situation. If she has a financial adviser, ask that the two of you meet with him/her to discuss how she can continue being giving to her grandchildren in ways that protect her long-term financial security. (If she doesn’t have a financial planner, introduce her to yours or ask trusted friends for recommendations for one.)

On your behalf, I contacted Darren Hugo, a certified financial planner and a co-founder of The Meridian Group, a financial advising team in Florham Park, NJ. I asked Mr. Hugo for his comments about the situation between you and your mom. His response: “It is incredibly difficult to understand everything that goes through the mind of a surviving spouse. Not only is your mother doing what she thinks is right, but she is also doing what she feels your father would have wanted her to do. These are very powerful forces.

“A financial adviser, while caring deeply, is not driven by emotionally-charged decisions.  Instead, an adviser has the knowledge, skills, and ability to run accurate projections based on the facts of your mother’s specific situation. With a detailed list of your mother’s resources, income, and expenses, we can assume a conservative investment return and produce a budget within which she could hopefully live. Seeing something like this in black and white has the intended effect of downplaying emotions in the decision-making process.

“In a nutshell: As advisers – and you too would be considered an adviser to your mom – it is our job to provide all the necessary information for your mom to make informed decisions. But the decisions are all hers to make in the end. Like them or not, we have to accept her final decisions after she has weighed all the facts, and yes, all of the emotions.”

I agree with Mr. Hugo that the best thing you can do for you mom is to help her gather the information she needs and to assure her that she ultimately will be the one to make the important decisions affecting her life. As an added benefit from following this approach, you can help your children learn some important life lessons as they observe you working lovingly and supportively with your mom to help their grandmother be generous in ways that are satisfying for all of you.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
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Ask Dr. Gramma Karen:
Helping Young Parents and Grandparents Deal with Thorny Issues

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