One never-ending controversy during this most difficult time of year is whether and how to help our foster children and stepchildren buy presents for their biological parents. As a single foster mother, I never questioned that I needed to help my children strengthen whatever ongoing relationship they had with their birth parents. Helping the kids (those who would accept help) find and select presents for family members was just something I saw as the right thing to do, and I never thought much about it.  When I married and joined my new blended family, I still didn't analyze the question. I just added “stepsons' gifts to their mom” to my list of things to do.

I was taken aback when I discovered from the Great Guru-the-Internet that I had breezed through a very contentious area in blended and foster families. Fortunately, I had not committed any of the bigger blunders. This is a difficult time of year for children separated from their birth families, and the question of Christmas gifts for a child's biological family is another minefield. Here are some important principles for navigating this sensitive question, some of which I blundered into and some of which I wish I had known earlier.

Respect Your Child’s Wishes

The first thing we must pay attention to is what our child wants to do. Family dynamics can be very complicated. Some children have such bad memories of their parents and family life that they do not want to send anything except maybe hate mail. The majority of my children always wanted to send something, but their interest levels varied. I learned to let them lead on whether and what to get. Of course I set a budget on how much money they could spend and made suggestions about what would be a nice gift, but at the end of the day, it is their relationship and their gift. I will always remember (and chuckle about) the year that one of my stepsons insisted on getting his mother a generous gift card to the local theater. I thought his mother would prefer a plant for her garden, but he saw nothing wrong with a gift that she could use to entertain him.

I also learned to approach each family situation very carefully. Some of my children were happy to have my help. I could simply ask, “What are we going to get your family for Christmas?” For children who had a more troubled relationship with their parents or who wanted to keep me at a distance, I simply asked, “Do you need me to help with a Christmas present for your dad, or are you taking care of it?” It is difficult to know how to help someone who resists help or the season, so we have to tread carefully. Be available and encourage your kids, but don't insist on family relationships that they don't want.

Be Sure Your Child is Involved

It's important for your kids to be involved in the process, and more important, to invest something in the gift. I could require older kids to pay for part of it out of their allowance, while younger kids could create a handwritten card or note. I always emphasized that it was their gift, so they needed to be responsible for at least part of it. Again, how much I could encourage or require depended on the state of the relationship and their emotional temperature. I always tried to respect whatever boundaries they set. In most situations, however, your kids should spend some of their own resources on the gift. If you simply do all the work for them, they will not only not appreciate your work, but they will miss out on an important life skill.

In most situations involving a birth family, small gifts are just as special as more extravagant holiday gifts. In fact, the most special gift usually is a handmade one. Your kids may not understand the significance of gifts that they create, but their parents will appreciate it. Your kids could create a Christmas ornament, a drawing, or put a series of drawings into a photo album. Also, they don't have to limit themselves to physical gifts. A child with musical talent, for example, can create a video of themselves playing a song for their bio parent. The Internet is a rich source of good holiday gift ideas. Help your kids understand the many ways that they can create a meaningful gift for their parents and siblings.

Use the process to help your children adapt to the difficulties of the holiday. Foster kids likely will be missing their birth families, and coming up with Christmas gift ideas will give you an opportunity to help them talk about their feelings. Discussing with them what gifts their parents or siblings would like can be a great way to learn more about them and help ease the strain just a little bit for them. The discussion also can help them more a part of the family and believe that you as their foster parents do care about them.

Stepchildren may not be completely missing their biological families, but the season still is a reminder that they have lost their intact family. Ask them what sort of thoughtful gift their bio parent would like, and then let the conversation drift naturally into what they are thinking and how they are adapting to the stress of the season. Again, don't pry, but don't be afraid to ask them how they are doing. These conversations can be a wonderful way to help your kids feel that they are an important member of your family.

Whether yours is a bonus or foster family, you may find, as I did, that just the process of spending time together shopping for or working on a gift has many unexpected benefits. I usually don't have much time for shopping, but I thoroughly enjoyed watching my children figure out how to parcel out their money or come up with good ideas for presents. I learned a lot about what was going on in their heads as we discuss what kind of gift would be best for each family member. Making the birth parents' gifts a joint project brought all sorts of benefits from the teamwork involved.

Know The Point of the Exercise

One of the reasons that the controversy I discovered surprised me was that I had never thought of gifts to biological parents as having anything to do with the parental figures. I thought of it as a question of the best interests of my children. I had only two goals: (1) support the long term relationship my children had or wanted with their birth parent or extended family, and (2) teach my children to express appreciation. Those twin goals are the most important thing about this time of the year, and that life experience actually is the best gift that we can give our children.

Knowing the goal also helps set boundaries on our responsibility. Just as with presents from them to my husband, I helped my younger stepchildren more than older ones. As my children reached their teen years, I started shifting more responsibility to them for their relationships, including cards and Christmas or birthday gifts. I helped my younger children buy gifts for their father; the near-adults I just encouraged and nagged as necessary. I followed the same principle with presents for their mother. When they were children, they needed my help. Now that they are adults, they can handle it on their own.

I realize that some stepparents leave this particular chore to their spouses, rightly believing that children tend to listen more to a biological parent. That division of labor works well for many families, but others have a different situation. When I was a single parent, it was either me or nobody to do the job. When I married, my husband and I quickly realized that I was better at keeping up with birthdays and holidays than he was. My stepsons were always willing to accept my help with presents for their birth mom, so it was an easy transition for me to take the lead on the gifts. The important thing is that you and your spouse discuss and decide on the process, as well as the budget. Make sure that this task doesn't fall off your (I know very long) to-do list.

The holidays always present us with a long list of tasks, and the process can be very challenging for blended, foster, or even adoptive families. It's hard enough buying presents for our spouse and kids; having to buy presents for someone we don’t know well or even dislike can be particularly annoying. We have to remember that the holiday season, like so many things involving raising children, is not about us and our feelings. If we are parenting children who have or want a relationship with their biological parents, we need to go the extra mile to help them have as strong a relationship as they can. We also need to help them become the sort of people who think of others. No matter how many tasks we have this month, we need to put those goals at the very top of our to-do lists. Helping our children come up with gifts for their biological families is an important way to help them develop those relationships and character traits.

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Debbie Ausburn

I make my living as a lawyer, but what I do is take care of other people’s children.