Should You Buy Your Date’s Kids Presents?

Parents might balk at their kids getting extravagant presents from a significant other in Santa's clothing — and rightfully so. Here's how to broach the holiday gift-giving topic with your date.

By Theo Pauline Nestor

s holiday shopping kicks into full gear, you might be wondering if "naughty or nice" should be the sole criterion for choosing the lucky ones that make up your gift list. Those actively dating single parents may be a bit perplexed about whether they should play Santa to their dates' kids this holiday season. We've talked to dating experts, single parents and
Choose the amount to spend according to how long you've been dating the parent.
those who've dated single parents to get their insight on the subject, so read on and see how they've weighed in on this tricky question.

To buy or not to buy…
If you're dating a single parent this holiday season, the first question to answer is whether it's a good idea to buy any gift for this person's child (or children) at all. Some experts and single parents think the answer to this question lies in the relationship you've already cultivated with your date's child. "I think it all depends on whether you have any kind of relationship with the kids or not. Not every single parent is comfortable introducing a date to their kids — at least, not for awhile," says Diane Mapes, author of How to Date in a Post-Dating World.

As you're making the decision whether to buy or not, Rachel Sarah, author of Single Mom Seeking, advises that you should "always talk to the parent first. If you are thinking about giving a gift to the kid(s) of whomever you're dating, the first thing you need to do is: sit down and talk with the parent. Make sure this is a private conversation (not in front of the kids!)."

"What struck me were guys who wanted to buy a gift for my child — for the holidays or a birthday — when they'd never met her," Sarah says. "Their intentions were generous, most likely, but giving gifts to your girlfriend's kids when you've never met them is not the best way into Mom's heart. At some point, I must have told one guy that my daughter had been going through a 'princess' stage. He'd never met her, but just before Christmas, this box showed up with a return address from the Disney Store. So, I didn't know who had sent it until she'd pulled out the fancy, princess Disney dress. Had she already tried it on? You know the answer."

Once you've decided to buy, what sort of gift you should get?
Tina B. Tessina, psychotherapist and author of The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again, says the length of your relationship with the parent should guide your decisions regarding the appropriate type and cost of the gift you select. "If you have met the children, and especially if you'll be seeing them close to the holidays, a small gift is a charming idea," suggests Tessina. "Choose the amount to spend according to how long you've been dating the parent and how well you know the children. If you just began dating or recently met the children, a little toy, gadget or some Christmas candy (check with the parent for allergies and health problems) or cookies would be thoughtful. If you have known them longer and the relationship is getting serious, you should have an idea of what is appropriate and you can spend a little more. A game you can play with the children or a book you can read together will tend to foster the relationship."

But remember that if you're not a parent yourself, your gift-giving efforts may very well be part of a learning process — as it was for Laura André, co-editor of Dear John, I Love Jane: Women Write about Leaving Men for Women when she started dating her wife, Candace. "I'm horribly
Deciding on which gifts to purchase can be your chance to work together as a couple.
unimaginative when it comes to giving gifts, so I relied on Candace to make suggestions, and I started with very modest things," André says. "I think for that first Christmas, I gave each of them a single Matchbook car. I come from a family who tends to exchange very modest and practical gifts — things the person really needs — so I had to cultivate a more festive approach than I'm used to. I don't think the kids would be too thrilled to get toothbrushes or new bike tires as presents. Now that almost four years have passed, Candace and I pretty much give to the kids jointly, so that takes the pressure off of me to come up with gifts of my own."

Don't be over-the-top extravagant
Dating experts tend to agree that you don't want to err on the side of extravagance. "Don't try to buy Mom's heart with an expensive gift for her child if you barely know them," Tessina says, and Mapes agrees. "There's nothing worse than feeling like someone's trying to bribe (or buy off) you or your kids with an extravagant Christmas present," Mapes says. "So try to err on the side of modesty (i.e., no 54" flat-screen TVs). You'll also want to make sure your date okays the gift. Gift certificates to McDonald's or Red Robin might be fine for your nephews and nieces, but your sweetie may not want his or her kids eating junk food (same goes for playing video games, listening to certain music, etc.). The other thing to keep in mind is the ex. You don't want to get into a situation where little Johnny gets a new bike from both his dad and from mommy's new boyfriend — awkward (and stressful for both the parents and the poor kid!)."

Parents: how you can help your date this holiday season
"If you're uncomfortable with your date buying gifts for your kids, definitely say so ahead of time," Mapes says. "If it's not an issue, then let [him/her] know that as well — just don't do it in a way that makes your date feel [he/she] has to show up with a Santa sack full of presents (or else)." Tessina echoes Mapes' sentiments about the need for parents to fill dates in on the preferred protocol. "If you're inviting your date to a party or gathering with your children or other family members," Tessina urges, "don't leave said date clueless. Let him or her know what the family gift-giving traditions are. If anyone other than you is hosting, also clue your date in about appropriate host gifts (a bottle of wine, flowers, tree ornaments, etc.). It's very embarrassing to get it wrong. Once you mention gift-giving, hopefully, your date will ask what would be appropriate for your children. If not, just say: 'If you need any help figuring it out, just let me know.'"

See this as an opportunity for you and your date to work together
Deciding on which gifts to purchase can be your chance to work together as a couple. "Candace and I put a conscious effort into making sure that my relationship with the kids progressed slowly and naturally," says André. "Consulting ahead of time with your date will put the kibosh on the surprise," Mapes adds, "but it's better to find out in advance what's on the 'off' list than show up with something completely inappropriate, over-the-top or forbidden. It shows respect and will help you avoid a tinsel-covered tiff come Christmas morning."

"Dating a single parent is tough when kids feel threatened by a new relationship," Sarah counsels. "This doesn't mean that the kids dislike you. They might be scared about the new changes, or unsure about how this new boyfriend/girlfriend will affect their relationships with Mom or Dad. These feelings are perfectly normal, and it's your (tough) job to be patient and understanding."

Theo Pauline Nestor is the author of How to Sleep Alone in King-Size Bed: A Memoir of Starting Over and a regular contributor to Happen magazine.
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