No more plastic presents

After spending dedicated time with two elementary-age girls for the greater part of a recent weekend — including a messy, frosting-smothered afternoon at a backyard birthday party — I may never be the same. I love my beauteous, high-energy granddaughters, but they totally wear me out.

Maybe it was the three-hour soccer practice or the bumper-car experience and the fact my car kept getting firmly stuck on the edge of the track. There was an incredible look of satisfied glee on their sweet faces as they drove by and repeatedly rammed into me. Should I be concerned about how happy they were to be doing that kind of grandmother-pummeling?

I think my fatigue really kicked in after swimming in the too-full-of-kids hotel pool, although it was actually my husband who swam in the pool and carried the girls on his shoulders in a game of "Big Gray Whale." That would be the same husband who had a hard time getting out of bed this morning.

We have grandchildren who range from 4 to 18 years old. Each time we are with them, our approaches to ensuring they have a good time take loads of our energy, which we are totally OK with — as long as we can come home at some point and go to bed early. But there are costs other than energy-depletion that come with grandparenting.

I am best at listening to their stories and affirming their ideas. Grandpa is the financier. And he keeps saying we need to rethink birthday weekends and the costs of grandparenting in general. We are trying to do just that. Do you realize how much money you can spend on grandchildren in a single birthday weekend? Of course you do.

We've done a little research and developed a few ideas. If you need a website on this topic, try This year we refused to add to the overflowing toy collection in the household where these grand-girls live. I created a birthday storybook that was spiral-bound and personalized. We paid for soccer camp instead of gifting. And today I got a telephone call thanking us and saying, "Soccer camp is so much fun, Grandma Sharon!" No reference to the 3-D movie we did not go to because we said the tickets were just too expensive. Maybe it's working.

Indulgence goes with grandparenting. But even when you can afford it, indulgence needs to be thoughtful. We are newly committed to being more generous with individualized attention and our abounding good will, but we want no further role in creating piles of plastic presents. We would rather focus on braces and backpacks — and be ready to assist with family emergencies.

A British study using a sample of 2,500 grandparents found they spent one quarter of their weekly retirement income on their grandchildren. A follow-along study found that they did this at their own health and financial peril.

My thought for today: What we do as grandparents is choice, not obligation. Making "informed choices" and demonstrating how one does that is its own gift. And it keeps on giving.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. Email her at or call 541-776-7371, ext. 210.

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