Five Tips for Exchanging Gifts Among Birth and Adoptive Families

by Laura Christianson

Over the past 17 years, we have exchanged birthday and Christmas gifts with our sons’ birth families. During the first two years after adopting our oldest son, our adoption agency served as the middleman for all correspondence exchanged. After that, we mutually decided to open our adoption and began communicating (and exchanging gifts) directly.

Here are five recommendations, based on our family’s experiences:

1.  Ask permission to exchange gifts.

If you’re an adoptive parent, keep in mind that your child’s birth parent(s) are probably not nearly as wealthy as you are. While it’s important for your child’s birth parent(s) to know you care, sending an extravagant gift can make a birth parent feel awkward.

Some birth parents may feel as if you’re sending them a “payoff” to thank them for letting you adopt their child. Others may feel obligated to reciprocate by sending an expensive gift of their own—a gift they can’t afford to purchase.

Birth family members, too, can go overboard and can even develop unhealthy gift-giving “competitions.” The grandma on the birth father’s side, for instance, might hear that the grandma on the birth mother’s side sent five expensive presents, so she sends ten expensive presents. The adoptive family, overwhelmed with loads of gifts, may respond by requesting that no gifts be sent. Then everyone feels hurt, confused, and unhappy.

It’s best to be completely honest with one another regarding the times of year you’ll exchange gifts (your child’s birthday is the most important time), the amount of gifts you’ll send (one gift is appropriate), and even, the cost of the gift (agree to spend $50 or less…or $20 or less).

2.  Include gift receipts.

This may sound totally tacky, but it works for our family (when I say “family,” I mean adoptive and birth families). Because adoptive and birth families may not visit one another in person, it’s hard to judge how quickly a child is growing…to know what size he’s wearing this week or whether he’s fixated on Beanie Babies, books, or baseball cards.

We sometimes receive well-intended, but inappropriate gifts: clothes that are the wrong size (or the wrong color or style, according to our fashion-conscious sons), movie DVDs that are inappropriate for their ages, or toys they grew out of playing with years ago. It’s awkward to tell a child’s birth grandparent or birth parent, “Er—you know that PG-13 video you sent?  Well, he’s only 10 and we don’t allow him to watch PG-13 movies.”

Agreeing to include gift receipts eliminates awkwardness and allows the recipient to exchange the gift for something more appropriate.

We’ve taught our children that when they receive gifts that they already own (another common occurrence) or that will need to be exchanged, to simply smile and say, “Thank you for the gift. I really appreciate it.”

3.  Write thank-you notes.

I confess; we often forget to follow through with writing thank-you notes. Our sons hate to write (they assume that having a mother who’s a professional writer covers any writing they’ll have to do for the rest of their lives). I practically have to chain them to the chair and threaten them with bodily harm to get them to write thank-you notes.

And yes, I’m referring to the hand-written notes you send through postal mail! It doesn’t matter whether the note simply says, “Dear Grandma, Thank you for the gift. Love Jessica.” Your child’s birth family will love seeing her cute handwriting and/or drawings. Include a photo of the child (a candid snapshot or a wallet-sized portrait is perfect) with the thank-you note.

Most computers come with rudimentary photo-editing software. You can scan a photo of your child or download a digital photo and print out your own custom photo thank-you cards. I’ve had birth grandparents tell me that the photo card resides on their mantle year-round, and that the artwork my children enclose hold a place of honor on their fridge.

4.  Send handmade or “family tradition” gifts whenever possible.

Whoever coined the phrase, “It’s the thought that counts” was dead-on. I can barely remember the truckloads of train sets, Legos, clothes, and gift cards our sons have received from their respective birth families. But I think of Josh’s birth grandma every day when I see him snuggling beneath the quilt she sewed for him a couple of years ago. And I think of Ben’s birth grandma when I see the baby blanket she gave him when he was a newborn, stuffed next to his pillow.

One birth grandma sends our son a silver dollar “from Santa” to put in his Christmas stocking every year. It’s a simple, inexpensive gift, but it’s part of her family tradition—she does the same thing for her sons. Our son loves digging that silver dollar out of his stocking (which he pretends is “from Santa”); he now has a silver dollar that represents each year of his life.

Another birth grandma treats our sons to handmade Halloween, Easter, and Christmas baskets every year. Our sons rip into these gifts with delight. The baskets (or bags) usually contain little trinkets from the dollar store, some candy, and a brief, handwritten note from Grandma. But they don’t care. For them, the excitement is in:

1) anticipating the gift
2) opening the box to see what cool thing Grandma thought of this year
3) knowing Grandma and Grandpa love them

I am not a “crafty” person; sewing machines, pincushions, knitting needles and glue guns send me running the other direction, fast. But I love to take pictures, especially pictures of my kids. I upload my favorite shots of my sons to Shutterfly and create custom photo calendars for each birth parent and grandparent. They tell me that they love the calendars and that they never throw them out.

5.  Include additional children in the gift exchange.

We have two sons, adopted from different birth families. Ben’s birth mom is married and has three additional children. Josh’s birth parents have two additional children. We’re also in contact with several sets of birth grandparents and great grandparents, as well as a few aunts, uncles, and cousins. That amounts to what could be a lot of gift-giving.

As our families have continued to grow, we’ve agreed to exchange gifts just among the children. So we give gifts to the birth parents’ children and they give gifts to both our children.

Some people think this is weird and ask, “Why would a birth parent give a gift to a child who isn’t theirs?”

I reply, “Because our sons’ birth parents are thoughtful.” They imagine how difficult it would be for one child to get an ultra-cool gift from them and for the other child to receive nothing.

Trust me; kids have gift radar and they sense instantly whether one person is “getting shafted.” They may even hold it over their sibling: “My birth mom likes me better than she likes you.”  Or: “My birth mom loves me more than your birth mom loves you.”  Or (to a sibling who was not adopted): “My birth mom sends me presents, but since you’re not her birth child, you don’t get any.”

We give gifts to our sons’ biological siblings, as well (we usually
give Christmas gifts because it’s hard to keep track of all the
birthdays). Why? Because we like to. And because we truly are part of one
another’s extended family.

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