DEAR MISS MANNERS: Over the years, the gift-giving experience of grandparent to granddaughter has developed into a kind of predictable dance: A grandparent will call us and note that granddaughter's birthday/Christmas is approaching. They will then ask what she wants.
We will decline to answer, stating that a thoughtful gift given from the heart with a personal touch is always appreciated. They will push back, insisting we name an actual gift. We will continue to decline through repeated calls and emails until we finally give in and mention something, anything to get them to stop.
They will ask us to run out and get it, pay for it ourselves (reimbursing us by check at a later date), wrap it, and present it to their granddaughter on the appropriate day, whereupon she will excitedly declare her thanks to Grandma and Grandpa for their thoughtful gift, of which they had no part, except to write a check at some point.
It's hard enough for us to keep coming up with original and thoughtful gift ideas for our daughter, let alone having to maintain a standing library of ideas to feed the grandparents. Not to mention finding the time and budget to do their shopping for them.
As it stands, it's obvious that we have enabled this behavior, as our siblings have managed to stonewall their way into a lifetime of check-in-a-card gifts for their kids.
Have you noted this trend penetrating society? I've seen it in other gift-giving situations, anniversaries or showers, where the gift giver will demand to know the specifics, brand, color, where to buy it, etc., all to avoid having to make a personal decision or effort.
Please note, I'm not offering a complaint about the generosity of any of the grandparents. They are thoughtful and generous in their spending, and it is always appreciated and properly thanked. My parents and my wife's parents are all divorced and remarried, making for a total of four sets of grandparents. All live scattered around the country, with no contact between them, yet this trend has developed nearly simultaneously among all four sets of grandparents.
GENTLE READER: There is no grandparent conspiracy to foist off the shopping, as far as Miss Manners knows. Rather, she suspects that the grandparents are actually reacting against the prevalent debasing of the ancient custom of giving presents.
One such travesty is the gift registry or wish list, by which people select their own presents with the expectation that others will do the shopping and paying. This has gotten their would-be benefactors out of the habit of giving any thought to present-giving, even though showing thoughtfulness, rather than trading shopping lists, is the whole point.
That, in turn, quickly led many people to forgo the farce of shopping for pre-selected items. Instead, they simply pay their relatives, friends, colleagues and acquaintances to buy their own presents, making the custom even more crude and pointless.
It may seem as if this is what the grandparents are doing, using you as an intermediary. But Miss Manners is guessing that they are resisting those trends and want to surprise and please the children with real presents. Otherwise, they could easily send them checks.
The difficulty is that they may not be in a position to observe the children's current interests or to know what they already have, or what you plan to get for them. So what you could provide, instead of a shopping service, is advice:
"Vanessa loves building things. She has regular blocks, but anything unusual, such as museum stores have, would be good. Brian has shocked us all by turning preppy, so he loves sweaters and striped shirts. The twins have just discovered dinosaurs. If you have any doubts about a particular item, just call us."
(Please send your questions to Miss Manners at her website, www.missmanners.com; to her email, firstname.lastname@example.org; or through postal mail to Miss Manners, Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.)