Quick aside: I really like your switch to allowing comments only on select posts. It makes the whole site somehow calmer and more inviting. Being able to read your writing without the distraction of subconsciously wondering what sharp poky things might turn up at the bottom is relaxing in a way I wouldn’t have predicted. So thanks!
Of course, now I’m going to ask a question that might benefit from commenter input. Or not?
One afternoon a year and one Christmas present a year are the entire extent of the contact I and most of the extended family have with a 10-year-old niece (an only child, daughter of my spouse’s sibling). What kind of present would be the most helpful and most grounding for a child whose parents are out of touch with reality even on their best days and who are now separating and using her as a pawn?
More frequent communication is impossible. Parents are paranoid and intelligent: giving their child a book called “Your Parents’ Booze and 420 Abuse Is Not Your Fault” or “You’re Not Wrong: Most People Don’t Actually Say Whatever Lie Comes into Their Head Just to Get What They Want Right This Second” or “We All Sure Hope the Dream Fairy Who Told Them Their Bipolar Meds Were Poison Changes Her Mind” will be seen for what it is and may sever all communication with them entirely. I don’t know that the child is a big reader anyway.
Despite the fact that their daughter’s emotional needs don’t seem to be of interest to either of them, they seem to love her to the extent that they can, and she seems to have food and ice skating lessons and clothes that fit, and I see no evidence of physical abuse. They don’t live near any of us, so who knows, really, but I don’t have anything to report to her school (if I even knew what school) or CPS.
The child is intelligent and relatively outgoing and wants to be a part of things. It is heartbreaking to hear her asking desperately confused questions and to hear them answer with baldfaced lies in front of us.
She is so young and so dependent on them, and we have no means of contacting her, even through her parents, 364 days out of the year. What can we do to support her from afar, through gifts that won’t set the parents off?
Auntie Out of State
Dear Auntie Out Of State,
Re: Your Quick Aside: I am very relieved to hear this. Sometimes I really miss comments and the community culture, and I know others do, too, but it became absolutely unsustainable for me to read 10,000+ words every time I wanted to write any words or deal with the 1% of people who are A Problem (but who absorbed 99% of moderation time and energy). I’m still experimenting with the right mix of discussion vs. just writing, and I hope people who value in-depth discussions will take advantage of the reader-led forums at friendsofcaptainawkward.com and the subreddit. Thank you so much for reading and hanging in.
As to your question, I am not going to open comments on this because in my strong opinion gifts aimed at “fixing” or “helping” tend to suck unless they are specifically asked for by the recipient, there is no “right” Christmas gift that will fix or make up for or counteract your niece’s present home life, nor do I wish to curate a bunch of links to extremely specific toy and other gift suggestions, no matter how thoughtfully recommended. Your “Holiday Gift Guide For Possibly Sad 10-Year-Olds” Princess Is In Another Internet Castle.
Fortunately, I know from experience that good presents from a faraway aunt one never sees can actually foster a permanent “Aunt _____ LOVES ME and is AWESOME!” feeling in nieces and there is one method that works, namely:
Get your niece the MOST FUN stuff you can think of while she’s a child.
It’s okay to ask her parents for ideas as a courtesy even if you aren’t close, and to briefly check stuff like clothing sizes and favorite colors. If they’re forthcoming great, if not, no worries, you can also ask your friends who are parents of similarly-aged kids what their kids go apeshit for. Stuff like:
- Art supplies! Craft kits! What is shiniest/glossiest/has the most colors? Glitter pens? Stickers? Beautiful notebooks? Do that!
- Books! – BUT ONLY FUN, ADDICTIVE STORYBOOKS, NOT “HELPFUL” BOOKS! If you’re stumped your local librarian will probably know what they can’t keep on the shelves in the children’s section, and they’ll also probably know what extremely fun stuff will fly under the radar of, say, strict conservative parents who are Terribly Concerned About Wizards. Graphic novels absolutely count as reading, Ms. Marvel and Squirrel Girl might be good places to start.
- Toys! The prettiest dolls if she plays with dolls, the best Legos, Lincoln Logs, and other “building” sets (there’s this one that has magnetic balls and multi-colored rods that is like, my favorite thing ever though maybe it’s a better fit for littler kids and middle aged people like me, who knows), the niftiest action figures and spaceships or robots or dinosaurs or dragons or fancy horses.
- Costumes/dress-up clothes in her size! The little girls I’m around most these days are in the 6-8YO demographic but they show zero signs of slowing down with questions like “can I be princess, a firefighter, a princess who is also a firefighter, a scientist (who secretly fights fires)(and is possibly the heiress to a mythical royal family/a unicorn)?” 2) I know the princess thing can get tedious and hella gendered, but honestly, who doesn’t need a sparkly floor-length purple velvet cloak and a tiara in their size? Not me! Wait, I mean me! (As in, I might need that).
- Tech/Games/Videos – If you come across whatever the coolest 10-year-old you know can’t put down, and get inspired, do that.
Don’t overdo it, pick one or two special things every Christmas, and put a gift receipt inside to make exchanges easy. If it’s something that makes you squee inside because you would have loved it at her age? So much the better. That’s a genuine connection and pleasure you are handing down, even if it’s invisible, even if it’s not the exact thing she already thought of to want. You’ll probably have some misses but more hits, and over time your niece will notice and remember that you and your spouse love to give her presents.
Throughout the year you could also be the Aunt Who Sends Postcards – silly ones, ones with beautiful art or from wonderful places – write a few innocuous greetings that communicate some version of “Hello there, we like you!” on the back and don’t worry about getting a reply. If you’re only allowed a few crumbs of interaction now and then, think of holiday gifts and the odd postcard as safe, no-pressure bread crumbs that might lead her to your door someday when she’s older and more in charge of her family relationships. If not, they won’t make anything worse than it already is. Sometimes “not making it worse” is all you can do.
Edited To Add: Reader Suggestion! In addition to fun gifts, you and other family members could quietly divert some $ from the toy budget into a savings account or savings bonds for your niece every year. Don’t put anything in her name now (the parents might not let you, and they would 100% have access to it while she’s still a child). It could be a lifesaver someday when she’s old enough to leave home.
How I Know That Fun Works: My dad’s sister, Aunt Mary, lived in Ohio most of my life and we rarely saw her in Massachusetts. But she sent the best Christmas presents every year, you cannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnottttttttttttttt imaginnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnne the anticipation with which we opened the annual package from her knowing that if there were clothes they would be cool, trendy, name-brand clothes that we would wear into rags alongside our hated Toughskins, and if there were toys they would be fancy toys that we’d want to go to bed with that night so as not to be parted from them even for a second.
Aunt Mary didn’t necessarily know us or our changing interests well, and she never bought anything from our lists painstakingly compiled out of The Sears Christmas WishBook complete with SKU# or based around whatever Star Wars movie was out at the time. Her daughters were much older than my brothers and me, so I think she asked our parents about our sizes and her friends who had children our age “What’s the coolest thing your kid wants for Christmas right now?” and then went with that.
She’d get enthusiastic Christmas Day thank-you phone calls from us when we were kids and hearing she was coming for a visit or we were going to Cleveland to see her was always incredibly exciting. She died in the early 2000s (fuck cancer) and I just have to say, all “blah blah gifts are soooooooooo commercial and distract from the real meaning of the season” aside, every memory I have of my aunt is based on a) 20% how funny and delightful she was when we did hang out (I’m so glad I got to see her one last time when she was pretty much on her deathbed, and she was still the life of the party cracking up the whole room) and b) 80% childhood memories of my siblings and I staring at the boxes with her return address on them in hungry anticipation all week, trying to ask “Can we open Aunt Mary’s presents first?” on Christmas morning without hurting our parents’* feelings, and then wearing or playing with the well-chosen things inside until they disintegrated.
Above all, I knew she loved me. She didn’t have to re-parent me from afar to get that across, her gifts weren’t competing with my parents, they were just chosen with obvious enthusiasm, and that’s why I wanted to tell you about her, my lovely Letter Writer. You are so limited in what you can do for your niece right now, but I think you absolutely can do this one thing well by following fun and joy and pleasure rather than concern.
Honestly, now that I think of it half the “holiday survival” stuff in my inbox for adult relationships boils down to “Can’t you just please like me and enjoy today with me without trying to fix me/my life” in some fashion, so here’s your chance to start young. 😉“I like you so much and want you to have fun on Christmas!” is a message that will go deeper and linger longer than any “I’m very worried about you and I pretty much hate your parents” “solution” or “message” could possibly hope to do.
*I should note, cursèd E.T. statues are outliers in my family (and the aunt who made that for me was a solid A+ present-giver every other year and obviously genuinely thought I would love it). My parents are great gift givers and definitely the “Aunt Mary” to their nieces and nephews, to such a degree that someday I should collect all the home videos of little cousins’ mouths dropping open in awe as they unwrapped whatever Uncle Frank and Aunt Anne brought them this year. It would be a joyful montage indeed.