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By "Today" contributor
updated 3/20/2007 12:53:55 PM ET 2007-03-20T16:53:55

Q: I am a mother of three. When one of my children has a birthday, my mother-in-law brings a gift for the birthday child as well as something small for the non-birthday children. I have told her I don’t approve of this, but she won’t listen.

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I try to explain that this is a special day for the birthday boy or girl, and the others shouldn’t get a present on someone else’s special day. I think there are too many children these days with a gimme attitude.

Am I wrong in thinking this way?

A: No, you are not wrong in wanting to teach your children important life lessons such as that they cannot get everything they want and that they will have to tolerate frustration.

But your question is more than just about gifts. It’s also about negotiating your relationship with your mother-in-law. You must decide whether a situation like this, which creates conflict with someone important in your life, is a good one for teaching your children these lessons.

Certainly, heaping gifts on your children does indeed foster that gimme attitude, but your mother-in-law’s actions are hardly over-the-top. She gives the birthday child a bigger gift than the others, and this happens three times a year. I’m not sure this is a battle you want to fight.

You have already told your mother-in-law you want to use birthdays for a lesson about greed, in part by having a gift for only the birthday child.

You are free to reinforce your point. You are also free to give your own gift to only the birthday child — or to let that one stay up late, eat the frosting rose on the cake or whatever constitutes a special treat that the others don’t get.

If, despite this, your mother-in-law keeps disregarding you, you have to decide how much of a power struggle you will make of this issue. Relationships with in-laws can be tough enough — and it sounds as though your relationship with your mother-in-law is already less than ideal. There will be plenty of opportunities when your mother-in-law is not around for you to reinforce your values.

In addition, there will be many other circumstances where you will decide it’s worth fighting the battle with your mother-in-law over what the kids do or don’t get. You might want to be more insistent, for example, if she revs up the kids by feeding them candy at bedtime.

In fact, this whole scenario is an example for all that life is not fair, which is a lesson your children will have many occasions to learn. It will be reinforced to them (and to their mother) throughout their lives.

At the same time, a good relationship with your mother-in-law will matter a great deal to you, your husband, and your children. So, in the name of harmony, you might simply let her spoil them a little despite your wishes to the contrary.

Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: Parents need to teach children about life’s frustrations and disappointments, but you can do this without escalating conflict in important relationships.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to “Today.” Her latest book, "Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts" (Penguin

), helps parents deal with preschoolers' questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books

. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site,www.drgailsaltz.com.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist. Copyright ©2005 Dr. Gail Saltz. All rights reserved.

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