Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD, the founder of Nonviolent Communication, maintained that accepting a gift is actually more of a gift to the giver than the recipient. He believed “It is our nature to enjoy giving and receiving in a compassionate manner.”
However, giving is often not the joyful experience we hope for. It can be fraught with risk. Have you ever given something to someone who never thanked you for the gift? Have you ever received a gift from someone that wasn’t something you even wanted? Or a gift that actually caused you more time, trouble, and expense than you felt it to be worth?
These are common experiences. They play out often in the financial relationships between parents and kids. Many parents sacrifice and scrimp to leave legacies and distributions to kids. Ideally, such gifts will benefit both generations as, in Rosenberg’s words, “The giver benefits from the enhanced self-esteem that results when we see our efforts contributing to someone’s well-being.”
A problem arises when givers make inaccurate assumptions about whether a gift will actually contribute to recipients’ well-being. Parents may give based on a money script of, “My kids will want what I have,” or more honestly, “I want my kids to want what I have.”
This unconscious belief can lead to expectations and actions that result in hurt feelings, resentment, and family discord. Some of these are related to major assets: assuming children should or will take over a family business or ranch, or leaving them real estate, a stock portfolio, or expensive collections. All these gifts require the recipient to have the interest and skill to maintain them properly.
Smaller decisions can be problematic, as well. Suppose a grandparent who needs to give up driving wants to give their car to a teenage grandchild. If the car is a stereotypical “elderly driver” luxury sedan, the grandchild could be more embarrassed than grateful. Selling it and buying a more age-appropriate vehicle might be a more thoughtful gift.
If something is important or brings satisfaction to us, it’s natural to think other people will see it the same way. The problem arises when we act on that assumption instead of finding out whether it’s valid.
I once had a client couple who were sacrificing their retirement lifestyle so they could leave the kids the family home they grew up in. I encouraged them to discuss the inheritance with their kids at the next family gathering. The discussion included information on the cost of upkeep and taxes, how much time the various families would be able to spend at the house, and how the shared ownership might work.
Ultimately, the siblings all agreed that they didn’t want the house. The memories of family time spent there were precious to them, but those memories were primarily about the people, not the property. Continued family closeness mattered to them, but they didn’t need to keep the house—or spend the time and money that keeping it would require—in order to maintain that closeness.
According to Rosenberg, “When we give from the heart, we do so out of the joy that springs forth whenever we willingly enrich another person’s life.”
For that joy of giving to be complete, it’s important to find out whether a gift will actually enrich someone else’s life. The simplest method is often simply to ask, as the parents did about the family home. The resulting conversation allowed the children to appreciate their parents’ loving intention. The gift of the house may have been refused, but the deeper gift of family closeness was accepted with gratitude.