Miss Conduct

Give to the giver

Finding a generous way to cope with demands about using presents.

Lucy Truman

My 81-year-old mother believes that wearable gifts must be donned the next time you see the giver. If I’m not wearing the most recent jewelry or scarf she gave me, I hear about it. When I’m packing for a trip or cleaning house for a visit, I don’t have time to think: “What was the last gift I got from Mom, and what outfit would coordinate with it?” Besides, her gifts are often dressy items that would look a bit silly with weekend attire (jeans and fleece). Also, making a big show of wearing someone’s gift seems contrived and phony. Are my mom’s expectations unreasonable, or am I gauche?

A.P. / Merrimac

Dump all the accessories she gives you in a special drawer and grab whatever’s on top when you’re going to see her. (Some people call it “letting things pile up.” I call it “filing in vertical chronological order.”) Who cares if your ensemble is not curated to Chanel perfection? Senior ladies, what with their increased need for comfort and sensible shoes, keenly appreciate a funky high-low fashion mashup. Or you could kick your weekend style up a notch — fleece and jeans are not, in fact, legally mandated leisure wear, even in Massachusetts.

This is not a difficult problem to solve, and that fact plus your emotional language suggests you’ve got something bigger than an etiquette question going on. I understand. We are all, as a friend of mine calls it, Adult Children of Parents, and in need of a support group. (Have you heard of the Philip Larkin poem “This Be the Verse”? Google it. I’d quote the relevant bit but — well, you’ll see.) No matter how good our parents were, by the time they had us, they’d grown some spiky bits, and those spiky bits cut into our soft bits in particular ways that still hurt.


And then, as parents age, those spiky bits can start to stick out like a ballerina’s clavicles. Which makes it a good time for adult children to reflect on, and unravel, the defense mechanisms we developed decades ago to cope with the hurts those spiky bits inflicted.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

My Spidey Sense is picking up hurt in you. Complaining about having to dress in a “contrived and phony” way in order to please other people is an incredibly Holden Caulfield thing for a grown person to say, and I bet you realize that. Most of us have to wear clothing that feels constraining or silly or not quite like us at least some of the time. Wearing your mother’s latest gift pashmina is no different than pulling on pantyhose and heels for a major client meeting. Do what you need to do — therapy, conversation, prayer, writing — to figure out why these two things don’t feel the same to you.

Finally, the fact that you and your mother disagree about a particular social courtesy doesn’t mean that one of you has to be wrong. In addition to its rules, etiquette offers a vast extra-credit menu of kindnesses to choose from, and different people gravitate to different ways of being thoughtful. (Our generation might not remember to wear a gift when next we see the giver, but we keep track of whose kid is lactose-intolerant and who prefers texting to e-mail and all kinds of other social details that our parents never had to worry about.) When you love someone a lot, though, you choose the extra-credit kindnesses that mean the most to them. The question shouldn’t be “Who’s right?” It should be “What can I do for you?”

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.

STUCK WITH A FRUSTRATING FAMILY DYNAMIC? Write to Miss Conduct at And get advice live during a chat with Robin Abrahams this Wednesday, February 5, from noon to 1 p.m.