Miss Conduct

How can I get my sister-in-law to stop playing favorites with my kids?

My husband won’t stop his sister from lavishing gifts on our son, but not our daughter. It’s become ridiculous.

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My sister-in-law is a multimillionaire, and for years has showered over-the-top gifts (new iPhones, multiple $500 gift cards, thousands of dollars in donations to his fund-raising efforts) on our now 17-year-old son, but not his sister. He’s uncomfortable and our 20-year-old daughter is clearly hurt. My husband is not able or willing to confront his sister. Any advice?

K.S. / Brookline

Your letter hurt to read, like an icicle down my throat. Which is worse, your sister-in-law’s grotesque behavior or your husband’s invertebrate fecklessness in the face of it? There is no excuse for either. Your daughter has every right to be disgusted, sad, and angry. And your son is growing up without a role model.


I rarely advise anyone to take on their in-laws without spousal support, but in this case, you must. Sit down with the kids and talk to them like adults. Acknowledge that Auntie Jerkface’s gift giving has been spectacularly unfair, apologize for abetting it, and thank them for their equanimity in the face of their embarrassment and hurt.

Then talk to them about changing things. You don’t need your husband for this, not if you and your son and daughter are in agreement. The three of you could confront Auntie Jerkface yourselves, with steely holiday smiles and an announcement that lavish gifts make the family uncomfortable and there is now a spending limit of $50 per person, or that you would all prefer donations to charity in the future, or what have you. No apologies or explanations, “Thank you for your generosity, this is what would work for us in the future.”

Alternately, reject the gifts and/or redistribute the wealth without telling her. There’s no reason your son can’t split those gift certificates with his sister, or give her, say, every other new iPhone, and not tell his aunt. It’s encouraging to hear that he’s uncomfortable with the situation. This holiday season, give him the tools to directly fight an injustice in his own backyard. What an awesome gift!


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