Growing up, my parents took the cash my grandparents gave me, and now I can't understand why anyone would give kids money as a gift

  • When my grandparents gave me cash gifts growing up, my parents always took the money.
  • They didn’t have much and needed it, but I wish I could have kept what was meant for me.
  • As an adult, I always ask kids exactly what they want and get it for them so it can’t be taken away.

This essay is part of “The Value of a Dollar,” a collection of stories about money from writers who grew up low-income.

The generational wealth gaps in my family are staggering. On my mother’s side, my grandparents secured jobs at the railroad and the hospital, both of which, at the time, provided them steady retirement income. On my father’s side, years of entrepreneurship and saving every dime they could provided my immigrant grandparents a comfortable living, even though my grandmother never worked outside the home. 

My parents struggled to find similarly rewarding work, especially after they divorced. My father dropped out of high school and declined to learn a trade, so he had trouble finding work that paid above minimum wage. My mother did everything from receptionist gigs to working at potato chip factories and beer bottling companies, but her income was significantly reduced after paying for my childcare. 

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Going between my mother’s small house in rural Alabama and my father’s apartment in the city felt worlds away from the lives my grandparents inhabited. Their houses had guest rooms and therefore felt like mansions, and they didn’t blink when I asked them to take me to McDonald’s. Though I realize now that my grandparents weren’t rich, what made me think they were was them giving me cash. 

Whether it was my birthday, Christmas, or bringing home a report card with A’s and B’s, both sets of my grandparents preferred to hand me a card with a $20 bill than try to figure out what kind of toy I might like and guess wrong. 

What my grandparents didn’t know was how often my parents were able to take that money away from me. 

I never got to keep the cash my grandparents gave me

My father would demand I give him my $20 so he could “hold it” for me, reasoning that I was too immature not to lose it. Later, when I’d ask for my money back, he’d pretend he had no idea what I was talking about.

My mother was more subtle. She’d ask to “borrow” the money, just until her next payday. She’d even tell me what the money was going toward: peanut butter, jelly, tomatoes, bread, and mayonnaise — materials to make the sandwiches that would last us for a week. 

When my mother asked to “borrow” the money, it wasn’t actually a question. I knew when I handed it to her that I’d never see that $20 again. I’d hand over the money, even when I didn’t want to, because the one time I told her no she cried so hard that guilt made me cry, too. In the middle of the night, I ended up sneaking the cash into her wallet while she was asleep. We never spoke of it. 

I learned that if I was given cash, it would most likely be taken from me. I dreaded opening cards from my grandparents in front of my parents, knowing the awkward situation I’d be in when we returned home. But if my grandparents had given me a toy, my parents would let me keep it.

Decades later, the experience has still impacted the way I give gifts to the kids in my life.

I refuse to give cash to kids as an adult

Instead of giving them cash, I always ask them what they want and wait for a specific answer. I even avoid gift cards, because unless the gift card is to a child-specific store, those too can be so easily taken by the parents. 

Though my own experiences of feeling taken advantage of by my parents inspired the way I give kids gifts, it’s still left me conflicted. I believe gifts should be given without strings and that it’s not the giver’s business how the recipient uses their gift — and I don’t want to stop a low-income family from using money however they see fit for their survival. 

Yet I know what it’s like to be a kid and have a present that’s meant for you be taken away, and I never want to make a child feel that, even inadvertently. Children don’t often have the agency to say no when their parents want something they have. 

Popular parenting advice encourages adults to give kids money and allow them to spend it on whatever they want so they’ll learn the value of a dollar. However, I doubt the well-meaning adults who give kids from some families money understand just how badly that lesson can go awry.

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