Dear Carolyn: My son-in-law has a 10-year-old daughter, "M," from a previous relationship. He and my daughter also have a 5-year-old daughter, "L," together. I have always been careful to treat both girls the same in terms of gifts, activities, special occasions, etc. I had a step-grandmother who made an obvious show of preferring her "real" grandchildren to us. I know how it feels.
Last year I offered to pay for both girls to participate in one extracurricular activity of their choice — dance, music, sports, etc. They both chose gymnastics lessons and have been enthusiastically participating ever since.
M also has a younger stepsister, "B," in her mother's family. M's mother has decided that unless I can also provide this other sister, whom I've never met, with lessons, M can no longer participate because it isn't fair to B.
I understand Mom's point of view, I really do, which is why I found gymnastics lessons for M that were on the days she was living with her dad. Neither of these families can afford any special treats. I can, but I am retired and there are limits.
M's father says he doesn't care what her mother says, M will continue with the lessons as long as she wants to. I want to do the right thing for both L and M and, honestly, M has additional step- and half-siblings in her mother's household and this obligation could be never-ending.
What is your advice? Not only for this situation but in the future? Summer camp, vacations, etc.
Carolyn says: I appreciate the mother's concern for fairness, if not her grasp of it.
It's also thoughtful of you to take such care not to repeat your step-grandmother's mistakes.
And your son-in-law was right to take the responsibility for the decision on himself instead of letting you carry it, though "doesn't care what her mother says" is a path that tends not to lead anywhere good.
You can legitimately change nothing in response to this new development. You are at arm's length and managing your part with compassion and fairness, not to mention the autonomy that spending your own money affords you.
Given the complexities, costs, and the impressionable ages of these children, though, it might help for you to shift your approach to such gifts — ever so slightly. Instead of arranging the lessons yourself, figure out the cost in advance and make a gift of that money to your daughter and son-in-law. This takes you out of this family's decisions entirely.
Assuming they'd want that, of course. Your involvement might provide your son-in-law cover for sibling M to have things sibling B doesn't; if the gift comes from a third party who is related legally to M but utterly unrelated to B, then any expectation that B receive the same strains logic, no matter what B's mother says.
B herself will be able to see this someday, and that's the key to all of this — how B feels about herself and her opportunities. She's likely too young now, but when she's old enough to understand all the connections, there will be no direct familial connection between her and the source of a gift she did not receive. If the adults involved have compassion and boundaries — big "if," alas — then the whole alphabet will be fine.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at firstname.lastname@example.org, or chat with her at 11 a.m. Friday at washingtonpost.com.