Steam escapes from the open mouth of the engine's stack as we pull away from the station. Chugga-chugga-puff-puff is all we can hear as my son's nose is pressed against the glass with the force of gale wind. With every ounce of his being given to this moment, it seems nothing could pry him away. We smile and breathe in his joy, thankful for this atypical holiday gift and the other ones like it.
As parents, it's a given that we want our children to be happy and healthy. We also want to make sure our kids have a good example of the kind of people we hope they will become. The example we set by how we approach gift giving can set the groundwork for our children learning many things. "We are teaching children to value the concept of how much they can get from the outside. The idea is to teach them to feel, grow, and think from the inside out," says Dr. Sally Goldberg, early childhood educator and author of Constructive Parenting. "It is from this strength that they will become less dependent on gifts and presents from others. They will be better able to select and understand what would make meaningful gifts to others. They will focus more on giving and receiving the true gifts of respect, appreciation, time, and attention."
After a few holidays with a new baby and watching piles of toys enter our house, enough to fill a dozen childhoods, we suggested friends and family give experiences, not things. Once explained, it was a welcome suggestion, they say. And we weren't the only ones to benefit.
Holidays are often a whirlwind. Guests come in droves, kids are bombarded with gifts and pressure. And when it's all over, the children are left with a pile of gifts and hopes for what they will get next time. "We give more stuff to children than what they can manage while depriving them of the most important gift of all: our time!" says Dr. Charles Smith, author of Raising Kids with Courage. Such is the nature of our consume, consume, consume society. We do our best to try to not lead our children down a path to greed, but then barrage them with gifts on a single day, thereby whetting their appetite for wanting more. A catch-22 from all directions, something we made a conscious decision in our family to try to avoid. And we've been delighted ever since.
After putting in the experience "requests," we found ourselves on trips to the zoo, swimming at the local wave pool, delighting in our first violin lessons, and wandering in a field of flowers searching for signs of fairies. Taking months to "cash in" on each special experience was a gift in and of itself. Each experience being spread out over time meant that our child wasn't overwhelmed on a single day; even months down the road, we were still celebrating.
Each experience was a way to connect individually with our child's special friends. One family member, who we hadn't seen much after the holidays, had made us a certificate for us all to go bowling together. The "experience gift" was the catalyst to get us back together, making us realize how the kids enjoyed each other and how much we were fed by sharing company.
We also found experience gifts to be a great way to connect with our child's adult friends. We treasure the fact that our child makes connections with people of all ages, so we were delighted when an adult friend, who works at the local bird sanctuary, gifted a personal guided tour. The gift that cost only a few minutes of his time after work was much more precious than any store bought item.
We discovered that our son was having real, meaningful experiences, and his gift-givers were enjoying the aftermath of his on-going delight. We began to realize that these kind of gifts were sculpted from the inner most being of the giver, and they were setting an example of how to give sincere thought to every gift. Our son is learning to call upon his most creative self to think up ideas for gifts and present them in exciting ways, empowered to share his own uniqueness through an individual interaction.
As we begin to take the focus off of needing to give or get a "thing," we begin to concentrate more on personal relationships. Rather than creating an insatiable hunger for more, we're learning to see gifts and the gifting experience as a tool towards opening compassion and are learning to appreciate one another more fully. Giving (and getting) gift experiences dusts off and breathes new life into the old cliché "the gift that keeps on giving."
Children's museums are popping up all over the place. There is one in every major city, and even in many small towns. They usually cost between four and eight dollars for entrance. Two tickets to your local Children's or Discovery Museum is a fantastic experience you could give. Inviting a friend to go along with you to a museum that your family already has a membership to is also a great option.
Entrance to the Zoo, Aquarium, a Skating or Roller Rink
Friends experiencing the joy of animals together or skating hand in hand is a great way to connect. A day at the zoo or the rink is a relatively inexpensive gift that will create a wealth of memories. Pack a picnic lunch to make the day even more special and personalized.
Gift a weathered looking "treasure map" to your friends and use it as an opportunity to pass on those special coins you picked up during your travels or your grandmother's old costume jewelry. Enjoy a day pirating together.
Art or Natural History Museums
Many art or natural history museums are free for entry or have a minimal charge. Giving a gift certificate for a free museum doesn't sound like much of a gift to some people, but coupled with a homemade coupon for a day out in a museum followed by a picnic lunch at the nearby park could be exactly what that child would love to do.
A simple joy that can make young people, train aficionados or not, thrilled. Many towns have a train station and off peak and group specials can be a real deal. An alternative would be tickets to train museums or "miniature" train rides, which usually only cost a few dollars.
Tickets to a Sporting Event
Local baseball, soccer, football teams are a great way to experience something with a child. The cost of two tickets plus food at the game would be about the same as that outfit you were going to buy, yet will probably stay with the child for much longer.
Horseback Riding or Sleigh Rides
Depending on the time of year, you may find that your young horse lover would enjoy the experience of getting to ride a horse. If you are a grandparent looking to spend more, horseback-riding lessons may be the perfect gift.
Time at an Art Studio
Many cities and small towns have "paint your own pottery" studios. Some towns have art studios where you can rent the space and use their materials for an hour at a time. These could be studios that specialize in recycled art, clay making, or glass blowing. The sky is the limit. Check into your local resources to see what your town offers.
Special "Park Days," Picnicking Together, or Kitchen Adventures
Spending a day with the child is an example of a gift that is not only special for you, as the giver, but special for them. Setting up a time that will work for you and making it special by making a creative lunch, served in a special way (i.e. cut the sandwiches like the slide, make teeter-totters out of your celery and peanut butter, and serve them all on real plates and use a tablecloth). An alternative would be to spend a day baking together or setting up a unique tea party such as a high tea, where you supply the crowns and crumpets, or a "safari tea" with everyone's favorite stuffies.
Depending on your budget, the option of paying for a class the child would like to take is perhaps the most special. Parents are often on the lookout for enriching things they can be doing with their children. By paying for a class that the child has expressed interest in, you are helping further their development. Some ideas for classes you may help with are: music, art, swimming, or gymnastics. Additionally, recreation departments often have a wide variety of classes and special events available for children of all ages. Enlist the grandparents in this kind of experience gift!
Ginger Carlson, MA Ed, is a speaker, education consultant, and the author of Child of Wonder: Nurturing Creative and Naturally Curious Children. She leads creativity-building workshops throughout the US for parents and educators.
Originally published in 2009.
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