The gift of experiences (or, please stop giving my kids stuffed animals)

In one of my recent parenting classes, a family shared this anecdote with me:

Before we had kids, whenever a friend of ours was expecting, we would get them this giant stuffed giraffe, which we thought was a fantastic present. Now that we have kids ourselves, well, we’ve apologized profusely to all of those friends.

I feel you. So much. My kids have enough stuffed animals to fill an entire crib, reminiscent of that iconic scene in ET when he’s hidden in a closet among fluffy faces and dead plasticine eyes.

And I feel for the gift-givers as well. Many years back, I was going shopping with my mom, who was worried about one of my young nephews. As we passed by a toy store, she was struck by an epiphany: “He just needs something to hug!” And she bought him a giant green stuffed bear. I thought it was a good idea…until I took a look at my nephew’s bedroom. Turns out we weren’t only ones who had that particular epiphany.

This must be a form of cultural amnesia, a collective delusion that each of us is the first one to come up with the idea of gifting a stuffed animal to a young child.

I get it. Gift-givers want to give something special, precious, treasured to a young child. The problem is that only so many stuffed animals can become that special toy to a child. And once you’re saddled with a stuffed animal, it’s really hard to get rid of. Thrift shops won’t take them, but you might be lucky enough to bestow them to a local preschool/daycare or pass them along through the buy nothing project.

But really, I’m not just thinking of stuffed animals. I’m thinking of, well, stuff. It’s leaking out of our ears, Marie Kondo not withstanding. And not all of it sparks joy, to be sure. With the holidays and their cavalcade of gifts rapidly approaching, I thought I’d take a moment to lobby compellingly for a non-stuff-oriented approach to meaningful gifting.

Distinguished guests, I offer to you the gift of experiences.

Presents like these take up no space, but create memories to last a lifetime. They have the capacity to delight parents, children, and gift-givers alike. And they don’t threaten to crowd your children out of their beds with dust-gathering stuffies. The following list is meant as inspiration – the sky’s the limit (hey, indoor skydiving anyone?) for the kinds of experiences you can gift and share with your loved ones.

  • Museum membership – A family membership to your favorite art museum, kids’ museum, natural history/science center, aquarium, or zoo will save hundreds in admission fees and offer engaging visits all year long!
  • Amusement park annual pass – If you’re not into museums, maybe you have a favorite amusement or theme park. These can get quite pricey, so a gift of an annual pass can be a tremendous opportunity for a family to go out and have fun together.
  • Show or concert tickets – Tickets to kids’ concerts, circuses, icecapades, monster truck rallies, and other kid-friendly performances could make for a memorable experience.
  • Class pass – Does that special kiddo in your life take classes? Karate, ballet, art, language, etc? Most kids’ activity studios sell packs of classes (often at a deeper discount the more you buy) – some even offer holiday deals. Buy a pack as a gift and keep that kiddo dancing, punching, and creating away.
  • Manicure and pedicure – My personal favorite! Some nail salons offer a kids’ mani/pedi package. I’ve been giving these as gifts to my 4-year-old’s friends for birthdays – they make for a welcome respite from the overwhelming deluge of toys.
  • Movies – With platforms like Fandango and nearly all movie theaters selling tickets online, it’s super easy to purchase gift certificates to movie theaters. Heck, you can even make your own “gift certificate” for “a matinee and popcorn with grandma/grandpa” for a memorable holiday gift.
  • Tinkering studio or maker space membership – More and more cities are becoming home to studios filled with tools and gadgets for making all kinds of handmade projects, both analog and digital. Some have drop-in fees and others offer monthly memberships for use of their equipment. For that handy kid in your life, why not support their crafting habit?
  • Winter camp/summer camp – Camp ain’t cheap, folks. Consider pitching in to support a child’s winter or summer camping experience.
  • Bowling, roller skating, ice skating, arcade, mini golf, go karting – All of these can be offered in the form of gift certificates or homemade coupons (“Good for one day of go-karting with Auntie Emily”).
  • Magazine subscription (or other monthly subscription box/kit) – Don’t you remember loving to get mail when you were a child? A magazine subscription for a child creates this joy while also fostering literacy, curiosity, and connection. My mom gifts my oldest with subscriptions to Ranger Rick, Jr., and Ladybug – the arrival of each new issue is met with great excitement!

So, friends, for this holiday season (and birthday season, and beyond), consider ditching (some of) the toys and stuffed animals, and treat the special kids in your life to an experience or two that they will cherish. If you’ve got other experiences/adventures that you love to gift, tell me all about them in the comments – now go get experiencing!

For additional reading:

Rebekka Helford is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Los Angeles, California. With over a decade of experience working with parents and young children, Rebekka specializes in short-term intensive parenting consultation, using a variety of tools including home, office, and school visits to help families navigate developmental hiccups and get back on track. Virtual visits now available!

Click here to schedule an appointment or contact Rebekka with a question – who knows, she might even answer it in her next post!

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