My six-year-old son recently asked me to tell him a story about Christmas, specifically about the gifts I got when I was a little boy. I told him that I found it difficult to recount any gifts, not because I didn't get any, but because with one or two exceptions, the gifts were utterly forgettable. Experiences that were given as gifts, on the other hand, produced vivid memories even decades later. In this episode, I discuss how we used to think about giving, and how we think about it now.

Summary and Notes

019: Holiday and birthday gifting with our kids: Why we (try to) focus on giving experiences vs toys

[00:00:50] – Lionel Train set, the annual gift tradition

[00:02:37] – Experiences vs objects for gifts

[00:06:36] – The Nerf gun vs My son's favorite toy

[00:09:40] – Birthday party gifts, handmade… no stress

[00:13:00] – Intentionality in gift-giving

[00:18:25] – Intrinsic vs external motivations

 

Quotes from the episode:

“It was wonderful because although the experience itself was fun, the train ride in whatever, the kids are going to remember highlights from the train highlights from the hotel, but they're going to remember being together.” [00:05:50]

“But the bottom line is that there may be a novelty to getting something new and there is value in novelty, of course. But I think that I would rather, I would rather have him focus on getting, Oh, a smaller number of quality toys. That he remembers and works with and potentially even saves as a, you know, as he grows into a young adult and then a man, versus filling our house, like a landfill filled with toys for us to trip over, and eventually either donate or give away or throw out.” [00:08:15]

“So much material stuff., it just seems like the kids are chasing the next high. It's like. They open one thing and they can't even look at it, and they want to know what's next and what's next and what's next. And obviously eventually that ends. And it's a huge let down because you can't open presents from now until eternity.” [00:12:24]

“I definitely would challenge people to think about how to focus more on the experiences and if you are going to give material gifts, real intentionality behind it, like what is the kid going to get out of this. And are they going to remember it even six months from now, let alone a lifetime from now when they're an adult.” [00:14:33]

“I want my children to understand what they are signaling to other people by wearing a specific name brand or a specific style or whatnot… And what comes along with that signaling… if they're not aware of it (why they buy certain things), I think is the biggest danger… Granted, there can be some utility to dressing up in a certain way if your job requires that… but, at the same time, if you just go out and copy what somebody else (you admire or aspire to) is doing without thinking about that and just acquire those things because you think that by virtue of acquiring those things it will somehow imbue the qualities of someone who you aspire to be on you. Then that's a really dangerous and slippery slope… that I once fell into” [00:19:23]

Transcript Below

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In this episode, we're going to talk about gifts at the holiday season. And for me and my wife, it is extended to be more than just you have to do the holiday season. It's something that we try to extend throughout the year. And the reason is, my son, a couple of weeks ago, asked me to tell him a story about Christmas time and what yes, I got at Christmas time and I, I told him that. I started to think about it for a minute. And what I realized was that. Not only could I not really remember many of the gifts that I had gotten at Christmas time cause there were toys or something like that, but I didn't have any of them anymore. The only thing that I had at Christmas time was my grandmother and my mother's mother. Bought me one of those Lionel train sets, when I was one year old and my dad actually, we had pictures of my dad setting it up and playing with it. And every year at Christmas time she would buy me an additional car for that train. And these were like the, the zero gauge trains. So they were like a foot long each. And they were, you know, made of die cast metal. So they were fairly heavy at the time. And every year she would go to this hobby shop and she would buy me. A new car or a new engine or a new, something for that train. And she did that until I was maybe 18 years old. And sometimes she would buy me too. But it was, it was mainly the focus was that there was one edition her year that came about. And, I still have all of those. And the tradition was that my parents would set that up on, the night before Thanksgiving, and then we would put them away. Right after Christmas. So my folks still have those at their house. And that is still something that I remember and I remember those quite well. But I told my son that when it came to toys or when it came to anything like that, that not only could I not really remember what I had gotten, but we didn't have those things anymore. And what we are trying to do in our family right now is because we have a lot of toys, our kids have. A lot of toys, not compared, maybe not comparatively when we look at other families, but I think we have a lot of toys because I'm constantly tripping on them. But what my wife has tried to introduce is the concept of experiences versus objects at at Christmas time. So do you want to talk about that for a little bit?

Okay. Yeah. I mean, we don't need more stuff. The kids. Everyone knows the kids get really excited about this stuff, but even the afternoon of Christmas, they're like, what's next? I'm done with that thing that you just gave me. So just trying, our families all live across the country from us, and so we celebrate the holidays, just the four of us. And so in. You know, we kind of get it easy in the sense that there's not grandma and grandpa right here. Bringing a truckload of yes, they ask us what the kids need or what they want, and we provide the list in that list can be generated by us or by the kids. But since we're the ones doing the communicating at this juncture, because our kids are not on email and not, Mmm. Snail mailing a list yet we asked this year. You gave them a couple of ideas that were tangible things that the kids have asked for or that we think would enhance something that they already enjoy or already have. And then we asked for experiences. We asked, you know, we said we'd love to take them on this, or we'd love them to have swim lessons or things, you know, we're going to buy them swim lessons anyway, but if it, if it. Would be special to have the kids know that it came from the grandparents more than happy to do that. But so this Christmas they are getting a few things from us and they were given money by my inlaws and we can buy for them what we wish with that. And right now it looks like that's going to be largely. Experiences classes or adventures. We're thinking about going on an overnight over Christmas to go snow tubing on a nearby mountain and spend the night, and that's a great use of that money that they gave. And then my parents biggest gift this Christmas was an experience that we just had this last weekend. They paid for them to go. Well, not they all of us to go on a Christmas train ride and it was a couple hours away. So we got to do the train and all the characters on the train from a specific book. So that was cool. We got to read the book before the for the train ride, and then some of the book characters came on the train, and then we had hot cocoa and cookies and. Got to see a light display. And then after the train ride, we stayed in a hotel, which was novel and exciting to sleep somewhere that's not home. We don't vacation frequently. So sleeping outside of our house is, is a special thing in a fairly rare occurrence. So that was exciting. We specifically picked a hotel with an indoor pool that was exciting. We don't have a television at home, so that was exciting. And. You know, I think it's going to be something that they remember. And it was wonderful because although the experience itself was fun, the train ride in whatever, the kids are going to remember highlights from the train highlights from the hotel, but they're going to remember being together. And that's what I want them to remember. I want their fondest memories to be with the people they love the most. And I think when it's boxes of. Toys, you quickly forget what you're supposed to be celebrating on what you're supposed to be grateful for. So they had a really fun excursion, and I'm looking forward to maybe having another overnight over Christmas to, have some more time together and more experiences using the money that the other grandparents sent one of our

kids asked for. A Nerf gun is scary. Another Nerf gun, he went over one of our neighbor's houses and they had a large selection of Nerf guns. So one of the things he ask for is another Nerf gun. Now we have a couple of Nerf guns here, and they rarely get used. They get used so infrequently because his favorite projectile toy is a Slingshot that we made together from the branch of a tree in our backyard. And I helped him select the branch. I helped him cut it, I helped him put a notch in it so that he could use like a regular rubber band from the drawer. And he carries that thing everywhere, and we have some very specific rules about it, and he's actually, he's quite good with it as well. in terms of aiming, hitting what he aims for, and. It's, it's, you know, it's, it's safe and it's suitable for, for his age. It's not a, you know, we're not using very powerful elastic bands here, but the point is, is that that toy that he made with my help is ultimately what he votes on using. Like he could get another Nerf gun, and I'm sure he would use it and it would be exciting to unbox and open. But. At the end of the day, he returns to that thing that he made himself. And I don't know if it's because it's more exciting or because it's actually more useful or because it's sturdier or whatnot. But the bottom line is that there may be novelty to getting something new and there is value in novelty, of course. But I think that I would rather, I would rather have him focus on getting, Oh, a smaller number of quality toys. That he remembers and works with and potentially even saves as a, you know, as he grows into be a young adult and then a man versus filling our house, like a landfill filled with toys for us to trip over , and eventually either donate or give away or throw

up.

I was thinking, that it's not just about the holidays, it's something we're trying to do year round. So we've been really lucky that our kids have been part of a Montessori school where birthday parties are the most stress free things in the entire world because. Almost everyone. I would say like 95% of the birthday parties of kids who go to their school will write on the invitation. No gifts please. Or they'll write handmade gifts only. Mmm. Which is just really cool. It's cool to see what happens when you tell the kids we have a birthday party, because. Our kids now don't think that means go shopping. Our kids think that means I need to create something for my friend. We've seen some really interesting things leave this house for birthday parties. Oh, we had a soda bottle that Isaac took the label off of and filled with beads and candy and pencils and all sorts of things, and he was so proud of that thing. And his friend that received it was equally as delighted to have this very unique thing that was an adventure in itself. A what was in there and be trying to get it out. But, so that's, that's something that happens year round here for us. We do the same thing at our kids' birthdays. We say, please no gifts. we've had families. Give us recycled things, books that their kids aren't using anymore. My daughter just had her birthday and she was given an outfit that another kid had outgrown, and frankly, it looked like it had never been worn, and that's awesome. That's great for our son's first and second birthday, so he wasn't yet in school. I was feeling like, what do I tell these people to get him? Because. You know, he's one, he's not gonna remember it. And we certainly don't need more stuff because at one years old, he was really into climbing and mastering walking and wasn't really into toys that much. So I actually asked people not to bring gifts, and if they did bring a gift, I asked it for it to be a book and we ended up donating the books to the local pediatrician's office because every kid. Gets a book at their well child check at our club, at our pediatrician's office. And so we donated, you know, it wasn't very many books, like maybe five or six books. Some people elected to bring two and specifically said ones for him and one's for the clinic. But at any rate, Mmm. My, my hope was to continue that tradition so that our kids would learn a little bit about, yeah, community service or. Causes that might be important to them, and we haven't continued it, but I think our oldest is at a point now where he could have a dialogue with us about things that he thinks are important and how he might help, which may not be donating books to the pediatrician, but it might be visiting a wildlife refuge and picking up trash or. You know something, he may come up with something. So that may be something that becomes a birthday tradition. But I've just noticed because I work with kids all the time, that gifts, so much material stuff. It just seems like the kids are chasing the next high. It's like. They open one thing and they can't even look at it, and they want to know what's next and what's next and what's next. And obviously eventually that ends. And it's a huge let down because you can't open presence from now until eternity. So trying to bring it back to the purpose behind those gifts and some real intentionality behind them and thoughtfulness behind them. Christmas in our house, even though it's only the four of us. I remember last year took like two days because the kids would open something that they were so entranced with. They completely forgot that there was a couple of their things to open and they just got lost in yes, the novelty, but also the fact that what was being given was not, you know, press a button, something does something, and then that's it. That's all it does. We have a fairly strict rule about toys in our house. We don't like. loud, press a button, make music kind of toys. Even when they were little, we had very few ah, toys that I call them. One way toys. Toys that only do one thing. You press a button, something happens, lights go on, music goes on, whatever.

I call them booby trap toys because whenever you walk past them and you disturb them and set them off, they start making noise and then you have to figure out how to turn them off.

Yeah. So most of our kids' toys do not have an on off switch. They're largely,

there's enough though.

Yeah, we do. We cause some grandparents have broken rules. I can say we honestly have not bought a single one ourselves. Mmm. Most of our kids' toys are, you know, art supplies, things to build with board games, books, Mmm. And experiences. And that seems to really, it really works for us. And I can see just by setting foot in other people's homes that that's not how every family works. And I'm sure that are weighed, wouldn't work for everybody, but I definitely would challenge people to think about how to focus more on the experiences and if you are going to give material gifts, real intentionality behind it, like what is the kid going to get out of this. And are they going to remember it even six months from now, let alone a lifetime from now when they're an adult. Like Anthony says, he doesn't remember anything that he was given as a kid, and I can't say that I really remember either. I remember the few times I asked or, and then Tendo, which was like totally an awesome thing. And I asked for it year after year after year and never got it. And I remember one of the last years I asked instead of a Nintendo, I got a board game about the United States and I was so disappointed that I got this educational thing instead of the Nintendo. But anyway, I digress. I

remember one gift specifically in the fourth grade for my birthday, the fourth grade, aye pestered. The crap out of this one friend, of course, which meant that I pastored was pestering his mom to go get this one toy that I really, really wanted. And I was, it must've been such, such a petulant little brat about that, but I remember they actually got that. And that was kind of the, epitome of. What I don't want my kid to do. I don't want my kid to be so focused on the thing that he sees his friends only as a way to get that thing. And then the mother's like, Oh, we'll just get this thing to shut this kid up. that is not what I'm trying to instill in, in a, in our kids. And I think it's funny that that's the one gift that I remember, not because it was an amazing gift, but. Just in hindsight, what a petulant little twerp I was. Yeah. Being persistent and just hounding him and asking him if he had gotten that yet.

I think the other thing that, it's probably a loose relationship, but thinking about how lots of material gifts causes a child to be very externally driven. You know, they're, they're driven by. The next big box, the next big bag, the next thing to unwrap. They're very motivated by the, the quantity of what they're opening, not the quality and . It's just this mindset of more and more and more. I have to believe that if they're, if they become very extrinsically driven that way, yeah. As adults, that's no different than needing, you know, the next greatest Gucci bag or the next greatest designer jeans or whatever. Then the need to constantly get more, get more, get more, get more. And is that really what I want to motivate my child now or an adulthood? And we've talked on this podcast before, how valuable. Intrinsic motivation is, and I think part of the reason we feel so drawn to giving experiences and having a lot of thought behind the material things we give is the fact that our kids are very intrinsically motivated. We have them in a school that intentionally does that, and we're working really hard for whatever the next step is for school to be something that's going to continue to. Create an environment where they, they're intrinsically motivated too, to learn two, give to others and to receive. I mean, I think all of that can be an intrinsically motivated thing and not be looking for the next box or the next package to unwrap or the next greatest toy. Designer, whatever like I that is, that is not a sustainable way to live. And frankly, it leaves a lot of people feeling very disappointed and empty and we're trying really hard, even though our children are young, to set them up for success and that

domain, from my perspective, looking at something like the Louis Vuitton handbag or the Prada, or even like the North face or some other Patagonia, some. Brand name. It's not so much that I want my kids to say, Oh, I don't want that. It's that I want my children to understand what they are signaling to other people by wearing a specific name brand or a specific style or whatnot, and understanding. Mmm. What comes along with that signaling, because I mean, depending on where they go to work in who they are involved with in their life, there could be pros and cons too. . Just signaling with, with name brands. So if they're not aware of it, I think is the biggest danger. If they're not aware of it, then they're just going and buying these things to fill this, this whole, there can be some utility to dressing up in a certain way if your job requires that. At the same time, if you. Just go out and copy what somebody else is doing without thinking about that and just acquire those things because you think that by virtue of acquiring those things will somehow imbue the qualities of someone who you inspire to be on you. Then that's a really dangerous and slippery slope. That I once fell into, and I think a lot of other people fall into that and they think that by acquiring these things, that somehow they see somebody else who has these things, who has the success that they want or who has achieved some station in life that they want and they think, Oh, well, if I assemble these same artifacts that this other person has and I wear them and display them in the same way and I behave in the same way, then that will somehow, in part the same characteristics or qualities or same level of success onto me. And I think that separating or having the understanding of, Hey, okay, I understand that this is what wearing this particular costume signals to the rest of the world. just being aware of that is going to kind of be a governor on what you choose to purchase and what you choose to wear.

So while what Anthony said may sound like a tangent, I think it's pretty related. To the whole gift giving thing, just because it frames our mindset and our children's mindset about what stuff actually means. And sure, there might be a time and place for wearing a certain brand or a certain style because that's what your job requires, or that's what your community requires or that's what's going to help you. Knock that interview out of the park or whatever, but it all comes back to the intention behind it. With the gift giving, with anything that is materially driven, the intention has to be there. It can't just be, I'm acquiring these things to fill some void. It has to be, I need this one particular thing because it's going to do X, Y, Z for me. I can say being married to somebody who had a problem with this, that it is really frustrating from the outside to try to make sense of what's going on and when your finances are shared, obviously that's an issue. So I think preparing our kids for this is only going to help them to understand the path that both of us took in terms of how we, how we view. Stuff and things and the need for it and the intentionality we have behind how we, how we give gifts and when we give gifts and who we give gifts to. Our son has had a particularly hard time with that thinking he needs to give people gifts and, which is really sweet, but we also want him to understand that he doesn't need to give something to be accepted. So we're in the middle of that learning process right now. He's a little bit better, but when he first started school, he was really into like, I want to give my hat to this kid and I want to give my shirt to this kid and I want to, you know, my favorite toy. I want to give it to this kid in it. It suddenly became apparent that about half of it was, I want. I want to be generous and I want to show you that I really care, which is sweet and noble and theirs totally a time and place for that. And the other part of him was sort of trying to gain acceptance. With, you know, this is the really cool kid at school that I really look up to and I think he should have my cool stuff because then he'll know I'm cool too. So he wasn't able to articulate that because he was like four years old. But that's essentially what he was trying to do. So we talked to him about that and didn't tell him no. Just sort of gave him age appropriate language around. Not using your stuff to buy your friendships basically. And, and things are better and he's better able to articulate now, like, no, I just really feel like that's a special friend and I want to acknowledge that. And that's, that's totally wonderful. And we support that. So anyway, side tangents to this gift giving thing, but the topic of the night was holiday gift giving. So in a nutshell. Holiday gift giving for us is experiences over things and a lot of intentionality over the things that are a given.

Yeah. And I think maybe I'll have to talk about how that materialism manifested in my life in another episode. Cause it was kind of interesting in that it didn't manifest itself in just a traditional acquisition of. name brands or something like that. It was a very nuanced and very interesting, and also that made it a little bit more challenging to identify and fix. so we'll save that for another episode, and that will close out this one. If anyone has any comments or any questions, please send an email, let me know and we'll see you in the next show. I five .

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