My husband and I tried early on to stem the massive flow of things arriving for our kids every birthday and Christmas. With four kids, large families on both sides, and two December birthdays, our house is overcome by mountains of trinkets, toys, and miscellaneous items, most of which are not used.
Everyone feels showering our children with things is an act of love, and it certainly can be. However, it's also a sad reality that many of the material possessions they receive end up in a forgotten box, donated, or outgrown much sooner than anyone expects.
Still, we weren't successful in convincing others to curb the gifts, maybe because we didn't give them other options. When my mom took it upon herself to give our family a yearly pass to a local museum last year for Christmas, we realized that experiences were an obvious replacement for objects.
San Francisco State University conducted research that confirms experiences make people happier than things. The experiences don't have to be extravagant, luxury vacations. They can simply be meaningful times that create lasting memories.
Memories have been made with the museum membership we received. We've visited the museum regularly this year, taking my mom with us on one occasion so she could see how much her gift meant to us. The kids talk about the benefits of this gift all the time, knowing we couldn't pay for our family of six to attend so often any other way. Plus, every time we visit, my mom receives a picture of the kids learning robotics or digging for fake dinosaur bones in a sand area. It's the thank you card that never stops coming.
The key to winning people over to the experience-giving side is offering them the benefits of this approach, along with some easy ways for them to make the transition.
What it means to give of ourselves comes truly into focus when we think of giving our time. It's a cherished commodity, and encouraging our loved ones to spend time with our children helps them all create memories they can carry with them for life.
For family members who feel it's impersonal or underwhelming for a child to simply receive a ticket to a ballet or to the aquarium, tell them to buy a second ticket and go with the child. Yes, that ups the expense, but just tell them to go with cheaper tickets – the experience of being with the gift giver will likely mean more to a child than having the more expensive option.
There's also the option of spreading the time gift out over the course of the year. Offering children special one-on-one experiences like a meal at a restaurant or visit a local attraction sets aside time for the relationships with their extended family members to flourish.
You can seed the desire for experiences over things and gifts of time as early as setting up your baby registry. Think registering for donations to charities of your choosing, babysitting coupons, and home-cooked meal requests.
Go long term
There are plenty of people who opt for material items because they assume they will last longer than experiences. While this is true in some cases, it's not in others, but still many well-meaning family members can't get past the hurdle of offering an experience that only lasts for a couple of hours over something the kids can hold.
Recommend these individuals give long-term experiences, such as swim lessons, music lessons, or, like my mom offered, museum memberships. The giver can choose how long they want to pay for these experiences, obtain a gift certificate, and give a child a chance to go to class after class to develop a skill or take joy in a passion. Plus, those skills and learning experiences can have lasting impact on a child.
Buy the small, meaningful item
Everyone has that friend or family member who absolutely must put an actual item in each child's hands on Christmas morning. They live for the wrapping paper and bows, and every part of them rebels against the idea of not having something material waiting for a child.
These die-hards are usually the last to even think of offering experiences, but there may be a way to turn them. Encourage them to buy a small item that relates to the bigger experience. A person who gifts a child swim lessons can throw in a nice pair of goggles. The child gifted with art camp can receive paint brushes. This way the items are sure to be cherished and used because they are relevant to the bigger experience being offered.
The harder, more rewarding path
Giving intentionally takes effort, and that's what experience giving often is. Getting to know a child and learning what they are interested in doing with their time is an intimate process that strengthens the relationship. Investing the time to be a part of the experience for the recipient asks even more of us – and this is what makes the gift of experience all the more meaningful.
Keep the experience option in mind next time you have a loved one's birthday or special occasion coming up. Clothing and toys all gather dust and get boxed up – memories last a lifetime.