Gift Overload? Try Experiences Instead of Toys

For Catherine Newman and her family, shared adventures make the happiest birthday presents -- and the best memories.

If you've ever seen Blue Man Group perform, then you might remember the drummers splashing fluorescent paint into the air and Twinkies disappearing into mouths only to show up a bit later as erupting yellow goo. You'll definitely remember watching your kids' faces: the round-eyed wonder, the delighted laughter, the cheeks flushed with excitement. Which is completely the point. Those memories are a gift you get to keep forever.

And that's why my husband, Michael, and I are glad that, around five years ago, we started what some might call a radical policy: we don't give our kids birthday presents. Instead, we let Ben, now age 15, and Birdy, 12, choose an experience for us all. There was the Blue Man Group show for Ben's 13th, a trip to Six Flags, a stand-up comedy evening, adventures in zip-lining and tubing (river and snow), and a night in the local hotel with the really good pool. Lately, Ben has been lobbying for a tasting-menu dinner at a fancy New York restaurant (this might be out of our price range), and Birdy once picked a climbing structure for our cat, arguing that, even though it was an object, we'd all enjoy the experience of watching him leaping and dangling, which, in fact, we all do.

If your house is anything like ours, then one reason for this change is obvious: we are so buried in clutter that when someone knocks on the door, I fear it's the producers of Hoarders. We don't need more stuff. We are awash in bygone collections (Japanese erasers! Silly Bandz!) and good, timeless playthings, such as Legos, colorful play silks, pretend food. True, we suffer from a serious board game habit, but there is still Christmas for giving those as well as new art supplies, books, and stockings filled with pretty tape, candy, and miniature flashlights.

Another reason for doing this -- one supported by research -- is that money actually can buy happiness, but that payoff is most likely to happen when you spend the cash on shared experiences (or donate it). Buying stuff? Not so much. You need only watch your kids slump into that post-present letdown to believe what the researchers say: people respond to new possessions a lot like how they respond to certain drugs. First, the high, then the crashing low.

Still, kids love toys, so here are a few pointers to make this idea work. One, wait until the birthday child is old enough to grasp the benefits. Two, consider giving a small wrapped something for a few years to ease the transition. (We still do this!) And go for an experience your family wouldn't have otherwise.

When I ask the kids about Project Birthday Experience now, they confess to thinking that it was going to be a kind of "antimaterialism values lesson" bummer. Happily, they quickly realized they were wrong. "Part of what's fun is feeling like you've made something happen for everyone," observes Ben. Birdy confirmed this on our way out of Blue Man. "Thank you," she said happily, taking her brother's hand. "That was such a fun thing you gave us." As experiences go, this is another I'll never forget.

The author, her husband, and kids live in Amherst, MA.

Originally published in the May 2015 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

Family Fun

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