For this family, cool adventures have replaced the latest toys as the ultimate wish-list toppers.
To-Do Gift illustration
Credit: Illustration by Andrew Bannecker

As soon as the Christmas catalogs started to arrive, the cries would ring out: "Mom, I need that! Put it on my list!" A few years ago, my husband, Norman, and I noticed that our kids, Isaac, now age 12, Charlie, 10, and Julia, 7, seemed to feel entitled to whatever new bauble they desired. We knew it was time to make some changes.

After some thought, we came up with a plan that we hoped would keep the holidays simple and meaningful. We'd give each child just three presents: a book, a toy or another coveted item, and an experience. We weren't sure how that last one would be received, so on Christmas morning, Norman and I held our breath as each child opened a thin package with a folder and a note inside. The folder included descriptions of three "experience packages," and the note instructed the recipient to choose one.

For example, Isaac's options were a day trip to a cave (and some spending money for the gift shop); a trip to a local aviation museum, complete with an airplane ride; and an outdoor photography lesson as well as a photo editing session in the studio. Our son couldn't contain his enthusiasm. After much thought, he asked if he could pick two and have one count as his birthday gift in February!

A new tradition was born. Norman and I try to give experiences that will foster our kids' interests. Two years ago, we planned a day to satisfy Charlie's curiosity about farming. A phone call to my mom's cousin connected us to a nearby farmer who was willing to let our son tour his farm, help with chores, and ride on a hay baler. The day ended with a relaxing picnic in the shade. Charlie had a great time, and he learned not only about the how-tos of farming but also about the many responsibilities that go with it.

Isaac has a mind for business, so last year we took a trip to Chicago for a tour that included stops at the Federal Reserve Bank's Money Museum and the Chicago Board of Options Exchange. The trip gave Isaac a real taste of business life in the Windy City. Julia, who adores animals, has been treated to sessions of grooming and riding horses and has also taken in a performance of The Lion King.

Bock family

To keep costs down, we often turn to family and friends willing to help out as tour guides, hosts, or teachers. If a lesson or trip is a bit expensive, just one parent goes along.

Since that first Christmas morning, our kids have begun to think differently about giving and receiving. This year for their birthday presents, they each asked for an overnight stay at their aunt and uncle's house (where TV, soda, and candy intake are not monitored). That's quite a change. Our family is really learning the value of doing rather than having—and that's a true gift.

Tip from Kristin: Presentation counts! When you give an experience, write up a clever description ("Grab your snowsuit because you'll be hitting the slopes for a day!"), print it in a fun font, and tuck it into a colorful folder.

Kristin Bock and family do their adventuring in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

Family Fun