As a parent, I want to teach my kids that experiences are more important than things—and that's not always easy in a world where things tend to matter a lot.

Family Vacation

My family and I returned from a wonderful vacation in Carmel, California, recently, and as we unpacked our bags and did the usual post-trip reminiscing, I was struck by two things: One, it was one of the most memorable, activity-packed trips we've taken in a long time. And two, we returned with little more in our suitcases than we packed in the first place.

Sure, there were some unexpected expenditures. Sunglasses for the kids, because we forgot to bring the ones they already own. A couple of birthday splurges for me. And a book of sea stories and a miniature beach-scene snow globe (an oxymoron, right?) that my 8-year-old couldn't resist.

Overall, though, what we spent our hard-earned money on couldn't be packed in a bag. Not the trail ride around Pebble Beach on horseback; not the surfing lesson my oldest son took; not the trip to the nearby Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Beyond those splurges, some of the most memorable things we did were free. Poking around the tide-pools, where we discovered sea anemones, a starfish, countless crabs and mussels, and even rescued a baby octopus that had washed up on a rock, was a thrilling hands-on lesson in marine biology for us all. An afternoon hike in Point Lobos State Natural Reserve gave us the chance to spot more seals and sea lions than we could count (they're far behind us in the photo above). And depsite the fact that the weather was only 60-some degrees most days, we spent plenty of time splashing in the chilly Pacific waves.

As parents, my husband and I want to teach our kids that experiences are more important than things—and that's not always easy in a world where things tend to matter a lot. I'm as guilty as the next mom when it comes to buying my kids (and let's be honest, myself) things none of us need; of giving in to those pleas of "Pleeassseee" when we're at Target; of feeling like a hero, if only for a few minutes, when I come home from work with some small trinket—books, sweet treats, whatever—for my little guys and they launch themselves into my arms with hugs of thanks. That's powerful stuff.

There's good reason, though, to avoid that temptation: A new study published in the April issue of the Journal of Consumer Research found that putting too much emphasis on "things" during childhood can leave an imprint that lasts well into adulthood. In "Material Parenting: How the Use of Goods in Parenting Fosters Materialism in the Next Generation," authors Marsha L. Richins and Lan Nguyen Chaplin surveyed more than 700 adults and found—not surprisingly—that "adults who had received more material rewards and punishments as children were more likely than others to use possessions to define and express who they are."

That's not what I want for my kids, and I'm betting it's not what you want for yours. What I want is for my kids to remember horseback riding, to remember spotting the starfish at low tide, to remember that time they were playing in the cold California waves and Mom went in all the way up to her waist even though she was wearing jeans. To remember whittling the bark off of a walking stick found by the side of the road. To remember that the best things from vacations (and from life) can come home with you—but not in a suitcase.

Erika Janes is the Executive Editor of and the mom of two boys. Before she had kids she swore she wouldn't be the mom who always bought something for her kids at Target. Follow her on twitter: @ErikaJanes1

Image: Scott Janes