14 ways to get off the kid-gift treadmill.

14 ways to get off the kid-gift treadmill.Last week I went to a nearby Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft to buy a book of brain teasers from the dollar section (60 cents with coupon – an inexpensive stocking stuffer for a young relative). An older woman was visibly fretting as she picked things up and put them down.

“What do you buy for someone who already has everything?” she asked me.

Seems that her two granddaughters, ages 4 and 6, drop by fairly regularly.  Some time ago she started buying little gifts for each visit, and now she’s wishing she hadn’t. Although the first thing they want to know when they cross the threshold is what they’re getting, they often don’t even bother to take the items home.

I gently asked if it were stressful always to have to come up with a new and exciting gift. She nodded, then shrugged and said, “But they expect it.”

Maybe you’re in the same pickle. Maybe you’ve become the Disneyland auntie or grandparent who always brings treats or small gifts to the small people in your life. Not only does this get expensive, it may create problems for the kids in the long run. (More on that below.)

Expectations are made, not born, and behavior can be modified. I promise that children will not be irreparably scarred if visits don’t always include a door prize – especially if you replace physical goodies with gifts of time.

Not just occupying the same space, mind you. Sitting on the sofa while they watch movies or play video games is, technically, time spent with the children. But they could get that anywhere (and maybe already get plenty of it at home).

When my nephews come over we generally reprise the Café Awesome game. Not only does it make ordinary snacks more fun, it’s reinforcing the basic cooking skills their mom has been teaching. This is a great lesson for financial independence: These young men will have the tools for healthier eating (and saving a ton of money) by being able to cook at home vs. always eating out.

So why not try a simple cooking project with your little friends? When my younger nephew was six he made a skillet of cornbread from scratch, even reading the recipe card himself. The sense of accomplishment was great, and the hot-from-the-oven snack was even better.

Building skill sets

Or how about these quality-time options:

2. Garden together. Set aside a patch just for your little friend and let him or her choose what will grow there. Condo-bound? Do a container garden with something fun like cherry tomatoes or Thumbelina carrots. Note: Kids are a lot more likely to eat their vegetables if they have a hand in producing them.

3. Pick fruits or vegetables. This summer my nephews liked pulling and eating sugar snap peas and helping me pick raspberries. They also picked feral raspberries with their mom and me. Last weekend and they helped DF pull our small crop of carrots, which was great fun (and over much too soon, in their opinion). If you don’t have a garden or a place to glean fruit, visit one of those you-pick farms. Again: Kids are more likely to enjoy fresh food if they’ve participated in its growing or gathering.

4. Do chores. A 3-year-old who’s given a feather duster and, later, praise for a job well done is a happy 3-year-old. Older kids can be given more responsibility: running the vacuum, folding towels, drying dishes. Maybe it wouldn’t be their first choice of activities, but hearing “thanks for your help getting all this done” can be a source of pride. It doesn’t hurt to point out those efforts to their parents: “See how nice the yard looks after Junior and I raked all the leaves? He worked really hard.”

5. Build a hideaway. Maybe that’s a tree fort constructed with scrap lumber and pallets  you got from The Freecycle Network, or a “tent” that you make by throwing a sheet over the kitchen table. Make-believe is easier when you have a pretend place into which to disappear.

6. Play a board game. Go to the thrift store and find stuff you used to play (Parcheesi, Scrabble) or games you never heard of (Would You Rather… or Pictionary). Resist the impulse to let them win every time. Learning to lose graciously is what my dad would call “a useful life skill.”

7. Take a walk. Make it a noticing kind of stroll – look for the first dandelions, or the brightest autumn leaves, or the most interesting clouds. Propose taking pictures of, say, all dogs or flowers seen on the walk (but if Junior is a butterfingers, better hang on to the camera or smartphone yourself). If you notice any coins, pick them up and save them until you have enough to donate to a local food bank. (Being able to think about the needs of others is a really useful life skill.)

Lively times, lively arts

8. Write a letter. Sit down and compose a note to a far-away relative, or the President of the United States. Or make a holiday card together and drop it off at a nursing home or long-term care center, asking that it be given to someone who never gets any mail.

9. Go outside. Skip stones on a pond, or skate on it during the winter. Fly a kite. Build a snowman. Play a game of Follow the Leader. Teach them to play jacks or hopscotch.

10. Read to them. I can’t think of a better way to encourage a love of reading. Ask the children’s librarian for recommendations. Alternately, let the child read to you – not only does he get to show off his new skill, he gets to share a great story. If your library has reading nooks or platforms, sit down right away with your new finds.

11. Tell stories. Kids who love being read to will likely adore stories that come out of your own head or from your childhood experiences. Bonus points for making the child a central character in your tales. Or make up a story together: You start, and then hand off the plot line to the child(ren) in the room.

12. Create art. Stir up a batch of homemade modeling clay and sculpt all afternoon. Finger-paint. Decorate any paper bags you have in the house. Illustrate one of those stories you made up and make a book. The Internet has approximately six zillion creative ideas for art, so start surfing.

13. Make music. Sing together, either accompanied or a cappella. Teach them the songs you sang when you were a kid. Singing makes chores go by much faster, by the way.

14. Put on a show. Are the kids taking ballet or Suzuki classes? Be the audience. Be the appreciative audience. Make a point to praise their effort vs. their innate fabulousness, though. (“I’m proud that you work so hard at this” rather than “You’re the smartest little girl in the world – that’s why you can play the violin when you’re only 5 years old!”) Otherwise you might set them up for problems later on, researchers say.

An addiction to novelty

Speaking of problems later on: That grandma at Jo-Ann’s should rethink her well-intentioned gifts. I understand the impulse. She probably wants their time together to be magical.

Magic doesn’t always mean materialism, though, and it’s a mistake to get the kids hooked on the thrill of wondering what they’re getting this time. Or, more to the point, hooked on the idea that they deserve something just for showing up.

This early addiction to novelty could become an inability to be satisfied with anything for very long. Something new, something unknown, something really exciting could always be at the next mall – but once they have it, the item quickly loses its charm. What’s new is suddenly old.

If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the road to insolvency is littered with credit-card receipts. So do your kids/grandkids/godkids/whoever a big favor and don’t give them too much. That is, unless you’re talking about time and attention. That stuff never gets old.

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  1. As a parent, I can say the parents will probably thank you for giving the kids less stuff, too (and for spending time with them so mom & dad can do something else, too!).

    • Donna Freedman

      Yes! “Stuff creep” is drowning little kids in their own bedrooms. And hurray for a chance for mom and dad to go someplace without their kids.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  2. Oh I loved this post! I find myself struggling to tell family members ‘less toys’ every Christmas and birthday. Last year I convinced a few family members to contribute to my son’s 529 rather than buy him a bunch of toys that will sit in a pile in his bedroom. He’s only two now, but he already has plenty of hand-me-downs from friends and cousins. I think he’ll appreciate the money much more in the future. I would actually be fine with no gifts, but I know people want to do something, so I do my best to redirect the funds to the future. I love the idea of asking them for the gift of time. Doing something one-on-one with him rather than buying him a material gift.

    • Donna Freedman

      That’s an uphill battle. I don’t envy you. People just love to give toys, but when a kid has too many none of them are really special or make any difference in the child’s life. That $19.99 could have gone into the college fund, where it will eventually make a huge difference.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  3. Nicoleandmaggie

    New posts don’t see to show up when I go to donnafreedman.com. I can only get to new posts via direct link when the title shows up on ablogroll.

    • Nicoleandmaggie

      When I hit home on this page they do show up, so maybe I just need to delete a cookie or something.

      • I’m having the same problems. There were absolutely NO posts after Sept. 22nd. Suddenly there are a ton that appeared finally on 10/1.

  4. Very useful list except for #4. Mom had me doing housework from about age 8 and I was doing everything, including laundry, at 10. She wasn’t disabled, she just loved being waited on and catered to. If a grandma or other relative had forced me to do housework, I would have had a meltdown and my mom would have wasted no time informing that relative that I ONLY worked for her! One of the things I liked about relatives’ homes was no housework.

    • Donna Freedman

      Well, it’s not a one-size-fits-all list. Not every kid likes performing, for example.
      We were doing housework from the time I can remember. In kindergarten another kid mentioned how her mom made all the beds. I felt actual (though unvoiced) scorn: “You can’t even make your own bed?!?”
      My mom worked and was a total clean freak, so all of us could wield a broom, clean the toilet, hang the laundry, etc. at very young ages. When my oldest sibling was 11 we started coming home after school instead of to a babysitter’s house. There was always a chore list: wipe down the stairs, dust, vacuum, bring in the clothes from the line, peel potatoes… In the fifth grade, some of the other girls and I made lists of all the things we knew how to cook. I won.

  5. Carolina Cooper

    As the grandmother of 2 girls ages 9 & 10, I loved this article. I belonged to a CSA (farm share) for a few years which had a pick your own component. We would meet up at the farm on Saturdays to pick veggies together: grand kids, my adult son and the girls. Everyone loved it! Another thing you can do is teach the kids a skill that you have. I am bi-lingual, my kids don’t speak Spanish, and the granddaughters of course grew up with “Dora the Explorer.” So they asked me to teach them more Spanish, which I did. I NEVER give them material gifts, as they really have EVERYTHING, plus some. I DO go to all of their dance recitals, fundraisers for the dance school, etc. AND, I look for ways to give them new experiences. Last year for Christmas, I let them(they would say FINALLY)open the steamer trunk that I use as a coffee table. It was full of old photos and report cards of their father and his brothers. I gave each one an empty album and let them take whatever they wanted. They loved it!
    (“Hey, Daddy, you got good grades in math in 4th grade, but BAD MARKS in conduct.”)Their parents were present when we did this and I think that they enjoyed it, too.

    • Donna Freedman

      Yes! I’d meant to suggest “Look through old family photos” but forgot to include it. “Hey, kids, wanna see a picture of your dad sitting on the potty? Wanna see a photo of your mom with 1990s cockatiel bangs?” Revenge is a dish best eaten cold, I say.

  6. 5 year old great niece is a neat freak. She loves to clean! Give her a dust cloth and she will do your dusting. Give her a wet cloth and she will wipe down as much of the fridge as she can reach. I love that kid when she comes to visit.

    • Donna Freedman

      My 7-year-old great-nephew is a worker bee. Whatever you ask him to do, he’s on it and then, “What else can I do?” He carries in more firewood than I ever would have thought a kid that size could tote, puts Old English Oil on our kitchen table, uses the Dustbuster on the ashy hearth…. You can see him swell with pride when told, “You did a great job. Thanks!”
      Recently he and his brother caught silver salmon and gave some to DF and me. I told them, “You have given fish to your elders, so you are now officially contributing members of the family.”
      I think kids need to have chores and responsibilities because they are part of the family, not the little lords and ladies of the castle to whom everyone defers. Work is the rent we pay for our piece of the planet.

  7. This is a great piece, as I an currently struggling with this as a grandmother. We’re retired and through a series of events we have more money now than we ever had. I’m trying to help their parents budget by buying the grandkids clothes occasionally, but I’m never sure if it isn’t “coals to Newcastle.”

    I only buy used books from library sales and thrift stores. I’m proud of that, though.

    We do many things together but a lot of them cost money. At least I’m splurging on experiences and traveling and not toys.

    • Donna Freedman

      Good for you! Nobody has to put away (or dust) experiences and trips.
      Love the library sales, too. And the main local library has a cart on the ground floor with free books in it. Last week I came away with some absolute treasures including two that, yes, will become holiday gifts.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  8. It’s funny,Donna, but I used a lot of these your suggestions as writing prompts for my students in 9th grade English. Hardly anyone came up with stuff that people gave them unless it was extremely special. Most told, for instance, about time spent with family, Uncle George or Aunt Martha stories, or travels with grandparents. A lot of fishing stories, many I-almost-burned-down-the-house-when-I-cooked-at-Grandma’s, or “Don’t tell anyone that grandpa taught me to drive when I was six.”
    I learned two things: that kids remember time spent with them, and other people’s families are weirder than mine!

    • Donna Freedman

      I wonder how many people could tell you what they got for Christmas last year. Most of the gifts are quickly forgotten, but juvenile kitchen arson? That’s a gift that keeps on giving.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  9. This is a great article. I just wish someone had written it in bold red and handed it to my mother-in-law many years ago. When my oldest was a child my MIL used to get on my husband’s case because our children weren’t constantly begging her and my father-in-law for toys every time they went somewhere. Whaaa? My kids knew better than to whine at me for toys because that was the best way to make sure they *didn’t* get that particular toy they’d whined about. People really need to use their heads. Why would you train the children you spend time with to annoy you every second of the day? Senseless.

    Now I’ve gone ahead and gotten lax with my children as far as the grandparents are concerned and guess who’s super annoyed with my five year old? You guessed it. Good ol’ mother in law. She got her wish and now she picks on my child whenever she thinks I’m not looking because she can’t stand her constantly asking for things. I tell you, there are some older people out there who just don’t know how to think. It’s such a shame because they could’ve been such a source of wisdom.

    • Donna Freedman

      Be careful what you wish for, huh??? How odd that your MIL seemed to want your kids to be annoying.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  10. Linda Levine

    I found this a really good article. I have 2 grandsons age 9-10,
    the 10 yr old will be 11 in June. What would be a good non-money
    or low amount that would be a good idea? He is getting older, both hate to read, but I did go to discount book store for comic books.
    Its true what person said about leaving gifts or not using them after Christmas. They do that too. Got a book on home Science experience and magic tricks, don’t think they use them. Any tips would be appreciated.

    • Donna Freedman

      That’s a tough one. You hate to give books that won’t be read, or toys that will just vanish into the general chaos of the average kid’s room. One gift that my 12-year-old nephew loved was a T-shirt with a graphic from a popular novelty song, “What does the fox say?” I got it from a site called LOLShirts.com.
      Find out what pop-culture themes they like — a particular cartoon or TV show, a film series, a video game character? — and get a T-shirt, size men’s small. It will shrink probably half a size when washed, and lots of kids like wearing shirts a little too large. Or buy those kinds of shirts from Target or wherever.
      At least it will get some use, and their parents can look at it as “one more day until we absolutely must do laundry.”
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

    • Laura Principato

      My grandchildren are ages 6 and (almost) 8. For their birthdays, I give them the dollar amount of their age in a birthday card, and their mother takes them to a discount store. This way, they choose what they want, while learning to spend within their means.

  11. Doug6100

    “Most of the gifts are quickly forgotten, but juvenile kitchen arson? That’s a gift that keeps on giving.”

    That was funny. I enjoyed this post. Thank you.

  12. These are great ideas, the technology today wasn’t mentioned, I’m so thankful. The old board games and fun in the sun, making animal balloons, blowing off home made paper planes or rockets, parachuting your action figures from the deck are novelties. I’ve even made “rain” or “snow” from paper the children help me cut with children’s shears and then sweep it up off the floor and do it again. The 2 and 3 year old howl over this. Hope they’ll have tons of memories about that type of fun and do it with their own kiddos some day.
    Great article.


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