little girl in front of pile of presents

Many of us are in search of a more minimalist life. We’re building capsule wardrobes, decluttering our kitchens and doing away with material objects that no longer serve us or ‘spark joy’. But this can be more difficult to apply to our parenting principles. After all, kids are the kings of instant gratification, and nothing says joy to them like a big, shiny gift.

But the problem is that the feeling they get when they unwrap that gift is so short-lived. As George Monbiot says in his article for The Guardian about these seasonal gifts: “they seem amusing on the first day of Christmas, daft on the second, embarrassing on the third. By the twelfth they’re in landfill”. We’ve become so hung up on rampant consumerism, that we give gifts without even thinking of the effect that gift will have on our planet. Never mind the effect it will have on our children.

With this in mind, here are five reasons that kids need experiences, and not things:

1. Memories

Think about your most enduring childhood memories. Sure, there may have been one or two memorable gifts in there: maybe your first ever bicycle or a doll you’d wanted for ages. But further than that, you’ll probably hit a blank. What you will remember is the feeling of your mother’s arms around you after a fall, the wind in your hair as you went on a rollercoaster, your dad’s silly songs he made up to make you laugh. If you had a reasonably happy childhood, it will be the moments, the emotions and the sensory memories that you will retain, long after the gratification of that birthday gift has faded.

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2. Values

Most parents work full time and therefore we overcompensate for time missed with our kids by buying indulgent gifts for them – it’s generally our guilt that’s causing us to act. Spoiling our children and placing unnecessary importance on material things show our kids that things have more value than people. It sends the wrong message.

3. Bonding

While bonding can occur over appropriate toys, like building a model aeroplane together, for example, it’s far more likely to happen if you plan an experience together as a family. Shared experiences generate a whole host of emotions, and they’re therefore far more likely to encourage bonding between family members. The other bonus is that experiences allow us to spend quality time with one child.

“All my oldest wants is some alone time with me, as the youngest naturally needs more of my attention,” says the mother of two girls Lilian Neeve*. Lilian says that she tries to arrange one outing a month with her oldest daughter where they can have undistracted conversations, enjoy a new experience together and share what’s going on in their lives.  

4. Comparison

“Mom, so-and-so has the latest rollerblades/doll’s house/stuffed toy, I want one too!” Comparison is indeed the thief of joy and with material objects, it’s much easier to compare how you aren’t keeping up with the Joneses. But do the Joneses play board games every Saturday night together? Did they walk the dogs yesterday evening and then spend hours collecting the prettiest Autumn leaves? Experiences are much harder to compare than things, which also ensures fewer complaints between siblings.

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5. The planet

The toy industry is generally not kind to the planet. Business thrives on us buying the latest plastic fad, chucking it in the bin a few weeks later, and then repeating the cycle endlessly. But all this waste ends up in landfill, polluting our planet. Annie Leonard* discovered when researching for a film “that of the materials flowing through the consumer economy, only 1% remain in use six months after sale.”

That statistic is frightening. It seems that one of the best ways we can teach our children to take care of the earth is by reducing our consumption of items that won’t have longevity. You could also recycle toys with friends or sign up for toy lending services, which will also save you money.

With the holidays looming, now is the best time to stop and think about the gifts we buy our kids. We’re not advising you to cancel out presents entirely, as gift giving provides a lot of joy! But let’s think sustainable gifts, and substitute a few material objects with experiences, that will remain with them long after the wrapping paper and ribbon cease to exist.

*Names changed