The Problem With Giving Your Kids Experiences Instead Of Gifts

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Christmas is meaningful because we spend it together, and that remains true no matter how much or how little there is under the tree.

Every year, as the holidays approach, advertisers vie for our attention and our dollars. In recent years, this onslaught has expanded to include what advertisers term "experience gifts." Experience gifts, they remind us, are far better than just another gift you can buy in a store — experiences create memories that last a lifetime.

When I was first introduced to this concept, I wholeheartedly embraced it. I was sick and tired of the materialistic orgy of gift-giving that Christmas had become, and I was eager to find gifts with a deeper meaning. Sure, there's a "reason for the season" beyond just buying my kids presents, but presents are still front and center on Christmas morning. If those gifts could be more about time spent together than plastic crap made in China, I was all for it. "Experiences," I told everyone who would listen, "are what gifts should be about."

Back then, my now-ex-husband and I both worked in the tech industry. My kids had a playroom full of carefully selected wood and felt toys, designed for optimal creative play and learning. They wanted for nothing and neither did we. The last thing that I wanted at Christmas was for relatives to fill their perfect playroom with plastic crap that was probably coated in lead. Experience gifts were safer all the way around.

The problem with my approach was twofold. First, for as much I decried consumerism, I had no problem spending enormous amounts of money on what I deemed "appropriate" material objects or on the industries that supported all of these experiences. While it felt better on some level to support companies that made wooden toys or the service and travel industries, there was nothing anti-consumption about how I approached these experience gifts.

More importantly, however, is the reality that experiences cost money — a whole lot of money. Advertisers don't encourage us to believe that our kids need to make memories more than another toy to wage war on capitalism; they do it because these experience gifts support incredibly successful industries. When we shift our dollars from toys to travel, for instance, we are still supporting big business.

Advertisers created the construct of the experience gift as the best gift to lure in a privileged class of parents who don't want to buy their kids more toys — because their playrooms are already full. They peddle experiences to reel these parents in while knowing full well that it is only a privileged demographic that can afford museum memberships, science or art monthly subscription boxes, and holiday trips to the ocean or Disneyland. The problem is that this narrative excludes all but a few privileged families while creating another unattainable set of expectations for the rest.

It's easy to forget when your basic needs and even wants are met that others are still struggling. Even though I spent far more years putting a few small toys on layaway at Kmart than I did living in luxury, I still forgot what it's like to live on hand-me-downs and thrift store finds, and to want just once a year to give my children something new. The magic of Christmas can be created in many ways, but for families in poverty, sometimes part of it is found simply in opening something new. I lived these experiences, but they weren't the ones I wanted to remember, and perhaps that is why I was so eager to replace our poverty with excess and our struggle with privilege.

It's always possible to create experiences without spending much money, but those aren't the experiences advertisers are shilling. Likewise, it's probably true that capitalism is to blame for this entire mess, but it's a hell of a lot easier to declare that you've opted out of consumption when your family is well taken care of. A plastic, made-in-China, and probably-coated-in-lead My Little Pony toy bought on Black Friday for $5 will bring my children as much joy on Christmas morning as a weekend away at the ocean as a family for $500 — but only one is possible with the budget I have today.

I still don't buy wholeheartedly into consumerism and materialism. I encourage my kids to reflect on what they truly want before buying, and to donate everything they no longer love. We keep our toys minimal, and I involve my entire family in charitable efforts in our community throughout the year. But I also recognize now that there's no such thing as a perfect gift, and that there are equally beautiful memories to be made playing My Little Pony together in the twinkling light of the Christmas tree.

Christmas is meaningful because we spend it together, and that remains true no matter how much or how little there is under the tree. We are all making memories with our kids every day, and as mine get older they remind me of just how unimportant all of those artificially created experiences truly were. My teenagers don't remember all of those museum trips or family getaways we went on, but they sure do remember that time I let them eat ice cream for dinner, and the time they opened up the best toy ever on Christmas morning.

Those plastic toys I cringed over were magical to them, and their gratitude reminds me that despite all of my privilege I lost my own sense of gratitude somewhere along the way — and no amount of Instagram-worthy experiences will help me find it. This year, give your kids as many or as few, wood or plastic, packaged or experienced presents, but remember that there's no such thing as a better gift, just wide-eyed and excited children — whose excitement will make them intolerable all day, anyway.

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