Why Giving Kids Experiences Instead of Things Will Always Be Better

I’ve been spending a lot of time at home lately, and it’s made me acutely aware of all the things living in this space with me. I don’t just mean my husband and two children. My brain also keeps noticing the toys my children are not using. This has made me realize just how much experiences over things really matters.

Even after weeks of “Safer at Home” practices, my kids just not interested in all the stuff we have. Let’s be honest. If a toy isn’t getting any action amid this distraction-free, stuck-at-home living, chances are it’s never getting touched again. 

This underscores a promise I made myself after seeing much-requested toys collect dust within weeks of receiving them: I will strive to give my kids experiences over things as often as possible.

What does giving experiences over things look like?

Until recently, gifting my kids with an experience meant exploring a new-to-us destination, tickets to a concert or sporting event, or enrollment in a class or camp. These are all great, but they aren’t options right now during quarantine. This means we need to follow the current trend of our lives—improvise and make do with what we can. If we reframe our notion of what counts as an experience, we’ll find all kinds of gifts to share.

For example, give the birthday kid a stream of well wishers driving by their house. Or have neighbors sing “Happy Birthday” from their driveway. Those are unique experiences. Most us have never gotten a mini-parade or neighborhood serenade for our birthday. It’s awesome. I’ve seen so many great examples of things like this happening. I’m truly impressed by all the creative ways people are finding to celebrate special moments, like this story of first responders wishing a child a happy birthday. These moments won’t be forgotten anytime soon. 

This supports the concept of the peak-end theory, which looks at experiences and memories and what sticks with us overall. It’s no surprise that the peak moments, for most of us, are built on elevated feelings, pride, having that aha moment, and connecting with others. This is exactly what we do by giving our kids experiences over things. And despite so many activities and events being canceled right now, it’s also an opportunity to create meaningful memories.

Let the moments find you instead.

As we fight our way back toward normalcy, connecting is more important than ever and finding everyday moments—not just birthdays—to engage with our children and loved ones can create experiences in themselves. I unwittingly created an experience with my kids this summer when I asked them to name the rabbit we kept noticing in our backyard.

We now watch for Jerry the Backyard Bunny as well as his 27 brothers and sisters, who hop through our yard, eat my plants, and poop all over the place. Truthfully, I hate Jerry and his entire family, but he is now something we connect over, joke about, and look forward to during our days at home. 

This is an unprecedented time, and it calls for unprecedented ways to connect with each other. Yet we still need to stay sane, be entertained, and create special moments when and where we can. For my kids, this means less time playing with the toys and other stuff we’ve accumulated. And in turn, we have more experiences, like daily checks for backyard wildlife.

What could it look like for you? Maybe ask your child to play you their favorite song if they promise to listen to yours. Perhaps take a moment to wholeheartedly plop down on the ground with them to color. While you’re at it, discuss anything or nothing. You can listen with open arms to their disappointments and sadness. Plus there are so many other moments that can turn into experiences. This is truly when a connection is made, emotions are felt, and memories are formed. Because that’s the secret recipe to creating an experience. It doesn’t require extravagance or intensive planning.

We have an opportunity to get through this and add great experiences at the same time.

An article from FastCompany.com explains that moments become memorable experiences when they combine something out of the ordinary, insight, and connection. You can create an experience, be it for a special occasion or not, by doing something you don’t normally do. Just be sure to give your undivided attention to whomever you’re with so you can connect.

Then take those ingredients and the time and resources you have to create an experience, like giving the backyard bunny a storyline; letting the kids make you a pretzel and yogurt dinner on plastic fairy-tale plates; sitting outside for five minutes, looking at the moon; or starting a Zoom call to a friend with an armpit fart. 

We are going through a life-changing experience together as a world, nation, community, and family. It will be defined by the big and little things that get us through it, the people we are (not) with, and the joys and struggles that punctuate every day. I doubt my children will remember the toys they didn’t play with while sheltering in place. But I do think they’ll remember the small ways we made the best of the situation and how those experiences—big and small—paved our journey to the other side of it.