As the father of four and the grandfather of eight, I have purchased, crafted, and created more than 1,000 gifts in the past 45 years. The gifts have ranged from very expensive ski trips, to a homemade set of steps that allowed my oldest daughter to climb three stairs on one side, descend three stairs on the other side, and repeat until she was exhausted. I’ve paid for lessons of every sort, attended concerts to see Big Bird and the rock band Kiss, and have been a passenger, along with my kids, in cars, airplanes, boats, and trains across the country.
Looking back, I now know that the best gifts – the ones most memorable to me and my children – were the times we spent together, not the physical items I purchased, nor the destinations we visited.
The Downfalls of Affluence
Americans live in a land of plenty where virtually anything can be bought for a price. Our economy is built upon creating and satisfying material needs, where nothing is forever, and products are designed to be replaced by the next best thing shortly after purchase. As adults, we spend the bulk of our time working to have money to buy the products and services we and our families need and want, sacrificing togetherness for “stuff.” Our fascination with “stuff,” satirically captured in a famous routine by comedian George Carlin, often leads to overlooking and undervaluing human relationships, especially with our children.
Our insatiable appetite for material goods begins early, as experts estimate that young children are exposed to more than 3,000 ads per day on television, the Internet, on billboards, and in magazines. The fact that young children are cognitively and psychologically defenseless against advertising ensures that they will continue to be targets of the ad industry throughout their lives as overactive consumers. Without your intervention and an attractive alternative to manufactured products and experiences, your children will follow the same drumbeat of “buy, buy, buy” as the generations that preceded them.
Christmas and birthdays have become occasions of excess for children, as opening presents is often a frenzied feast of ripping into one package after another, expecting each to be more pleasing, more exciting, and more expensive than the last. Often, the identification of the giver is overlooked, forgotten in the urgency to open the next goodie. No single gift, no matter its price or the intent of the giver to make it special, stands out, and is likely to be forgotten shortly receipt, lost in the plethora of past favors and tributes.
Gifts With a Personal Touch
Most people, when recalling their childhood, remember family holidays for the people who shared the experience, not the number or the identity of specific toys or games. The best gifts require interaction between parents and child and among family members across generations. They will be remembered fondly for the rest of the recipient’s life.
For Toddlers Ages Two to Four Years
1. Cardboard Castles and Forts
Small tots have active imaginations and enjoy being in covered spaces, such as a coverlet spread across two chairs to make a tent. A pretend castle is easily made with discarded moving boxes, a razor knife, and duct tape. Crayola makes washable, nontoxic tempera paints that can be used to decorate the castle. Making the castle together gives your child a sense of accomplishment, and stimulates his or her budding creative talents.
2. Custom Whiteboard
A custom whiteboard is easily made with materials from your local hardware store. Mount a dry erase board on your child’s wall so that he or she can easily reach it either sitting or standing. Purchase different colors of nontoxic, dry erase markers, and keep them in a small box when not in use. Let your child’s imagination roam, but teach him or her to clean up and store away the materials when play is done so they are ready for the next session. Take photographs of any drawings you want to save, being sure to date them for your memories.
3. Wooden Blocks
A 2×4 is easily sawed into blocks small enough for a toddler to handle, yet too large to be swallowed. By using a nontoxic water-based or acrylic paint and stencils, a parent can easily and quickly make a unique set of blocks that will absorb the attention of a youngster. Individual alphabet characters, numbers, colors, and even roughly drawn pictures of animals add further decoration and charm. With clamps and a little creativity, you can even make a six-sided puzzle that older kids will enjoy.
For Children Ages Four to Eight Years
One of the least expensive musical instruments to buy and one of the easiest to master, the harmonica is great for children, who can quickly learn to play songs by ear. The ease of learning basic notes and chords and playing recognizable tunes encourages play and practice. As they grow older, they will naturally develop bending and breathing techniques, and will soon be playing blues harp for the entertainment of all. Plus, it will help them to develop strong musical intelligence, which is a great life skill that can aid in future success.
5. Whittling Tools
In generations past, every youngster carried a small pocketknife, usually a Barlow. Carving shapes out of wood or simply reducing a stick to a single toothpick has been a popular pastime for centuries, and was sometimes a necessity.
Whittling teaches a youngster about the properties of wood, taking proper care of tools, and using proper techniques for safety when handling a knife, in addition to experiencing the visceral pleasure of handling one’s own smooth, carved creation. Two people (a parent and child) engaged in whittling naturally talk about matters, both important and trivial.
6. A Family Tree
Ancient cultures devoted time and effort to acquaint children with family history. Television, computers, and video games have replaced family discussions where such narratives usually occurred, creating an environment of detachment, and a disconnect and devaluation of the past.
Psychologists tell us that family is the root of all that is good in our lives, and is the foundation for adult success. Help your child to build a family tree with photographs and basic demographic data about parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Encourage your child to ask older family members of memories of their childhoods and how things were different in the olden days; then, document the stories in writing and keep them in a family tree scrapbook. Better yet, show your youngster how to use a portable voice recorder or camera, and help him or her develop a list of questions to ask each family member to get started. It’s never too late to begin because those memories will fade with the death of the loved one.
7. Old-Style Baking Materials and Lessons
In past generations, years before the appearance of packaged cake mix and pies, the kitchen was the favorite room of the house. Kids would sit at the kitchen table sifting flour, measuring sugar, and rolling dough with their mother or grandmother, learning the art of baking.
Your kids can enjoy the same experiences while learning the importance of cleanliness, precision, and proper temperatures, and how materials can be blended and mixed to create new textures, aromas, and tastes. Most of all, they will understand that mistakes can be quickly overcome, forgotten with the next batch of cookies. Teach your child the pleasures of cooking without a recipe or pre-made ingredients and enjoy the result together.
For Adolescents Ages 8 to 16 Years
8. Overnight Hiking Trip
Spend time in the wilderness roughing it with your adolescent children. Take the time to enjoy nature – animal tracks, wildlife, the changing of colors in the trees – and plan on teaching and learning new skills. Take along a couple of handheld compasses and draw a map of your journey using compass points; build a fire using a bow drill, flint and steel, or a magnifying glass; and if there is a stream, try to catch fish using a fishing line, bobber, sinker, and hook.
Be sure to bring a camera, and don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself. Children often open up when they learn that their parents aren’t perfect at everything.
9. Bicycle Repair Lessons
Learning to repair simple mechanical machines like a bicycle gives a child confidence and a willingness to attempt new things. Unless you’re dealing with a 10-speed racing bike, bicycles are relatively easy to take apart and reassemble. Replacing the ball bearings in a sprocket or tensioning the spokes of a wheel are necessary maintenance procedures. The ratchet and socket wrenches, screwdrivers, and other tools necessary to perform the work are sophisticated and attractive, with chrome finishes and knurled handles.
This is also an opportunity to show how you should care for your tools so they are ready for the next job. If you don’t know how to do this yourself, take the bike to your local repair shop and ask them to show you. Then, go home and pass the knowledge on to your child.
10. Tools and Handyman Lessons
Many adolescents are drawn to power tools and equipment, so an old lawnmower is a perfect vehicle to learn the basics of a gasoline engine. Rebuilding and maintaining the mower – replacing the mower blade, changing the spark plug, tightening springs and lines – is complicated enough to keep your preteen’s interest, yet not so difficult to be beyond his or her physical strength or intellect.
If mechanical motors aren’t exciting, tear into an old computer and refurbish its guts. Developing your child’s ability to diagnose and repair electronic gadgets can also save money in the future, and may be a head start into a lifelong career.
11. Needlework Kits
Knitting is enjoyed by a number of people of both sexes who learned the skill as a child. Ringo Starr of The Beatles, Meryl Streep, and Uma Thurman are devoted knitters who wear their work. Rosey Grier, a famous NFL player, was almost as well-known for his needlepoint as his on-field sacks. Mary Tyler Moore, Mary, Queen of Scots, and Marie Antoinette also practiced embroidery. Learning to sew is practical and enjoyable, and can save serious money on personal gifts for family and friends.
Gifts for Parents and Grandparents
As parents and grandparents grow older, there are fewer physical holiday gifts that they need, as many have the funds to buy any products they want. What they need is your time – just a few hours here and there, and a phone call now and then. Your parents understand the time pressures you face with a growing family, and are reluctant to intrude or ask for visits or regular phone calls with their children and grandchildren.
You know how much you love your child – never forget that your dad or mom loves you just as much. Make the holidays special for them this year too.
Though great gifts will elate your children, it is you, the giver, who will be a bigger beneficiary. Time is the most precious thing we humans possess, as well as the most wasted. There will come a time when the world grows more quiet, and in those moments you will recede into the memories of times past and cherish the joy you create now.
What other affordable gifts and experiences can you suggest to give to children and loved ones?