As parents, it’s natural to want to give your kids the world. And it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that buying them things is the way to do this. The latest toy, the coolest gadgets and the trendiest clothes – we all know the drill. Unfortunately, as adults, we can also fall into this same trap.
In today’s consumer-driven society, we forget that material possessions do not necessarily equate to happiness. So often, the material things that sparked immediate joy for your child are just as quickly tossed aside and forgotten about.
But what if I told you there was another way – one that doesn’t involve online shopping – that could have a lasting positive impact on your children?
The answer is experiences.
In this guide, we'll explore some of the benefits of giving your children experiences and some ideas for fun and meaningful activities that you can enjoy together.
Why do experiences make you happier than material things?
Study after study has shown that experiences greatly impact overall happiness more than material things. And that’s especially true for kids.
“Experiences offer kids the opportunity to learn more about the world around them – something that can be difficult, if near impossible, with tangible things,” said Jerimya Fox, a licensed professional counselor and doctor of behavioral health with Banner Health. “You may think your identity is connected to things, but you are still you if you take them away. But with experiences, they remain forever a part of you. It’s not something that can be taken away.”
Not only do experiences create lasting memories, but they can broaden your children’s horizons and strengthen your bond as a family. Your children will learn to interact with others, become more empathetic and build resiliency, independence and confidence. All things that can greatly benefit them into adulthood.
“Life experiences expose us to new people, places and ideas,” Dr. Fox said. “They help us feel connected to the world around us. They challenge us to think differently and broaden our horizons.”
Is my child too young to appreciate experiences?
If you asked a 7-year-old child their favorite part about their birthday party, an ice cream outing with their grandparents or a family trip to Disneyland, chances are they may not shout out “the experience!” Most likely, their favorite parts will center around their birthday presents, the delicious ice cream or the Mickey Mouse stuffed animal they brought home.
“Cognitively speaking, younger children can only process the gifts in front of them; they can only think about what they are physically holding and connect with it,” Dr. Fox said. “This begins to shift in adolescence, where their desire for experiences surpasses the desire for possessions. They focus on what they gain rather than what they can get.”
While most young children derive more happiness from material gifts and things than experiences, this doesn’t make the experience less important.
“Remember, it’s not your child’s fault they are so focused on things at this age; it’s age-appropriate,” Dr. Fox said. “But it’s never too early to start talking to your kids about their experiences and encouraging them to think about them differently.”
Tips for building a love for experiences, not things
It’s never too early to start building excitement and appreciation for experiences. Dr. Fox shared a few things you can do to help build a strong foundation:
Plan family outings: There are many ways to give your children experiences without spending a ton of money on airline tickets, foreign countries or hotel rooms.
Consider your child’s interests and a reasonable budget and use that as a launching point. By supporting their interests, you can help them develop skills and confidence they’ll carry with them for the rest of their lives.
For a child who loves art, take in-person or virtual art classes together or visit your local art museum. For a child who loves the outdoors, go hiking, fishing, to the park or camping. You can even camp in your own backyard. Family movie night at the theater or a gift of tickets to a sports game are also fun options.
For younger children, get something small that ties to the experience so they have something to look forward to and reflect on afterward.
Encourage conversation and reflection: Encourage your child to talk about the experience afterward. This will help them start to process and understand more about the people and world around them. How did it make them feel? How do they think others felt or thought about the experience?
For example: It was nice to see your friend Mary at the birthday party. What do you think was her favorite part? What did you think of the cake? What was it like jumping in the bounce house?
Bring out old photos or souvenirs to spark memories of the experience. This is a wonderful way to bring back memories through visual means. Ask them what they remember about what is happening in the photos or what the object they are holding reminds them of.
“Reflecting encourages your child to recall details and emotions associated with experiences,” Dr. Fox said. “It helps their brains grow and develop and helps them go into future experiences with a positive mindset and healthy perspective.”
Model an appreciation for experiences: Reflect and share stories about your experiences and memories. Share what you remember from your experiences together – your favorite, funny or most memorable moments. Show your children that the things we remember most are the shared moments, not things.
Giving your children experiences is a powerful way to help them develop into happy, fulfilled, grateful adults. It’s not about depriving them of material possessions but prioritizing what truly matters in life.
Our children are only in our homes for a short period. Perhaps the greatest benefit you have as a parent is spending quality time with them – building memories that will last a lifetime.