Want Happier Kids? Don’t Buy Them Toys.

 

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My kids know by now that when Christmas and birthdays come, they won’t be unwrapping a gift with “From: Daddy” on it. It’s not because I’m a Scrooge or financial extremist.

It’s because I want them to be happy.

This is an unconventional approach, so I understand your concern. But lay down your pitchforks and get your arms around the following:

Day Association
Christmas / Chanukah Gifts
New Years Resolutions
Valentine’s Day Gifts
Easter Painted Eggs
Mother’s Day Gifts
Father’s Day Gifts
July 4th Fireworks
Halloween Candy
Thanksgiving Turkey
Birthday Gifts
Wedding Anniversary Gifts

You don’t have to be a statistician to see what keeps popping up. In most of these special days, there is a tradition and expectation of a gift. No wonder it feels as if we’re programmed to want stuff when we celebrate—it’s been a pattern in our lives since our very first birthday.

Now think back to your child’s last Christmas or birthday. Is he or she still playing with the toys you bought? Or are the gewgaws collecting dust (just like the ones from the year before)? When another year comes around, we know that most of the playthings we buy will hardly be played, but we keep buying them. Why do we do this to ourselves (and our money)?

We want to make our children happy. But if happiness is the end goal, then the unplayed toys should be a sign that we’re approaching it all wrong.

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(Tip from my friend Justin: Too many unplayed toys? Use the 80/20 rule—which estimates that children play with 20% of their toys 80% of the time—to your advantage. Lessen their universe of toys by either giving away unplayed toys or creating a toy bank. Give them 5 toys at a time. The rest are stored. If they’re tired of playing one, they can exchange it for another in the toy bank.)

2 Reasons Why Our Approach Is Wrong

  1. The Fun Wears Off. The first two days are mind-blowing for your child. The days after will be mind-boggling to you as it appears they’re just not interested anymore, save for one or two toys (or just the box they came in). We, adults and children, are very good at adapting to new things. (Researchers call this “Hedonic Adaptation”)
  2. Most Toys Aren’t Social. For the most part, that shiny toy truck or frilly doll (that they’ll eventually not play with) is made for one hand to hold at a time. Making it a social experience means passing it from one hand to another, which means your child is watching someone else play with it. (Though this experience ranks pretty low on the social spectrum, I’m not discounting the importance of teaching our children to share!) As you’ll see when you read on, being social is crucial to happiness.

So I don’t give my children gifts. I give them other things.

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(They keep asking for a pet. Not yet kiddos!)

3 Things To Give Your Children Instead of Typical Gifts

  1. Experiences: Study after study shows that Experiences > Stuff. Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University, who has been studying the link between money and happiness for over 20 years, says, “You can really like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences.” Another way to look at it: you can have the nicest things in the world, but still feel poor inside; you can have little, but feel rich because of your experiences (and relationships, as you’ll see below).

The Journal of Positive Psychology reports the following on the question of “Did you feel your money will be/was well spent?” on a scale of 1 to 7 where 1 = Not At All; 7 = Very Much:

Before and After Material Purchase Experiential Purchase
Rating Before They Spent 4.41 2.90
Rating a Month After They Spent 4.67 5.42

We’re inclined to think that a material purchase will be a better investment than an experience (since it’s something you can keep using), but a material purchase doesn’t go much further than the initial moments. As mentioned, we’re very good at adapting. With an experience purchase we don’t have high expectations, but our appreciation doubles within a month of the experience. Money spent on experiences gives your child a better happiness return on investment.

So that your child doesn’t feel like he or she got a lump of coal, you can write out the experience you have planned and put it on a special card. Here are some suggestions:

  • A special day trip for each child
  • Hot chocolate date
  • Ice skating
  • Chopping a Christmas tree
  • Show or Concert tickets (even free shows!)
  • Paint their room together
  • Zuzzy’s suggestion: A Foodie Day. Basically, it’s a special day where the “gift” recipient gets to pick their favorite breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert. (I’m preparing myself for a lot of pancakes and Pizza Hut this year).

The point is this experience should be different from what you normally do in order to make it special.

  1.  Social Toys: Not giving a gift sound too extreme? Social-oriented toys are also a better happiness investment because they are catalysts for relationship building, and relationships offer vast benefits.

Harvard researchers have been studying 724 men for over 75 years in the Grant Study. (These men were from two groups: Harvard sophomores and boys from Boston’s poorest areas). The study overwhelmingly found that the warmth of your relationships is the single biggest predictor of your happiness, health, and income later in life. Yes, relationships are that important.

  • Strong, warm relationships with family, friends, and community make you happier and live longer. They keep your brain sharper later in life. Conversely, loneliness makes you less happy, less healthy, and live a shorter life. Your memory declines sooner. Strong relationships protect your body and mind.
  • Those with warm relationships with their mothers earned $87,000 more than men whose mothers were uncaring. On the other hand, warm childhood relationships with fathers correlated with lower rates of adult anxiety, greater enjoyment of vacations, and increased “life satisfaction” at age 75.

Suggestion for Social Toys:

  • Board Games: Last I checked, Monopoly was pretty boring by itself.
  • Team Sport Balls: It gets pretty old retrieving your own football.
  • Crafts: craft times are some of my favorite memories with my children.

When I think back over my childhood, over the moments I remember AND cherish, getting a gift may have been a part of it, but only when I knew my parents stretched all they had to get it for me. It wasn’t the gift itself that was meaningful, but what it said about the relationship behind it.

  1. Books: Yes, reading books can be a solitary endeavor, but they fall more in line with an experience than a gift because of their effect. Long after “The End,” that book is still flavoring your mind, and you’re still digesting those words. Expanding on Dr. Gilovich, we are not only the sum total of our experiences, but of the relationships we have and the books we read. Books also motivate you to accomplish goals and, even though solitary, can actually deepen your relationships as your sense of inclusion increases when you identify with characters or meet similar people in real life. Reading a story to my children every night increases the warmth of my relationship to them.

(There’s a reason why I’m focusing on board games and books for eCommerce. Both build knowledge and relationships.)

Pie in the Sky

So let’s review the process, starting with the end goal, and reverse our course:

Our child becomes a happy, thriving adult ← Experiences and relationships lead to happiness, not stuff ← We give our child stuff

Huh? That’s like using cherries to make a pumpkin pie. You’re making a different pie if you’re not using warm relationships and experiences as your ingredients. And that pie won’t increase happiness like you hope it will. Instead, it’s starting them on a path early on to pine after what only gives a temporary solution. Does that sound like a recipe for success?

The Greatest Gift

Both gifts and experiences cost money (experiences also have a greater time cost, which is expensive in a 2 working parent household). The benefits of most gifts quickly evaporate. By contrast, the benefits of experiences will deepen their relationship with you, which has incredible happiness, health, and income benefits that last for decades.

The greatest gift we ever received was a relationship. Let’s follow that wise example. With experiences, the gift you are giving your child is you.


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13 Comments

  • Lauren Fortenberry November 28, 2016 at 6:50 pm

    This, this is a difficult one. The anti-consumer in me says, “Yes, absolutely!” Then the young mother in me says, “But…!” These are wonderful insights that shed light on a struggle that is real to most every parent. For myself, I think it will get easier as the kids get older. We buy only a few gifts at Christmas and birthdays, which works for us. Now if only we could figure out how to re-channel the outside gifts – those are the ones that accumulate and too often go unused!

    Reply
    • JT November 28, 2016 at 10:48 pm

      For sure. It feels a little extreme, so I get it. I’m not anti-consumption — I’m about consumption redirected into things that have a better “payoff.” It’s also made easier since my kids have hundreds of dollars of their own money from this past summer’s lemonade stands, so if they really did want a toy, I’m happy to take them to the store to buy it. Funny thing though — when it comes to their own hard earned money, they get very choosy. They’re practicing how to use money like adults do!

      (I can’t forget to thank you for visiting the new site! It’s been a bear of a time getting it up — and we’re still trying to figure it out, so let me know if you have any issues with anything on the site. Thanks for your patience!)

      Reply
  • Monika November 29, 2016 at 1:13 am

    Love this and I completely agree. Although I have to stop myself buying new toys for my boys I did notice that playing board games, baking and “an experience” means far more to them than some cheap, plastic tat.

    Reply
    • JT November 29, 2016 at 3:16 am

      Right on, Monika! Not only are social games or experiences great for them, it’s also great for parents 🙂

      Reply
  • Tfell November 29, 2016 at 3:50 am

    I couldn’t agree more with the general idea that less is often more but the reality is somewhere in the middle right? It’s a tough choice to have your child always be the one who never has the latest toys (kids keep up with the Joneses too) but as parents we need to do better than just giving them “things” instead giving them tools to grow. I disagree with the anti-toy sentiment that they’re simply throw away plastic money wasters (my 3 year old has constructed an elaborate diorama with all of the “expensive” trucks and toys and even created storylines for what each vehicles function is)…not sure I know what the answer is in terms of how I teach him anything by withholding something he loves and that I can afford.

    Reply
    • JT November 29, 2016 at 4:02 am

      I appreciate this comment. The hard part is predicting what they will or won’t love. If we could predict, then we wouldn’t have all these wasted toys. The point is for us to be intentional and thoughtful about how/what we give — sometimes that’s a physical object. I find that even if I’ve thought really hard about the toy (and even if they’ve told me that toy is what they wanted), “experiences” gives me a higher hit rate of what they end up loving.

      Reply
      • Tfell November 28, 2016 at 11:24 pm

        Like some of the other commenter have written, I wish I could get that message across to the grandparents and his aunt…

        Reply
  • Joleisa November 29, 2016 at 5:28 pm

    Little too late for me (my one n only 17 year old has got every gift in the catalogue)
    But I really love your ideas. Creative and worthwhile. Loving the data n studies to back it up too

    Reply
    • JT November 29, 2016 at 9:42 pm

      Thanks Jo & Leisa! Hopefully your 17 yr old follows in your footsteps and becomes a money master!

      PS — Saw your latest email and congrats are in order!

      Reply
  • Michael December 26, 2016 at 2:02 pm

    Late for me as well as today is Dec 26th! One saving grace, my wife and I decided to put a $100 in each child’s stocking with the instructions that this money is to be given away. They decide how and to whom. They can give away 20, $5 bills or pay someone’s electric bill up to $100, it’s completely up to them. We did ask that they come back in a few weeks and tell us about the experience(s) of giving the money away. My kids are older (16, 19, and 21).

    Reply
    • JT December 26, 2016 at 10:20 pm

      What a great idea Michael! Will you let me know how it goes? Would love to read about it on your site!

      Reply
  • Valerie January 10, 2017 at 8:30 am

    I totally agree with this! Experiences are much more valuable than gifts!

    Reply
    • JT January 11, 2017 at 10:29 am

      Thanks Valerie! Here’s hoping for more great experiences this new year!

      Reply

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