We all want to give our children the best in life that we can offer. That can look like a lot of things – a stable home life, a good education, lots of warmth and love and a successful future.
But when it comes to gift giving, that can look like a lot of excess – expensive birthday parties, hundreds of gifts under the tree at Christmas and overload that ruins the spirit of giving the gift to begin with.
Several years ago, just before our oldest son Dixon’s tenth birthday, my husband and I decided to gift experiences, rather than things, for select milestone birthdays. Our hunch – which we’ve found to be completely accurate – was that gifting rich experiences and cultivating memories together would lead to stronger relationships with our children.
We love providing our boys with a sense of adventure through travel and rich experiences.
At nearly 10-years-old, Dixon was out of that phase where we threw big birthday parties and every child from his class and basketball and baseball teams would attend. We, of course, still wanted to celebrate so Matt and I talked about the desire from this age to adulthood to give the boys adventures that would expose them to new things, rather than purchasing a ton of gifts that they may or may not remember years down the road. I mean, do you really remember the GAP outfit you got when you were 14?
We selected certain birthdays to surprise them with a trip – they don’t know which birthday it is, they don’t know where they are going and they don’t know which parent is going with them. It is a one-on-one surprise birthday and they don’t find out until the moment they are going to walk out the door.
We customize each destination and all of the activities to each child.
Dixon and I at the Nashville airport when he learned at the gate that we were headed to NYC for his first surprise birthday trip!
When Dixon turned 10, I took him to New York – just the two of us. Dixon had been talking about NYC his entire life and all the things he couldn’t wait to do once he was able to visit - see the city, take a taxi, see a NY Knicks game, ice skate in Central Park, see a Broadway show. So we did all of those things together.
Ice skating adventures in Central Park.
Breaking News: Dixon turns 10 on the GMA set!
On the other hand, Matt and Thackston left just last Friday to go to Miami to celebrate T’s tenth birthday. Again, he had no idea it was happening, and they are having a completely different trip. Thackston loves animals and is constantly reading books about them, taking notes on animal facts and sharing those facts with anyone within earshot. So Matt is taking him to the Seaquarium in Miami with hands-on experiences with the animals. Thackston is also an adrenalin junkie, so he and Matt are taking a speedboat tour of Miami and an airboat in the Everglades with the alligators.
Thackston at the gator show after his first airboat ride through the Everglades.
We cater these trips to the dreams, personalities and the kind of experience we imagine they each want to have. And what we’ve found is that these trips cost less money than the elaborate birthday parties we used to throw. For example, for Thackston’s third birthday, we threw a county fair themed party, complete with hayrides, sack races and concessions. It was an amazing party (featured in a magazine, even), but we are spending less money to take him to Miami and he is walking away with so much more than a few hours at a birthday party.
This gift-giving practice has trickled into Christmas gifts too.
I will admit that I used to buy out the toy store. I read all the children’s gift guides and purchased everything age-appropriate on it. One Christmas changed all of that. I looked around at all the toys and had the stark realization that this was all for me and not for them.
I thought to myself, “You are destroying Christmas. This is not what Christmas is about. This is not what you want your children to become – entitled brats who want more and more stuff.” After that Christmas, we moved to this gift-giving structure: something you want, something you need, something you wear, and something you read. Instead of buying every gift they could ever want, we got super thoughtful about gift-giving and we found that they were much more discerning about what they desired and were more grateful for what they received.
At one point I just bought tons and tons of "stuff" for Christmas. What was I thinking?
And then a few years after that, we started gifting trips – gifting experiences – rather than elaborate gift exchanges. The first year, Santa brought our family a ski trip. It was an activity we had never done together as a family and it’s fueled a passion for the sport in our boys.
Our first ski trip as a family instead of tons of gifts under the Christmas tree.
A lot of times at the extended holiday break, I found that we were desperately awaiting the kids’ return to school. I truly hated that feeling of exhaustion at the New Year. Rather than feeling restored and grateful for that beautiful time of year, we instead couldn’t wait to get away from each other. We found by taking this trip, after Christmas before the kids go back to school, deepened our relationship with each other. We came back feeling refreshed and loving each other, rather than our home slowly nearing “Lord of the Flies.”
And while the above examples are more elaborate trips to celebrate milestones, I want to stress that these trips don’t have to be outlandish and pricey. Some of these trips are overnight, but we often go on quick day trips, too. You can afford to have special moments together that don’t cost much at all.
The summer provides a perfect opportunity for day trips because they are out of school and the weather is nice. But, we also take advantage of long weekends throughout the year. We’ve gone kayaking on the Caney Fork River and we’ve gone to nearby Sewanee for the day, where we’ve walked around, spent the day together and then drove back home. Last summer we explored local waterfalls for a day and were tourists in our hometown of Nashville.
Chasing waterfalls last summer within a 25-mile radius of our home.
So where do you start planning these types of excursions? Here are a few tips we’ve learned along the way:
- Not every trip has to be a family trip: While we love to travel as a family, we purposely make these birthday trips one on one. We’ve found that this makes those moments that much more special. When Dixon and I went on his birthday trip to NYC, he got really sick and we spent one full day in the hotel room with him in the bed. He slept a lot and we ordered room service and watched a bunch of movies. He still to this day talks about that happening and how we didn't let it spoil our great time. It's one of his favorite memories from that trip.
While it wasn't in our plan for Dixon to get sick in NYC, the day in bed with movies and room service created memories.
- Plan ahead to avoid stress: Particularly for the surprise birthday trips, we’ve planned years in advance. We’ve already chosen what birthdays we are going to celebrate. About 6-9 months in advance of those, we start to plan the city based on each child’s personality and what excites them. We also think through the ease and expense of travel and what activities they would he enjoy doing in that city.
- Set a budget and plan accordingly: Because we plan so far in advance, we are able to put away a little each month for the trip. And once we’ve decided on a budget, we strictly stick to it, planning hotel, restaurants, and activities within that budget. For example, Matt was planning to fly to Miami with Thackston, but every time we looked at flights, they were more than $1000. Matt decided he would rather drive through the night and save that money to use it on experiences and stay within our budget.
Miami-bound by car (12.5 hours from Nashville)!
- Give them a travel journal: At 10 years, we’ve provided each child with a travel journal to chronicle what they are seeing and doing on their special birthday trip, but also other trips, too. As they grow older, I think it will be fun to go back and see how they’ve progressed and walk through those memories together. Our encouragement is for them to seek adventure. We want them to see what the world has to offer outside of our little bubble at home. As we look forward to helping them discover it while they are young in hopes that they’ll have that sense of adventure and exploration into adulthood.
Matt has shared a ton of pictures of Thackston writing in his adventure journal while on their Miami trip. Every single time I get choked up thinking about all the places he will explore.
- Step away from the screen. We try to make these adventures as electronic free as possible, so they are not playing games or watching movies (unless we are on a 12-hour car ride). We like them to get bored on purpose – this is when their imagination kicks in and they both seek and discover.
- Stay spontaneous. These excursions are a mix of some planned and some spontaneous. We don’t want to be so regimented with travel that they miss what’s staring them right in the face. There is always something exciting happening that we didn’t know about. We purposely leave room for those spontaneous experiences.
- Don’t wait until they are grown. If you wait until your kids are grown to travel, I promise you that you and your kids are missing out. It can be exhausting, of course, but the benefit, memories and insight is absolutely worth it. During these trips – both one on one and as a family – I have found that I know my boys so much better and I’ve learned more about them in one trip than more than a decade of parenting them. They really do make great travel companions.
Overall, I challenge you to think about experiences over gifts. These trips have truly been both eye-opening and awe-inspiring and have taught me so much about connection, parenting, and my family. Cheers to your next adventure!