50 experience-based Christmas gifts (for millennials who don’t want anything)

It was our first moms’ group after Christmas, and believe me, we were hurting. We staggered into the classroom like zombies with a death grip on our coffee mugs and a vacant glaze to our eyes.

“I was up until midnight unpacking,” said Sara.

Becky nodded numbly. A flash of silver snapped my eyes into focus, and I noticed, blankly, the stray piece of tinsel stuck in her hair.

“I don’t know what to do,” Gina said in monotone, “with all of the toys.”

Have you been here? Even just a little bit?

If you’re a parent with young kids, I’ll hazard to say you have. Especially, I think, if you’re also a millennial.

Let me lay it out like I see it. We’re in the middle of a cultural shift when it comes to gift-giving. And millennial parents are leading the way.

Millennials (those of us born between 1980 and 1995, or 2004, depending on whose definition you’re following) are having babies – and we’re raising our kids under much different circumstances than the generation before us. Millennials have been described as a generation of lost innocence. We grew up in a period of economic prosperity and peace, but the Sept. 11 attacks and two successive recessions dashed the follow-your-dreams, you-can-do-whatever-you-put-your-heart-into mantra we believed as kids.

Our kids are growing up with more realistic view of the world. And as a millennial parent, I’m glad for it.

Still, many of us are caught in a gift-giving tradition that developed during a different time. Our cultural traditions emphasize making sure everyone has “enough to open,” regardless of if the gift recipients need anything new or not. We exchange “just something small” without acknowledging that that plastic toy we’re giving will still be lingering in a landfill 450 years from now.

Gift-giving, as our country currently practices it, is irresponsible and unsustainable. When Gus and Henry are adults, it is sure to be even more so. But as young parents starting our own holiday traditions, we can redefine gift-giving for our kids.

We can give experiences instead of gifts. We can give them to our kids, to our friends, to our families, to our neighbors. Anyone who has a stocked storage room and a garage bursting at the seams is scientifically-proven to be happier receiving an experience (and a donation made to a charity in their name). It’s true. Google it.

50 experiences to give at Christmas instead of more stuff.

Here is a list of 50 experience-based gifts you can give (or ask for!) this holiday season:

  • Passes to the art museum, children’s museum, history museum, science museum, or zoo.
  • Lessons. Swimming lessons are important for kids of all ages. Piano, violin, or ukulele lessons are great for music lovers. Horseback riding, martial arts, and rock climbing lessons make for memorable experiences – and they are activities most kids aren’t exposed to in the normal course of life and school.
  • Classes. In our city, there are several art studios and craft stores that offer weekly or individual classes on topics from pottery to pointillism. Music classes are also fun, and parent-child music classes make a great gift for a baby’s first Christmas. Community education classes usually have offerings for kids, with classes ranging from cooking to woodworking.
  • Sports leagues. Participating in athletics can be expensive, and gymnastic classes, enrollment in soccer leagues, or sign-up fees for the basketball team make great holiday gifts.
  • The great outdoors. The nature center near our house has dozens of classes for kids – animal tracking, campfire building, and bird watching, to name a few. What about renting outdoor gear for a holiday gift? Renting snowshoes, cross-country skis, paddle boards, or canoes are all great ways to get kids having fun outside. You could go further and give an outdoor experience – what about a dogsled excursion? A camping trip? Renting a yurt for a weekend at a state park?
  • Festival admissions or expenses. There are dozens of festivals and cultural events in Minneapolis year-round. The kite festival and Renaissance Festival are two of our favorites. Any local events calendar is sure to have listings for events in your area.
  • Excursions. What about a short road trip? An hour or two drive from our house takes us to several state parks, a giant water park, a ropes course, one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood homes, and a series of underground caves, to name just a few.
  • Everyday gifts. Many parents would be grateful to receive financial gifts to put towards their children’s college education – or daycare, preschool, or homeschooling expenses. Free babysitting is a welcome gift – and if the gift-givers live too far away to babysit regularly, Gus and Henry’s grandparents often read storybooks to the kids over Skype while Matt and I have a chance to talk or catch up on dishes in the next room. I love this one.
  • Give work. Most people have a few projects to do around the house, but need some extra help to get them done. We’ve received gifts of good work in the past, and working alongside the gift-givers have knocked a few of our projects off our list. Yard work, landscaping, and small household repair projects all could use an extra set or two of hands.
  • Give a meal. Choose the recipe, pick up part of the groceries, and help the gift-recipients cook a meal for a fun holiday experience to share together.
  • Charitable gifts. For the person who has everything and wants nothing more, consider giving charitable gifts at Christmas. Last year, I donated to Engineers Without Borders as part of Matt’s Christmas gift – a thoughtful choice, I hoped, as he’s an engineer who has considered volunteering with this organization in the future. You can donate to a non-profit that aligns with the gift recipient’s interests, or choose a small, local non-profit doing good in your own community.

What experiences have you given or received?


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