By Samurai Mom
We always struggle to find the right gifts for our two teens, especially since they hit the ages of 10-12. Either the ideas are too trendy and have no long-term value (good-bye rainbow looms, silly bandz and fidget spinners) or expensive and used briefly like the Nintendo 3DS that our son quickly lost.
Even our best choices have turned out to be flash-in-the-pan gifts. They hang around the house for a while, then are donated. As we drop them at Goodwill, I say a wish over them.
Please fill a long-lasting purpose in someone’s life and don’t end up in a landfill.
When our kids asked to plan some of their own gifts for under the tree, I was torn. I felt a pang in my chest like the one I had when they figured out the whole Santa thing.
I ignored it. Even Parent Samurai get frantic and stressed over the holidays.
Finally, I could stop my obsessive collecting of gift receipts! I admired their planning skills (go, prefrontal cortex!) and they made it as easy as pie to shop for the holidays. They’d get exactly what they wanted within a preset budget, we reasoned.
And no wasteful dud gifts! What a relief it was to be able to focus on getting the house ready and planning our family party. I even sent out some Christmas cards…on time.
But by early December, handing over our choice and the ability to plan surprises wore thin. It wasn’t anything that the kids did wrong. They stayed within budget. They picked out their gifts in stores and online, compared prices, read reviews. They even made wrapping optional. Since they already knew what the gift was, why wrap it?
One day I woke up and realized, This isn’t Christmas! This is holiday by Mastercard. Ho, ho, ho by your friend Visa. Norman Rockwell by Amex.
What an empty, consumeristic experience. It was too late for a redo, so we salvaged what lessons we could from our mistake. Next year would be different- less emptiness, more intention. We knew there had to be a better way.
There are gifts with more meaning. And they’re not as likely to be broken, lost, stolen or discarded after the novelty wears off.
It’s a memory of a shared experience.
A way to develop an interest.
A possibility of making the world better.
One thing that all these gifts have in common is growth – strengthening our relationship with our teens; growing an interest or a hobby or helping to change the world. In other words, experience gifts have a stickiness factor – there’s the possibility that your teen will remember them for years to come. Maybe even add another dimension to how they see the world. More interactive = more memorable.
When our kids were little, we intuitively understood that we’re in the business of building memories for our family. We went on day trips to historic reenactment parks, hayrides, pumpkin picking, aquariums. Our weekends and vacations were full of these activities.
As they grew into teens, interests with friends became the priority. Yet, when we did have the chance to hang out with them doing something different, it helped us grow closer again.
We would have these great conversations that happened nowhere else.
And this is the real reason you should give experience gifts to your teen. They give you chances to connect, grow or build a memory. More meaning than a hunk of plastic, a soon-to-be-outdated piece of technology or other quickly discarded junk.
Here are 77 ideas to build your relationship with your teen, support them in growing into a new hobby or making the world better. Some of them are examples based in the northeast United States.
Use the links at the bottom to search for comparable experiences in your area.
Attend a taping of a television show
Helicopter ride or airplane ride over your town
Letters to Open on your Birthday
Gift certificate for movie night
Your creative kid can learn directly from the masters in Master Class!
Learn to cook with Gordon Ramsey;
Learn filmmaking from Martin Scorsese and
Learn to sing with Christina Aguilera!
Season tickets at a regional theater
Photo session for professional headshots
Attend an author signing try to connect your teen to a favorite author of a series if possible.
Book of the Month Club – an experience can come in a physical object like a book; see a different perspective through the eyes of a character.
Lunch and an afternoon of poking around an indie bookstore (gift certificate)
How to be An Entrepreneur at a Young Age
Learn to play an instrument online or in person
Beauty services – facial, makeover
Lunch and a movie gift certificate
Tickets to a fashion show
Gift certificate to go thrifting at second-hand stores
Car Nut/Gear Head
Day at a racetrack
Khan Academy subscription
Escape room session
Cooking class – online or in person
Gourmet food tasting tour of a nearby city
YouTube Tour Event (hosted meet and greet) Jack Septiceye, Lilly Singh, your teen’s favorite YouTuber
IDTech – On-campus coding camps for tweens and teens
Youth Digital – variety of online courses for ages 8-14
Girls Who Code – clubs and camps for girls
Raspberry Pi – technically an object but needs to be assembled and programmed. A DIY computer gift that could expand technical knowledge and give you a chance to complete a project together.
Adopt a rescue pet if your circumstances allow
Plan a family camping weekend
River expedition – rent canoes or kayaks on a river
Search These Resources to Find Experience Gifts in Your Area
Cloud 9 Living: Experience Gifts
Groupon Kids’ Activities
Altruistic Gifts Make the World a Better Place
When is a gift even more rewarding? When it improves the world. You can make a donation in your teen’s name – or – even better, volunteer with your teen!
Sponsor an animal – (like a polar bear) in the wild
Donate and/or volunteer at to a no-kill animal shelter
50 Community Service Ideas for Teens
Giving an experience makes gift-giving exciting again! Even more important, it helps you get back to the core of parenting, when your focus was experiencing the world through your kids’ eyes … Remember? You know, before you became a taxi and a human ATM machine.
An experience gift also cuts down on the waste stream – after all, how much stuff do we really need? How much packaging do we need to get the stuff that we don’t really need?
The gifts we choose to give send a message about who we are, and what we want to impart as parents.
What do you value? You don’t have to get swept up in the holiday and birthday glitter and panic. It may be time to rethink your family gift-giving to reflect what you really want to teach your teens.
As for me, it’s a work in progress. Starting soon, I’ll use the resources that I researched for you in my own family. Birthdays and holidays will look a bit different in our house.
I’ll let you know how it goes!
Related: Are You a Parent Samurai?