Why experiences are better gifts for older children

November 29, 2020

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Why experiences are better gifts for older children

What should we get for our kids this holiday? As children get older, giving them something they can experience (live through) instead of material things makes them happier, according to new research.

The study, published in the International Journal of Research in Marketing, compared the level of happiness children derive from material goods with the level of happiness they derive from experiences.

Across four studies with children and adolescents, the researchers demonstrated that children ages 3-12 derive more happiness from material things than from experiences. However, older children derive more happiness from their experiences than from their possessions.

What the researchers say: “What this means is, experiences are highly coveted by adolescents, not just expensive material things, like some might think,” the lead author said. “Don’t get me wrong. Young children do love experiences. Entire industries (e.g., theme parks such as Disneyland) are built around this premise. In fact, young children are ecstatic throughout the experience. However, for experiences to provide enduring happiness, children must be able to recall details of the event long after it is over.”

Long after they have unwrapped their Legos and stuffed animals, there will still be a physical reminder to give them a “jolt” of happiness. However, young children can’t see or touch experiences after they are over, making it harder for them to appreciate experiences long after the event is over. There’s an easy and inexpensive fix though, according to the researchers.

“Take pictures or videos of family walks, playing in the snow, and birthday parties,” they said. “Children are likely going to appreciate those experiences more if there is something to remind them of the event. Additionally, they’ll be able to learn the social value of shared experiences.”

Children will remember and appreciate not only the Christmas gifts they received, but also the time spent with family and friends as they relive the experience through concrete reminders such as photos and videos.

So, what? The more interesting question, it seems to me, is why we feel the need to indulge in “gift-giving” in the first place. There is little doubt, from a mountain of research on the subject, that young children are often over-indulged in gifts anyway. Because of this, their brains treat the material possessions they are given much the way that employees treat productivity bonuses.

They’re “normalized” and treated as an entitlement. To get the reaction that the parents (or employers) expect—pleasure, gratitude etc.—the gifts have to be ever more elaborate. A no-win game.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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