This isn’t a plea to buy my kids less toys for Christmas, though you can read it that way (please, mom and grandmom and all those who love us, please read it that way, because I am already drowning in Legos). This also isn’t an announcement that we’re canceling our Amazon Prime account and moving to a desert yurt, though some days, that sounds like a good idea. This also isn’t a Judgey McJudgerson manifesto about why you all need to cancel your Target cards.
This is, however, an explanation of why our family is buying less toys, getting less stuff, and embracing experiences instead of things.
Basically: we get a heck of lot more joy from going to a concert than we do from our new iPhone. And I’m not being a holier-than-thou hippie here; science actually says so.
Sounds wild, I know. But hear me out, and by “me,” I mean the people who have studied this stuff pretty much to death. In a 2010 Science paper with co-author Daniel Gilbert, scientist Matthew Killingsworth wrote, “Happiness is the the content of moment-to-moment experience,” writes The Atlantic.“So nothing material is intrinsically valuable, except in whatever promise of happiness it carries.”
From that new shade of lipstick to the shiny Chromebook, it all means nothing unless it promises some kind of happiness payoff in the form of experience.
In other words, I get a little jolt from wearing the lipstick or using the Chromebook, but that’s not going to last very long. The same thing, more importantly, goes for my kids’ toys, especially the ones I buy on a whim. They get a little jolt of happy when I buy them, but then that Paw Patrol stuffie just clutters up my house for months, mostly ignored, a source of stress for me when I have to clean it up.
That’s another issue when it comes to stuff. Stuff lingers, and not in a good way. Toys take up space, and need storage, and get everywhere, and then you have to tell your kids to clean them up. Your kids do not want to clean them up. They resist. You get angry. The kids get sulky. Yelling ensues. So do tears (sometimes on both ends). Wash, rinse, and repeat.
I realized the other day that I don’t have as many friends as I could because I don’t invite them to my house, because there’s so much stuff it’s always messy. That’s. Fucked. Up. We need some serious Goodwill purges, an intervention, and to spend our money on what matters, which is being together and making memories that last, not stuff that breaks.
So a few weeks ago, we decided not to buy things for a while, filled the car with camping gear instead of random Target stuff, and took a trip to the mountains. Yes, it was an adventure, but my kids spent their days finding salamanders and hiking up and down mountains. We made it all the way to secret waterfalls. They caught fish and we clambered over rocks. We didn’t drop the money we usually drop at the town’s hiking store and the awesome gem and mineral place. But we did climb a mountain in the early morning up into a cloud, and the top looked like something out of Tibet, all swirling cloud and mist.
But there’s no getting around the fact that the holidays might be a bit of a letdown for the kids. There won’t be the same kind of piles around the tree that they’re used to from previous years. I’m not subjecting myself to more toys that will break and get shoved into forgotten corners, which will then spill out onto my floor, which will then requiring picking up.
No, we’re going to give them something more fun. Trips. Backstage passes to zoo experiences. A month’s membership to a local museum. Gift certificates for ice cream from favorite spot. Passes to the local kids’ gymnasium. These won’t look as pretty in boxes. They won’t be as fun on Christmas morning. But we hope the kids will have more fun looking forward to them in the long run, and more fun making memories with them, than they will just playing with another Matchbox car racetrack.
If you really want to be a super-awesome spectacular grandparent, you can sponsor a trip to a new museum or pay for a class your grandchild has been clambering for. Anything that would make memories, that would be an experience, that wouldn’t clutter up the house. Please and thank you.
I guarantee the memories will last a lot longer than the latest gadget or toy would. And even experiences that suck, like sleeping in a tent with a family of whining kids or a beach vacation that rains the whole time, they turn into good stories in the end.
Think about your own childhood. You might feel nostalgic about your toys (I know I do). But it’s those experiences that get you, those long summer days, the first trip to Disney World with your grandparents, feeding the ducks in the park. These are the things that bring you the most joy. You could fill your house with Ninja Turtles and blare Power Rangers from your TV, and it wouldn’t be the same. But you could take your kids to the duck pond, ride your bikes on the same trails, and you could recapture some of that joy you felt back when you were a kid.
So we’re saving our money on stuff. Scientists agree; it’s not worth it.
Instead, we’re saving up for a beach vacation. And a chance to do a guided fossil dig in the low country of South Carolina, the best place on the planet to find megalodon teeth. We want to take our kids to Yellowstone one day and my mom has dreams of driving us all across the country in an RV, even though the chances of her killing us all in our sleep remain high.
I’m done with the constant trips to the stores for things I don’t need where the risk of making impulsive, spur-of-the-moment toy purchases is high. We’re saving up for our next adventure. Our house will be cleaner. I think too, in the end, our hearts will be fuller.
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