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Why The “Best” Holiday Gift For Teens Isn’t For Us

By Mir Kamin

“Everyone complains about how hard it is to shop for teens,” I told them, “except for these people—” I gestured to my screen “—who write articles like ‘Great Gift Ideas For Your Teen’ who say it’s easy.” There was some crowding around my computer, and we scanned the article together.

“Lame,” declared my oldest.

I felt like the article was kind of lame, myself, but I was curious on her take. “Really? Why?”

“Because that should be a very short article that goes like this: ‘Great Gift Idea For Your Teen’ should just be followed by a bunch of dollar signs. The end.”

I queried her brother to see if he agreed. He gave me a very “duh, Mom” sort of shrug and said, “Well, money is the best gift. That way I can get whatever I want.”

All about the spirit of giving, my children are. They appreciate the care and thought that goes into gifts, value any kindness presented to them, and… yeah, no. They want cash. Cold, hard cash is the language of teens, and if we would just fork it over, please, that would be great.

Spoiler: I don’t give my kids money as gifts (or, you know, ever). I get what they’re saying, and I understand that at this age there is nothing headier than making your own buying choices and having the means with which to achieve them, but I don’t love the idea of just handing over some cash—even though that’s what they truly want—and conveying that at this special time of year, I love you so much that I couldn’t be bothered to figure out what you like. (They wouldn’t see it that way, and I’m not saying that’s what it means when someone gives cash. I’m saying that’s how I feel about it, because I happen to love picking out gifts for others. To me, part of the joy of the process is the surprise element, the “how did you know?” part of it. It’s my hang-up and I’m not attempting to project it onto anyone else.)

Money feels impersonal to me, even though the kids assure me that they don’t see it that way. At the same time, my kids are well taken care of and don’t want for any essentials, and the things they do really want are things they won’t be getting from us. (Did you know my teenagers are the only ones in the whole world, or at least the only ones in the whole high school who don’t have smartphones? Because their mean and terrible parents don’t think they need them? Feel free to report us to Child Protective Services now that you know the awful truth.)

I’ve never been a bury-them-in-gifts person for Christmas. When they were small, I either did three gifts (Jesus got three gifts, you know) or the “something they want, something they need, something to wear, something to read” approach. As they’ve gotten older, it’s shifted a bit. Nowadays it’s more One Big Gift and a few small things, but even that big gift is something I could argue they need—a computer, one year; an upgraded flute for my daughter, one year, and a marching piccolo, the next; the trampoline which was meant to lure my couch potatoes outside.

When relatives ask what to get them, I suggest gift cards. To me, that’s better than cash, because they have their freedom but at the same time, we know where the money goes. My gaming son is crazy for Steam, while my daughter makes short work of any iTunes credit or the opportunity to shop at her favorite teen consignment clothing store. Those are gifts they love which are easy for people to get them. And that’s great.

But when I shop… I want to shop. It doesn’t need to be a lot of stuff, or super-fancy stuff, but I enjoy picking out goodies for them. “Something to wear” and “something to read” are still easy enough; there are never too many books or too many t-shirts from Threadless. Sometimes that One Big Gift makes itself apparent early on, and sometimes it doesn’t.

My approach, these days, is to focus on stockings. As I said, I’m not an over-the-top gifts person, I’m not super-sentimental so I am not prone to collecting, and I tend to dislike anything that’s sort of “for the sake of having more.” At this age, I just have to trust that the best gift I can give my teens (short of that coveted cash, of course) is knowing who they are, and stockings are a great way to give that to them via small items in a non-sappy way. Like… they always get chewing gum in their stockings. But my son likes mint gum and my daughter likes fruit-flavored ones. Not a big deal, but they each get what they like. Every year everyone gets a new ornament for the tree, and it has something to do with that past year and thus comes imbued with meaning. My daughter always gets doo-dads for her hair, and that’s something we’ve been doing since she was tiny. My son always gets some sort of sensory fidget (also something we’ve been doing since they were small). Everyone gets socks, and those socks have gotten weirder over the years (but that’s okay, because so have we). The year my son wouldn’t stop randomly declaring “I am… Batman!” his stocking was topped by a Dark Knight mask, and he was delighted. The stocking gifts are not expensive or extravagant, but they are a simple, quiet way to tell these nearly-adults who are working on pulling away from us that we still see and know and love them.

As for the “main” gifts, this year? It’s almost December and I’m still stumped. I’ll figure it out. I don’t know what they’ll be getting, but I do know it’s not cash, much to the kids’ disappointment. I keep telling them that cash is a great gift once you have actual life expenses, like a mortgage, but they persist in believing I’m just mean. Maybe I am, but I’m okay with that.

About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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  • Margaret

    November 25, 2014 at 11:19 pm

    I really like your idea of a gift card versus money. You’re absolutely right — that way you know where the money is going (and can influence the spending, i.e. bookstore vs frittered away on sodas) while still letting them have options. My fave gift is a bookstore gift card — there are so many options in bookstores these days, that there has to be something for everyone!

    • My Kids Mom

      December 2, 2014 at 4:24 pm

      I compromise for birthday party gifts– a low priced book with a gift card to the bookstore inside it. They are now committed to going to the bookstore again, so they can swap out the book it they want, or just get another.

  • Beth

    November 26, 2014 at 11:36 am

    Our daughter will be 4 months old this Christmas and we are probably not buying her anything, (I may cave and get some cute hair stuff and socks, but those are more for me than her..) but I want to thjnk of holiday traditions that we can start when she is little. I like the stocking idea, and the something to wear and read idea too. I think we may also do some sort of service project, or maybe making a big deal of having her help pick out gifts for her cousins, or have her help me pick out a gift for her dad or something. I’ve always loved the gift giving better than the getting!

  • Anne

    December 1, 2014 at 4:36 pm

    Around that age doing experience gifts can be great. My mother didn’t do it with me, but did do this with my younger sibs. She took my photography adept little sister to Washington DC ( a small car ride from where we used to live) for the cherry blossoms and took my train-crazy brother on a long weekend train ride to see Grandma. The memories meant a lot to them- 15 years later they still talk about it. Even smaller things, like a cooking class or a museum pass can be a little bit of freedom and life skills for a young adult.

  • […] week and now I’ve written one for this week. So! If you like, you can go back and read about why I hate the “best” gift for teens and then move on to what I’d like to tell new parents if there was any way for it not to […]

  • Leslie

    December 2, 2014 at 1:49 pm

    I’m another one who loves experience gifts. My 16 year old’s big gift is a ticket for a Maroon5 concert in March. We’ve also gone ziplining and on a Segway tour. Both of us have had a blast! I consider myself lucky he’ll still hang out with his Mom. Oh, he doesn’t have a smartphone either, so Mir, please tell your kids they have at least one compatriot here in Ohio. 

    • Mir Kamin

      December 2, 2014 at 2:05 pm

      I did take my daughter (and her friends) to a Pentatonix concert for her 16th birthday, and I feel like that was the best money I ever spent on a gift for her. They had a blast. But there aren’t always things like that happening. Thank you for the reminder about experiences, though… I should think on that some more.

  • Cindy

    December 2, 2014 at 1:50 pm

    I am totally with you on the gift giving thing…up to and including being stumped for ideas this year. I’ve been thinking “experience” rather than “more stuff”. I have three boys at home (ages 15, 17 and 26) so I was trying for adventure type experiences but I’m still stumped. There has to be good alternatives to the cash they want…right?

  • Katherine

    December 2, 2014 at 2:06 pm

    When we do give cash to our teens, it tends to be more of the $ for a specific item. Like they each got money towards a computer, but this way they could customize what they wanted and add some of their own money for an upgraded graphics card in both cases.

    And my almost 16 yo can commiserate with your kids. He has no phone at all. DH teaches at the same school, so no real need for a phone (and honestly he’s not really all that interested in a phone).

  • Meri

    December 2, 2014 at 2:16 pm

    Some of my favorite memories with my late fiancé are of going to high tea and on a sleigh ride up in the White Mtns. – his ideas. The fancy hotel made me a special meal for my food allergies and it was just so much fun to do something completely out of our normal orbits.

  • Lisa Mahoney

    December 2, 2014 at 3:59 pm

    I literally say here and nodded my head while I read the part about how you love to puck out gifts because I’M THE SAME WAY!! I love shopping for gifts!!

  • Lisa Mahoney

    December 2, 2014 at 3:59 pm

    *sat here, not “say here”! Duh!

  • sonia

    December 2, 2014 at 10:10 pm

    My 10 year old daughter, who plays the piano, clarinet, and bass clarinet, is getting an acoustic guitar this year.  Not something she asked for, but something she will LOVE when she opens it.  And who doesn’t want to learn how to play the guitar???

  • Mel

    December 3, 2014 at 1:09 am

    I am wondering if you would ever consider writing a post about the fidget toys you have picked?  It would be really great for gift giver family members who have special snowflakes in their family but need some ideas.  Thanks 🙂

    • Mir Kamin

      December 3, 2014 at 7:10 am

      I never considered that, Mel, but let me think on it! Thanks for the suggestion.

  • suzie

    December 4, 2014 at 8:26 am

    When my kids were in their mid teens, experience gifts were the best. We saw a few Broadway shows that way.

    This year, though, with them a little older, I’m going with cash for at least 1/2 of their gifts. My younger daughter (jr in high school) is fundraising & saving for a school trip this February, and her gift going toward those efforts was the result of a serious discussion about her own sacrifices to make this happen. My older daughter is in college now. Her dorm room is already overly cluttered (her poor roommate). And I don’t provide spending $$ in addition to tuition, so cash is a big deal to her.

    But I still couldn’t do ONLY cash. And I could never skip the stockings.

  • Jennifer

    December 8, 2014 at 11:23 am

    I got an earful not long ago from my middle-schooler about how EVERYONE at her school has a smartphone and they ALL have unlimited, unsupervised access to the internet on said smartphones. They are ALL happy, happy, happy, with perfect happy lives, because of this. My daughter, on the other hand, is the ONLY one withe unreasonable parents who insist on monitoring her internet activities, and refuse to let her have a smartphone. Because of this cruelty, her life is a MISERY to her, full of UNBEARABLE pain. Her life is RUINED, RUINED for ever and ever, amen, because we just don’t UNDERSTAND what it’s like to live in the modern, internet-connected world, instead of old fogies world where we are barely able to grasp the concept of Twitter, much less Instagram.

    In response to which I, cruel and heartless mother that I am, dug my nails into my thigh and bit my tongue simultaneously, because it would not have improved the situation one iota if I had burst into explosive laughter in the middle of her (very serious) explanation of The-Way-The-World-Works. And then I told her, “No.” Again.

    Christmas gifts this year – I’m thinking of getting her a Raspberry Pi. Books always make her happy, and are a bit of a tradition in our family. She’s into drawing, too, so art supplies are another option. And then, just because I am cruel and heartless enough to make her bathe and brush her teeth, I am thinking something in the way of yummy smelling bath stuff. Because, that’s what I live for – making my children lives a burden to them.

    • Mir Kamin

      December 8, 2014 at 2:11 pm

      *fist bump*

      Cruel parents, unite! 😉