Experiences, not things. That’s becoming a popular proclamation this holiday season, at least on my personal social feeds.

To me, it sometimes feels a little trite and cliche this time of year, and before I get any further I’m going to tell you this is not a post meant to shame you for buying your kids Christmas gifts.

We are,


This post is sponsored by Ask Listen Learn as part of my ongoing ambassadorship with Responsibility.org.

It’s been a stressful few months for all of us and we’re all looking forward to a little normalcy for Christmas. So we’ll be waking up in a house (a rented Air B&B) and there will be actual presents under an actual tree. That won’t take away from the very best gift- the gift of our time and presence- that we’ve given each other this year.

You don’t have to forgo wrapping up toys to get more out of your time with your children, and you don’t have to sell everything and move into an RV to travel full-time!

Instead, I want to share with you this lesson we’ve stumbled through learning since January so you can learn from it without doing anything drastic.

Your presence doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to look like a Hallmark movie. It doesn’t have to be a fancy vacation. Your conversations can feel awkward. You can get frustrated and annoyed that you’re spending time trying to create magical moments and nobody seems interested. You don’t have to enjoy every minute.

I think it’s easier to give our kids material gifts because we can literally wrap them up in a bow. We can mostly predict how they will react when they receive them. We can feel pretty confident that it will bring them, and us, some immediate gratification. And then, happy with their gift, we can feel good when they skip off to play and leave us alone to continue multitasking.

The gift of presence is messier. It may take longer to see the joy that results from it. It’s hard to control. It takes more of our time and energy when we are already running low on both just trying to keep the kids fed and educated and managing life as a family in 2018.

I spent a good portion of this trip at the beginning worrying we were doing this “wrong.” Here we were, showing our kids so many AMAZING places, and we couldn’t get through a visit to a National Park without meltdowns and whining. We had to drag the kids away from their devices, and I would feel stressed about the work I would miss while we were without WiFi connections. It was looking nothing like what I thought it should. It didn’t feel magical. It didn’t feel worth it.

But soon we realized that what mattered was that we showed up, that we tried, that we showed our kids that we can love each other through the messy and the impractical and the imperfect. It mattered that we weren’t going to give up trying to have meaningful conversations with them about things like alcohol responsibility and underage drinking just because they rolled their eyes and asked us to turn up the music. It mattered that they knew we could fight with them and get frustrated with them and we would keep showing up, whether that was with them at National Parks or simply over dinner that night.

You can give your kids those toys they are wishing hard for AND you can show up more for them. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

I realize the sentiment behind “experiences, not things” is mostly about diverting your resources toward vacations and day trips instead of material items. And listen, I totally support scaling back your shopping list this season to decrease the useless junk. But I also realize that not everyone has the luxury of taking vacations, and sometimes a wrapped toy will be more affordable than a day trip or experience somewhere.

You can give your kids presents and also the gift of your presence. It doesn’t have to be a surprise trip to Disneyland or mean taking a day off work to visit the zoo. It can just mean making yourself available more and being willing to talk -more importantly, to listen- about topics that may feel overwhelming and awkward. Let them help with dinner when you have time, read them bedtime stories, go the extra mile to have family game nights or movie nights. And then remember that even if you feel like you stumbled on your words, or it ends up a mess and your kids whine and you would kinda rather be knocking out your inbox, your imperfect presence still matters.