I have been on a quest to find meaning in holiday gift giving. That means I’ve given duct tape or toilet plungers to my adult friends knowing these would be needed all year long, and I’ve given my children homemade PVC marshmallow guns at Christmas. But my favorite gifts came from making memories.

One of the seasonal stresses for me when my children were young was spending money on junky plastic toys. I’d search for the perfect toy to beat all other toys. I also focused on quantity to assure the living room appeared more like the toy store, as I thought that would drive happiness.

I falsely rationalized that the perfect gift would somehow make me the perfect dad. I’d carefully research, buy, wrap and place it under the tree only to watch my child shred the paper, gawk at the toy with amazement, thank me with a special gleam in the eye … and move to the next gift. For about 90 seconds, I felt like parent of the year. Two days later, this amazing feat of parental success would lie on the floor, a plastic piece of junk waiting for me to step on it until I could get it to the garbage. Years later it likely was in some landfill, leaving no memory of the day and no happiness for giver or recipient.

Ultimately, in my journey as a parent, I sought ways to find holiday joy without purchasing large amounts of plastic toys using plastic money. Through trial and error, I found what I think worked and what I offer as an idea for other parents: The gift of giving memories.

Philanthropy 1 – Serving others

I found this difficult for young children to grasp, but I tried it anyway. My plan one holiday season was to have them participate in social service, working the project from development to execution to delivery of the goods to their choice of community organization. Having them completely engage in the process would teach the joy of work and giving, I reasoned. One Christmas they designed and executed a neighborhood canned food drive. They constructed signs, found a collection site, worked the site and managed the contributions. They chose the community organization: a local all-girls home. They were proud and seemed to feel some sense of accomplishment as we packed the car and made the delivery.

Philanthropy 1A – Helping charities

Another year I thought I would help them understand the cost of holiday present-buying, using that as a springboard to understanding the rewards of giving to charity. I created a Christmas gift budget, shared it with them and discussed the percentage we should give to a local nonprofit. They chose a local runaway shelter as the beneficiary. Maybe there was a message there, but in the end they didn’t run away, and we were able to tour the home one morning while delivering the check. This was an amazing experience, but simply writing a check diminished its value, as the only effort was dad and an ink pen.

Value of Memories

Real value for me came a few years later when I decided to give a special father-child trip as a gift to each child. I came to realize I’d been searching for something lasting and personal, and there is no more lasting gift than a happy memory with your child. Some of my favorites:

  1. My daughter and I went to Six Flags for a day of riding roller coasters. She was able to miss a school day, allowing us to skip long weekend lines. She chose to ride only in the front car and pretty much ruled the coasters for a day.
  2. My middle son chose a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert in Florida. This was fun, and also included an overnight trip and missed day of school.
  3. My oldest son and I went to an NFL football game the day after Christmas.

My last father-child Christmas present trip was 10 years ago, but the memories remain as some of the best times spent with my children. We still talk about these experiences, and I hope we will for years to come.

Whether it’s the one-on-one trip or working as a team to give to those in need, the wonderful gift of memories with your children will never go out of style or be tossed in the trash.

By the way, I still do give duct tape as a gift and I can’t help but wonder where all the plastic is.