Sarah Rasmi Ph.D.

Bridging the Gulf

Time Over Toys

Your presence is the best present this holiday season.

Posted Dec 04, 2018

It's that time of the year: Parents are scouring the Internet and malls for holiday gifts that will put a smile on their children's faces. We have been led to believe that the best way to make our kids happy is to buy them the latest toy or the newest gadget. But that’s not necessarily true. In fact, many studies have found that experiences are better for our mental health and relationships than material goods.

It’s important for us to remember this during peak shopping season, both globally and here in the Middle East. This year, we had Black Friday deals across the region, with some online retailers offering month-long mega-discounts alongside the usual flash sales. Next month, tourists from around the world will visit Dubai to participate in its annual 8-week shopping festival.

Here is something to consider before you hit the mall: People, including children, remember and appreciate experiences more than material goods. Think back to your own childhood: What stands out to you? For most of us, it’s something that our parents did with us rather than something they bought for us. My fondest memories include playing basketball with my dad and traveling with my mom.

This year, consider investing your time into activities with your children, rather than spending money on extravagant gifts for them. They are likely to appreciate and cherish these memories more than any gift that you can buy.

Your presence is the best present this holiday season
Source: adriaticfoto/Shutterstock

Many empirical studies support this point. For example, Batcho, Nave, and DaRin (2011) conducted a retrospective survey of childhood experiences. Their study found that people who had reported a favorable impression of their childhood tended to be more socially connected than those who did not. Similarly, childhood happiness was more strongly related to social as opposed to solitary experiences. Taken together, these findings underscore how important our social relationships are for our well-being.

If you are planning to purchase a gift, then consider an experiential one. A recent study by Chan and Mogilner (2017) found that the social bond between gift-giver and receiver increased when the gift was experiential as opposed to material. This finding supports many other studies, which have found that experiences make us happier than things.

Taking your children on a trip (or a tour of your home country) is one way that you can gift them something experiential. Children who learn about—and are immersed in—different cultures, people, and ideas are more likely to be open-minded, tolerant, adaptable, and creative problem-solvers (Abe, 2018). These are valuable traits in our increasingly interconnected world.

This holiday season is also a great time to explore uncharted territory in your hometown. This includes all of the local attractions that we are often too busy to visit during the year. Take each child to do an activity that you think they would enjoy. For example, artistic children might like the museum, budding musicians should enjoy the opera, and thrill-seekers will probably appreciate a theme park.

Just remember to leave the camera at home (or, use it sparingly). Research shows that we are more likely to remember our holidays when we immerse ourselves in the experience, rather than documenting it from behind a lens (Soares & Storm, 2018).

That being said, you don’t need to travel or go on an excursion to bond with your family. One of the best things about the holiday season is that we get a chance to really reconnect with our families on a regular basis, in some of the most gloriously mundane ways. This can be a welcome change from the hustle and bustle of our daily lives. It is a particularly nice contrast to the frenetic pace of the school and work week.

We can make the most of this family time by disconnecting to connect. To do this, simply put away distractions and really engage with each other. Some families implement technology-free time, which means that phones, tablets, and other gadgets are put away for a predetermined amount of time (e.g., Friday afternoon). Other families prefer technology-free zones, which means that distractions are banned from certain places like the dining table.

Putting away the distractions shows your children—and your partner—that they are important to you. It also allows you to give them your undivided attention and really listen to what they have to say. Talking is a wonderful way to learn more about your loved ones. We all know this, but it’s not always easy to do. The quiet holiday season is a perfect opportunity for us to catch up.

It’s important to note that buying gifts isn’t bad or wrong. I’m not advocating that you forego them all together. On the contrary, your kids will enjoy and appreciate receiving a gift from their wishlist. Just remember to use it with them, while creating other opportunities to connect. After all, your presence is the best present this holiday season.


Abe, J. A. (2018). Personality, well-being, and cognitive-affective styles: A cross-sectional study of adult third culture kids. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 49(5), 811-830. DOI: 10.1177/002202211876111

Batcho, K. I., Nave, A. M., & DaRin, M. L. (2011). A retrospective survey of childhood experiences. Journal of Happiness Studies, 12(4), 531-545. DOI: 10.1007/s10902-010-9213-y

Chan, C.,  Mogilner, C. (2017). Experiential gifts foster stronger social relationships than material gifts. Journal of Consumer Research, 43(6), 913-931. DOI: 10.1093/jcr/ucw067

Soares, J. S., & Storm, B. C. (2018). Forget in a flash: A further investigation of the photo-taking-impairment effect. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 7(1), 154-160. DOI: 10.1016/j.jarmac.2017.10.004