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Why It's So Hard to Buy Father's Day Gifts

We're procrastinators when it comes to picking gifts for Dad.

If this year is like last, on Saturday there will be nearly twice as many people than on a normal day in June trolling around their local department store looking for something - anything - that will work as a gift for dad. And according to an analysis of Bank of America’s more than 40 million credit and debit accounts, they’ll be at sporting goods stores and liquor stores in significantly higher numbers too. Clearly we’re waiting until the last minute to shop for dad.

As a psychologist, I can tell you that the primary reason for procrastination is not knowing what to do. We’re stumped when it comes to buying for dad and he’s not helping. Booze, brunch and sports equipment have edged out ties and aftershave as perennial favorites, but they’re still cliche.

Most of the dads I’ve interviewed in my research as a consumer psychologist say the same sort of thing when asked what they’d like for Father’s Day. “Oh, nothing” or “I want my kids to be happy” are nearly universal replies. With probing I can get answers like, “a homemade card” or some sort of baked good or meal. Almost never do I get anything specific, be it a shared experience or a shirt, and that helps to explains all that department store meandering and gift card purchasing.

The problem with figuring out what to get dad on Father’s Day is that though dad’s roles are changing, they’re still better givers than takers. The provider, rather than recipient, aspect of being a dad is entrenched (thank you, dads!). Meanwhile, the emotional constraints that previous generations of fathers were stuck with are loosening up and today’s fathers enjoy a greater level of emotional intimacy with their kids. And that’s one of the reasons why people increasingly want to treat dad on Father’s Day, and why Father’s Day is catching up to Mother’s Day in consumer spending. If only we knew what to buy.

There has always been a gulf in consumer spending when it comes to Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. More people celebrate Mother’s Day (85% compared to 77%); they spend more on gifts ($186 compared to $135) and total spending for the Mother’s Day holiday is nearly $24 billion compared to $15.5 billion for Father’s Day. But that gap is narrowing, signaling a change in the role of dads. The amount that Americans intend to spend on Father’s Day this year is up 22% from two years ago. In the same period, Mother’s Day spending increased by only 10%.

Some of the reasons for the disparity in spending are demographic. There are simply more moms: fewer that 20% of single-parent households are run by fathers; and women/moms live longer than men/dads.

But the more significant reason is the enhanced emotional connection that fathers have with their children in today’s more egalitarian households. The socio-cultural shift toward spending more on fathers doesn’t mean that kids love their dads more today - but it does indicate a more intimate relationship where kids know their dads better and fathers are allowed a broader, more personal and intimate role in the household.

But, what to give dad? Drawing on “favorite gifts” fathers I’ve interviewed have received in the past, here are three ideas:

Activities. Men are doers by nature. Doing something dad wants to do with him is a winner. Play his favorite sport with him or help him with a hobby - even if you hate it. I used to “help” my dad with woodworking. Holding those boards steady wasn’t my idea of fun but it sure made him happy and now that he’s gone I wish I could do it one more time.

Food. This is the one thing that the dads I’ve interviewed actually say they want. It’s a triple treat: doing something, yummy food and YOU. Jack’s daughter bakes his “favorite” from-scratch brownies every year. According to Jack, the personal delivery and time spent together are actually better than the brownies. “How can I tell her after all these years that the brownies aren’t that good? I love getting them though.”

Crafts. No matter how old the kid, a homemade card turns most dads to mush. If homemade isn’t your thing, have something made by the clever artisans on Etsy. Winning gifts that people I’ve interviewed have told me about include: a custom knit golf head cover made to resemble the family dog by neetnits, folded book art by Luciana Frigerio and a “couldn’t pick a better dad” guitar pick from C and T Custom Lures.

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