Gift giving is a popular pastime all throughout the year, with a special importance for many people at this time of year. Hopefully we are able to temper our tendency towards consumerism and focus more on quality over quantity, but it can still add an element of stress to our interactions. Will they like the gift? Does this gift show how much I care about the recipient? All of those are potential anxiety-provoking situations, not to mention the general frenzy that can accompany visiting stores or sifting through hundreds of pages on screens.
Giving a gift to a youngster can put even more pressure on the gift-giver because of the ever-changing desires and fads which influence a developing mind. It’s hard to know if the wish list they gave to us a month ago will even match their true desire when it comes down to the day they receive their gifts! Harder still is knowing what’s truly age-appropriate especially if you are giving to a child or relative with whom you rarely interact. A recent study enlightens us about what may indeed be the best gift choice for children based on age—and it’s not something you’ll find in a toy catalog.
Based on research which can be found in the International Journal of Research in Marketing, we don’t need to focus on material items for children past the age of 12. A child’s cognitive development stage can clue you into what will benefit them the most and finds two distinct categories: children aged 3-12 years old and those older than 12 years old.
Researchers compiled information from four studies which found that when it comes to gift giving, memory and theory of mind in the brain determine the child’s happiness and satisfaction with what they receive. Both material items and experiences are important to both age groups but in different ways. Children from 3-12 years old derive more pleasure from material items, but older children get more out of the gift of experiences. The younger children also enjoy experiences, but the best way to show appreciation for an adolescent in your life is to give the gift of experiences.
The reason older children are able to enjoy experiences more is down to the stage of brain development that occurs past age 12 because of these two cognitive factors (memory and theory of mind). A developing memory in a child younger than 12 means that they can’t easily locate memories of their gifts. Instead, they rely on having a physical reminder (material item) in their space to help them consolidate the attachment of a pleasant memory with the possession. The memory of older children is developed to a point where they can remember experiences without a physical cue.
To help younger children who are gifted with experiences, creating photo albums of the vacations, trips to the museums, hikes, park dates, birthdays, and holidays can help them make the shift from a younger memory to that of an adolescent.
Whatever time of year or occasion you find yourself giving gifts, remember the greatest gift you can give to a child is your presence.
Chaplin, L. N. (n.d.). Age differences in children's happiness from material goods and experiences: The role of memory and theory of mind. International Journal of Research in Marketing. Vol 37, Issue 3, pg 572-586. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijresmar.2020.01.004