Perhaps this sounds familiar: You’re a father with a kid who has everything he or she needs and most of what he or she wants. You feel a bit helpless as the Christmas present frenzy escalates. You don’t know what to get and you feel as though you’ve bought enough already. The whole gift-giving exercise starts to feel obligatory rather than joyful. You’re doing it just to do it.
Believe me, I’ve been there. As the father of three, I know that feeling. I also know a way to handle it.
I was managing this frustration a few years ago — or, more exactly, struggling to manage it — when I decided it was time for a major-league change. Forget the gifts that bring a sugar-high joy but are discarded in a month. I was going to give them items that had staying power. Of course, this required me to figure out what thoughtful, inexpensive gifts would endure for years. That’s a decent amount of pressure, but I’m happy to report that I nailed it. Here are the two presents that I came up with — the two presents that saved Christmas.
The Year in Review
Every kid produces a record. And by that I mean: schoolwork, art drawings, and photos from the soccer season, winter swim meets and the family vacation as well as detritus in the form of a program from the college football game, an Earth Day report with glued leaves and twigs, report cards, and a community newspaper article with his name in it. This stuff accumulates. So, the day after Thanksgiving, I rummage around the house, gathering up all this kid flotsam and then carefully sorting it, making a stack for each kid. Photos and other docs on my computer get printed out.
Then, I painstakingly placed the items in plastic sheet protectors to each added a whimsical note. All was inserted in a three-ring binder for each kid, on which the front was written, “The Year in Review.” Yeah, it’s a scrapbook, but with the items curated for maximum joy and inspiration and laughs.
And the binders are the hit of our Christmas. They aren’t just a material thing – they are a record of time’s passage. They gain value over time rather than losing it. The Year in Review has been a staple in our house for 16 years now. There’s a library of these things. As my kids got older, one year set the bar for the next, and they kept raising the bar. The accomplishments became more important, the events more momentous, the memories stronger, the stakes higher. The binders became constant and colorful reminders of what they had achieved and that they were loved.
When my eldest, out of college, was at home packing his gear for a Naval deployment in the Far East, I offhandedly asked him what he was taking. “Volume two,” he said simply. “If I get homesick, I can pull it out.”
The Saturday Bleacher Report
Most Dads know it takes effort to spend unrushed and undistracted time with your son. You’re grinding at work all week, your kid is at school, there are after-school activities, he’s got homework and now its 8PM and you’re already thinking about tomorrow. It’s the iron grip of family schedule. So here’s what I do. I download three copies of a blank office calendar for the next year, having done some primitive artwork on each with colored pencils, distribute them on Christmas Day.
Each of my kids is assigned a series of Saturdays and informed that they’ll be spending three morning hours with me. We go running or play catch or get breakfast or all of the above. Also, we talk. There are zero distractions. Phones are left in car. And because it’s on a calendar — the least ignorable document there is — we’re committed to it. It’s a way for us to give each other time.
Over the years, it becomes a bigger present because time gets more precious. My youngest kid was home from college over this past Thanksgiving and I’ll let you guess where Saturday found us….
The point of these presents is to look backward and forward. To appreciate the time you have together and to apply focus to that time — to value it highly not only in retrospect but in anticipation. My children didn’t ever need more stuff. They needed more of me. And I needed more of them.
Jeff Nelligan is the father of three sons and author of Four Lessons From My Three Sons: How You Can Raise Resilient Kids. He is a longtime Congressional aide and writer.