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Why Experiential Gifts Are Perfect for Teens

If you’re like me, pandemic life brought with it a serious side order of decision fatigue. I’ve always suffered from “paralysis by analysis,” but now more than ever I struggle to make the simplest decision. Should I wear my plain black sweater or the plain navy sweater? Should I order the fish tacos or the spicy chicken sandwich? Fries or tots? Those decisions can leave me stuck for several minutes, so I can only imagine the deer-in-headlights look I would have while standing in front of a wall of hoodies and t-shirts at the mall holiday shopping for my teens. Holiday shopping for my teens might make my brain might explode.

Online shopping used to be a good alternative to shopping in person, but you may have heard about this little thing called “supply chain issues.” According to Adobe Analytics, online shoppers saw over two billion out-of-stock messages in October, an increase of over 250 percent since last October. I imagine myself spending 35 minutes picking the just-right hoodie only to see it’s no longer available when I try to put it in my cart.

One way to avoid the disappointment of seeing that dreaded “out-of-stock” message when you go to order the Nintendo Switch is to focus on experiential gifts rather than material items. Here are a few ideas that just might work for my picky teens—or yours:

Experiential Gift Ideas


Does your teen have a favorite sportsball team? Do they know every word of Dear Evan Hansen or every obscure fact about a local band that performs secret shows in the basements of libraries? Do your research, find an event they will love, and then surprise them with tickets. 

As part of our Christmas gifts from my parents, each fall they buy us all tickets to an Iowa State football game. While the team’s overall record is often a disappointment, this experience turns out to be a yearly highlight. My parents, my siblings, and all of our kids meet up for a pre-game tailgate, featuring way too many snacks and lots of raucous laughter. This year we even ended up with a Cyclone victory!

Sharing an event together gives us stories to tell and retell in the coming years. (Like the adventures from the year we had to leave the stadium for a weather delay and huddled in front of the corn dog stand until the game was eventually cancelled.) 

Sure, the money could be spent on tangible gifts, but your teen’s memories from that event will last much longer than yet-another pair of socks or hoodie hanging in the closet.

Time with friends

While we may wish we were still the center of our children’s universe, it’s developmentally appropriate for them to veer towards their friends at this age. So give them time with friends.

Search the web for hotel deals, and book a night for an epic sleepover with a best friend or two. The teens can swim, order pizza, and stay up way too late watching movies. Or plan some time in the summer for a short getaway with friends to a cabin on a lake for swimming/skiing, late nights by a bonfire, and enough memories to get them through the next school year. (Teens should be supervised and have an adult chaperone, of course!)

If sleepovers don’t work in your family, give your teen and their pals a day outing. Go ice skating or skiing, discover a super-fun pinball arcade, or check out a make-and-take art studio. You could even consider renting out a movie theater for a private viewing and lots of popcorn. You will not only make your teen happy, but you’ll also get to know their friends better. I call that a win-win! 


Has your teen expressed interest in learning something new lately? Maybe he’s mentioned a desire to try the ukulele, or maybe she’s wanted to try some kickboxing. Whatever it is, I bet there are lessons or classes available. I live in a vibrant urban area, which means we have access to all kinds of cool and interesting classes: glass blowing, trapeze tricks, makeup application, fencing. However, if you don’t live somewhere with readily-available, in-person classes, take advantage of one of the only positive side effects of the global pandemic: remote learning., for example, offers tons of interactive classes that don’t require leaving your home.

One mom I know paid for some sessions with a personal trainer for her teen. Another signed her teens up for a financial literacy class. (Talk about a gift that keeps on giving!) The benefits of developing new skills and hobbies are gifts that will last long after Christmas Day. If you’re really creative, maybe you can find something your family can do together. (Be careful here, though. Forced Family Fun doesn’t always feel like a gift, if you know what I mean.)

The Gift of Time

Jennifer Baxter and her husband Nate gave their kids “the gift of time” last Christmas. For the past year, one day each month has been set aside as special time for the family of four. From a Broadway show to a quirky museum to a family fun run, each surprise outing also included new restaurants or special treats. According to Jennifer, “It has been the best thing we have ever done. The kids actually asked for it this year.”

We all wish we had more time with our kids (at least most of the time). With busy teen schedules, it might be difficult to spend an entire day together each month, but you can schedule something out of the ordinary that will get your crew excited, even if it’s just for a few hours. And if your teens are anything like mine, they’re easily enticed by the promise of some of their favorite foods. 

I’m avoiding the long checkout lines and disappointing online shopping experiences this season and opting for experiences instead. I know we’ll create new traditions as a family and my teens will discover new interests that will last much longer than the five-second frenzy it takes to unwrap a new hoodie. And my crowded and indecisive brain won’t explode.

Kimberly Witt is an Iowa transplant placing roots in St. Paul, Minnesota. With the help of her husband, she is raising two amazing teenage sons who were born in Ethiopia. She enjoys writing, running, and (surprisingly) helping her sons with math homework. Find her at

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