Kids Crave Experiences Over Things

Despite the satisfaction of new experiences, sometimes kids need a helpful push
January 21, 2021 Updated: January 21, 2021

Every January, in the winter wonderland of northern Michigan that we call home, ski season kicks into high gear for our family. Four to five days a week, we are at the ski hill getting exercise and fresh air.

Our girls love skiing. Our twins, now 7, and our eldest daughter, now 10, have been on skis for the past five years. They’re adventurous and love speeding down the hills.

One of the questions we were asked most often before moving to northern Michigan was “What about the winters?”

What about them? It’s one of our favorite times of the year, because we can play in the snow.

We have the opportunity to engage in new and exciting experiences all year long, for which we’re grateful. New experiences are integral to our happiness.

You’ve probably heard about the research that shows that adults derive more happiness from spending their money on experiences than they do on things. Unlike material possessions that are satisfying at first, but quickly lose their luster, experiences get better over time.

Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University, conducted a study in which he asked people to report their happiness with major material or experiential purchases. Initially, people rated them about the same. Over time, however, their satisfaction with material objects decreased while their satisfaction with experiences increased.

Gilovich explains that our experiences become a much bigger part of our identity than our possessions.

“You can really like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless, they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences,” he said.

The conclusions of this research ring true for my wife Heather and I.

Kids Value Experiences …

It turns out that the same inclination toward experiences over things holds true for kids. According to a recent study conducted by professor Cindy Chan from the University of Toronto, kids get much more out of an experience than they do from all of the stuff (toys, electronics, etc.) they clamor for, but quickly lose interest in.

Research shows that memories born out of experiences form emotional “anchors” that give kids comfort during tough times, they promote brain development, and they help forge close bonds between family members.

… But They Often Need a Push

Despite the obvious and scientifically proven benefits of experiences over things, they’re not always appreciated by kids. They often need a push—which is obvious to any parents, ourselves included, who struggle to get their kids away from television and tablet screens.

Which brings us back to skiing.

Our local ski hill hosts a racing program, in which kids from the ages of 5 to 12 compete in slalom and giant slalom racing. While our kids love to ski, and are good at it, in past winters they have been hesitant to race. Their hesitance can best be summarized as anxiety about not being able to keep up with some of the more skilled and experienced racers.

We knew they would enjoy the experience, and would quickly improve their skills by competing with kids better than them, so we not-so-gently nudged them to try it.

There was some pushback, and we would have relented had they expressed a really strong desire not to race, but they begrudgingly agreed. We told them to give it a try for one race and they could back out if it wasn’t for them.

They all competed and can’t wait for more. They were buzzing from the experience.

It’s never easy to push kids out of their comfort zones, but the payoff is worth it. It’s the only way that most kids will stretch themselves and build resilience.

Jay Harrington is an author, lawyer-turned-entrepreneur, and runs a northern Michigan-inspired lifestyle brand called Life and Whim. He lives with his wife and three young girls in a small town and writes about living a purposeful, outdoor-oriented life.