A Stuff Free Birthday for your Tween or Teen. It is possible.

When you take the time to think about it, what is it that truly makes you the most happy?  Is it the stuff you own or the experiences you have? If you give your older kids a chance to reflect, it’s likely they'll give the same answer. 

Most children have rooms full of stuff they rarely get time to use.  Do they need more? Will more make them happier? Would you consider doing a stuff free tween/teen birthday?  If you follow through,  you may find that both you and your child learn a lot from the experience.

The Yearly What's On Your Birthday List Discussion

As my middle child was approaching her 10th birthday I started to think about what we’d give her.  What presents we’d buy? And in that moment, as I began to brainstorm a shopping list… it hit me.  She didn’t actually need anything.  She already had so much.  And not enough time to use it all.  On top of that, if I’m totally honest, a big chunk of the stuff she had she really didn’t need.

She has a cupboard full of games, more than 10 sets of clothes and enough stationary to equip her entire class.  We’ve got a house full of instruments, skateboards and a unicycle.  Don't even mention the Xbox that’s rarely touched. 

I chatted to her about it as well.  What did she have on her ‘list’?  What was she hoping for?  She struggled to think of something.Taking a step back and thinking about it sensibly the whole conversation seemed ridiculous.  

We were both coming up with ideas for the sake of it. 

We often give presents for the sake of having stuff to unwrap.  Why? 

Because that’s what you always do on your birthday isn’t it?  Get stuff.  Open presents.   And, if your children are like mine, traditionally you give them one big present and a bundle of little presents. Big stuff and little stuff.  ‘Just something little for them to open!'

I’ve always liked the idea of not buying too much stuff for the kids.  But I have to admit, historically I've caved in. You're only small once....

But this time I decided to be strong.  So, for  my daughters 10th birthday I committed.   I was determined to go stuff free.   And this intention turned into the No Stuff Birthday Challenge

Why Do a No Stuff Birthday Challenge?  

Well first, let’s take a step back.  The answer lies at the heart of the minimalism and simple living movement.  Of course, I can't give the movement justice in this article.  There are books, blogs and podcasts devoted to minimalism and buying less stuff. 

But let's just run the 30-second version here.  If we habitually give stuff to our kids for their birthdays, what is it teaching them?  That stuff makes us happy?  That you can be cool if you own certain things or clothes?  That people might like us more if we have fashionable things?

And of course, stuff saps our time and our money.  We have to look for it, shop for it, wrap it, take it back if it’s broken, clean it, find somewhere to put it, fix it and organise it.  

It means we spend less time with people we love.

7 Simple Ideas for a No Stuff Birthday for your Tween/Teen

So if you do a no stuff birthday what do you give?  How can you celebrate their special day?  This list gives some ideas. It's not exhaustive, you're sure to come up with others.

1. Bigger Experiences (often a little more expensive)

These experiences may benefit family and friends - not just your child.

  • Tickets to a the theatre, a pop concert, a big city musical or an international ballet
  • A day out to a theme park, zoo or other tourist attraction
  • Tickets to a big sporting event or outdoor festival

Make sure you make a big deal of these experiences.  Wrap the ticket in a box.  Have a treasure hunt. Be creative here.

2. Adventure Experiences

Organise an experience that's a bit out of the box.  Something that may require a bit of bravery. Looking forward to it and preparing emotionally is also part of the present. A good start is to consider activities a tourist would do in your area.  Google 'adventure activities in 'name of your city/town'  You might come across things like these:

  • Rock climbing, rafting, canoeing
  • Ice skating, abseiling 
  • Whale watching
  • Powerboating, paintball, lazertag

3. Enrolment for a course or lessons

Lessons will extend a birthday.  Of course most children do one or more regular after school activities.  We’re talking about something unique here.  Something they wouldn’t ordinarily expect to do.You never know,  the lessons might introduce your child to a hobby they decide to pursue long term.

Check out what unusual lessons are available where you live.  A quick Google search in my hometown revealed heaps of interesting courses & programs:

  • Harmonica, ukelele or DJ-ing 
  • Photography, pottery, art lessons
  • Surfing, sailing, skateboarding, cheerleading, rock climbing
  • Parkour, trampolining, circus skills
  • Jewellery making or sewing.

4. Budget Family Mini Break

This is one of my favourites.  You can all enjoy this.  The lower the budget you set, the more creative you will need to be. Pretend you’re backpacker and think of the places they would go for a mini break near you.  Where would they stay? How would they get there? Copy their frugal way of living.

  • Camping or holiday park cabin
  • Budget guest house
  • Back packers/a family room in a youth hostel

Don't do what you always do.  Kids love doing things differently.  If you usually drive - instead plan to take the train or a bus.   Ditch the big suitcase, take only enough luggage that you can all carry easily on your back. 

5. Charity Gift That Gives to Others

Regardless of what you give, try and make sure that you always include a gift that gives to others. Choose something your child will connect with.  Items like school supplies, blankets or a cow are things children can relate to.     

The gesture is likely to have more impact if your child receives a card clearly explaining the gift they have given.  The following charities are some of my favourites for that reason.   They allow a child to connect with the cause.  NB: You may need to switch to the site for your country.

One Girl - Gifts That Don't Suck

Oxfam Unwrapped

Unicef Inspired Gifts

Pollinate Energy - Cards That Count

Global Giving Gift Cards

World Vision Gifts - Life Changing Gifts

6. Local experiences

A day out in your local area. Where would suggest tourists visit in your town?  Think art galleries, parks, natural sites and museums.  Lunch or dinner at a tween/teen friendly spot.

7. Mini experience ‘vouchers'

You can have some pretty awesome experiences at home.  Toasting marshmallows around the fire pit or a home movie night with popcorn.  Home delivery and family game night.

Be selective with the people you ask to join in

Some of your friends and family will totally get where you’re coming from.  They won’t think you’re rude if you ask them to give a charity gift or an experience.  

There will be some people that who you may not feel comfortable asking.  That’s ok.  Just go with who you feel will respond positively and contribute to the experience for your child.

Discussion starters to have with your child 

It’s ok for you to have the no stuff birthday in your head and to understand the benefits.  It’s another thing for your child to embrace it.

I introduced the idea gradually with my kids.  They were already aware we were being careful with the amount of stuff that came into our house on a daily basis.  But, the stuff free birthday hadn’t been discussed.

Now you're about to be  a double digit we know you can start to think about what's really important:

  • If we think hard about it, is it our stuff that brings us the most happiness or is it the things we do?
  • If you use all your money to buy stuff you have less money to do fun things.
  • Stuff often breaks, or gets lost. This makes us sad and uses up valuable time.
  • You have to tidy up your stuff and keep it organised.  
  • Experiences live on for a long time.  If you have a look at our family photos you can see that our happy times are when we’ve done things - with our family and our friends.
  • There are many people in the world who have hardly any stuff but are very happy
  • Instead of getting lots of stuff just we could think about giving something to someone who needs it.  Giving feels good. And feeling good is important.
  • We don’t all need to own one of everything.  Its fun to share stuff.  For example if we don’t have a game we can borrow it from our neighbours and we can lend them ours. How many sets of Monopoly do we really need in the same street sitting in cupboards, waiting to be played?

Question: Do you think you could be brave and do a  ‘stuff free’ birthday for your tween or teen?  What would you get them instead?   

Further Reading

My favourite writer on minimalism Joshua Becker writes a straightforward  article regarding stuff  -  9 Reasons Why Buying Stuff Doesn’t Make You Happy.  Worth a read before you embark on the stuff free challenge.