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If you're an aunt or grandparent who always brings treats or small gifts to the children in your life, you may be unintentionally creating problems for the kids down the line.

Last week I went to a nearby Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft to buy a book of brain teasers from the dollar section (60 cents with coupon – an inexpensive stocking stuffer for a young relative). An older woman was visibly fretting as she picked things up and put them down.

“What do you buy for someone who already has everything?” she asked me.

Seems that her two granddaughters, ages 4 and 6, drop by fairly regularly. Some time ago she started buying little gifts for each visit, and now she’s wishing she hadn’t. Although the first thing they want to know when they cross the threshold is what they’re getting, they often don’t even bother to take the items home.

I gently asked if it were stressful always to have to come up with a new and exciting gift. She nodded, then shrugged and said, “But they expect it.”

Oh boy.

Maybe you’re in the same pickle. Maybe you’ve become the Disneyland auntie or the grandparent who always brings treats or small gifts to the small people in your life. Not only does this get expensive, it may create problems for the kids in the long run. (More on that below.)

Expectations are made, not born, and behavior can be modified. I promise that children will not be irreparably scarred if visits don’t always include a door prize – especially if you replace physical goodies with gifts of time.

Not just occupying the same space, mind you. Sitting on the sofa while they watch movies or play video games is, technically, time spent with the children. But they could get that anywhere (and maybe already get plenty of it at home).

When my nephews come over we generally reprise the Café Awesome game. Not only does it make ordinary snacks more fun, it’s reinforcing the basic cooking skills their mom has been teaching. This is a great lesson for financial independence: These young men will have the tools for healthier eating (and saving a ton of money) by being able to cook at home vs. always eating out.

So why not try a simple cooking project with your little friends? When my younger nephew was 6, he made a skillet of cornbread from scratch, even reading the recipe card himself. The sense of accomplishment was great, and the hot-from-the-oven snack was even better.

Building skill sets

Or how about these quality-time options:

2. Garden together. Set aside a patch just for your little friend and let him or her choose what will grow there. Condo-bound? Do a container garden with something fun like cherry tomatoes or Thumbelina carrots. Note: Kids are a lot more likely to eat their vegetables if they have a hand in producing them.

3. Pick fruits or vegetables. This summer my nephews liked pulling and eating sugar snap peas and helping me pick raspberries. They also picked feral raspberries with their mom and me. Last weekend and they helped DF pull our small crop of carrots, which was great fun (and over much too soon, in their opinion). If you don’t have a garden or a place to glean fruit, visit one of those you-pick farms. Again: Kids are more likely to enjoy fresh food if they’ve participated in its growing or gathering.

4. Do chores. A 3-year-old who’s given a feather duster and, later, praise for a job well done is a happy 3-year-old. Older kids can be given more responsibility: running the vacuum, folding towels, drying dishes. Maybe it wouldn’t be their first choice of activities, but hearing “thanks for your help getting all this done” can be a source of pride. It doesn’t hurt to point out those efforts to their parents: “See how nice the yard looks after Junior and I raked all the leaves? He worked really hard.”

5. Build a hideaway. Maybe that’s a tree fort constructed with scrap lumber and pallets you got from The Freecycle Network, or a “tent” that you make by throwing a sheet over the kitchen table. Make-believe is easier when you have a pretend place into which to disappear.

6. Play a board game. Go to the thrift store and find stuff you used to play (Parcheesi, Scrabble) or games you never heard of (Would You Rather … ? or Pictionary). Resist the impulse to let them win every time. Learning to lose graciously is what my dad would call “a useful life skill.”

7. Take a walk. Make it a noticing kind of stroll – look for the first dandelions, or the brightest autumn leaves, or the most interesting clouds. Propose taking pictures of, say, all dogs or flowers seen on the walk (but if Junior is a butterfingers, better hang on to the camera or smartphone yourself). If you notice any coins, pick them up and save them until you have enough to donate to a local food bank. (Being able to think about the needs of others is a really useful life skill.)

Lively times, lively arts

8. Write a letter. Sit down and compose a note to a far-away relative, or the president of the United States. Or make a holiday card together and drop it off at a nursing home or long-term care center, asking that it be given to someone who never gets any mail.

9. Go outside. Skip stones on a pond, or skate on it during the winter. Fly a kite. Build a snowman. Play a game of follow the leader. Teach them to play jacks or hopscotch.

10. Read to them. I can’t think of a better way to encourage a love of reading. Ask the children’s librarian for recommendations. Alternately, let the child read to you. Not only does he get to show off his new skill, he gets to share a great story. If your library has reading nooks or platforms, sit down right away with your new finds.

11. Tell stories. Kids who love being read to will likely adore stories that come out of your own head or from your childhood experiences. Bonus points for making the child a central character in your tales. Or make up a story together: You start, and then hand off the plot line to the child(ren) in the room.

12. Create art. Stir up a batch of homemade modeling clay and sculpt all afternoon. Finger-paint. Decorate any paper bags you have in the house. Illustrate one of those stories you made up and make a book. The Internet has approximately 6 zillion creative ideas for art, so start surfing.

13. Make music. Sing together, either accompanied or a cappella. Teach them the songs you sang when you were a kid. Singing makes chores go by much faster, by the way.

14. Put on a show. Are the kids taking ballet or Suzuki classes? Be the audience. Be the appreciative audience. Make a point to praise their effort vs. their innate fabulousness, though. (“I’m proud that you work so hard at this” rather than “You’re the smartest little girl in the world – that’s why you can play the violin when you’re only 5 years old!”) Otherwise you might set them up for problems later on, researchers say.

An addiction to novelty

Speaking of problems later on: That grandma at Jo-Ann’s should rethink her well-intentioned gifts. I understand the impulse. She probably wants their time together to be magical.

Magic doesn’t always mean materialism, though, and it’s a mistake to get the kids hooked on the thrill of wondering what they’re getting this time. Or, more to the point, hooked on the idea that they deserve something just for showing up.

This early addiction to novelty could become an inability to be satisfied with anything for very long. Something new, something unknown, something really exciting could always be at the next mall – but once they have it, the item quickly loses its charm. What’s new is suddenly old.

If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the road to insolvency is littered with credit card receipts. So do your kids/grandkids/godkids/whomever a big favor and don’t give them too much. That is, unless you’re talking about time and attention. That stuff never gets old.

More on DonnaFreedman.com:

Stacy Johnson

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