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Priceless Presents That Don’t Cost a Thing

Lunching with a group of friends, all of us 50 and up, the conversation turned to holiday giving. (Of course. It’s that time of year.) “I wish my kids would listen to me,” said Rita. “I know they want to give me and their dad something special. But we know they are hurting financially. We know they love us. We don’t need them to give us things to show it.”

Grace agreed. “My son moved back in with us this year because the only job he could find after college doesn’t pay enough for him to be independent yet. He’s having trouble meeting his car payments. The last thing we want him to do is spend money buying things that we don’t really need.”

Carol chimed in. “I think it’s a way the kids show their love. My daughter really thinks hard about what she gives each of her sisters and us. We are grateful for the effort but I wish she’d figure out that it doesn’t take money to be thoughtful.”

The consensus around the table? We’re all still moms. We’re all still worried about our 20-something kids who are struggling to get on their collective feet. They may be young adults but they are still our kids. We all feel pleased to get presents but guilty knowing that our young adult kids really can’t afford them. And we all covet the gifts that our kids can afford and that we would treasure – their time and some practical help.

Time. One of the pleasures of parenting is to see our kids move out of prickly adolescence and into mature adulthood. They’ve figured out that they don’t have to be angry to assert their own identities. They can afford to allow themselves to be more like us without feeling like they’ve given in. They’re finding partners, discovering what job will give life meaning, and moving into adult responsibilities. Many of them are doing things that weren’t even invented yet when we were young. They’re interesting! And we’re interested. A card with an invitation to hang out, to share an event or activity or meal or to spend a day together is a priceless present.

Dan and his two sons are all sports enthusiasts. Whatever the season, they are up on the teams’ standings and the players. After every major game, they are on the phone to each other, dissecting plays, celebrating wins, and bemoaning losses. An invitation to spend a Sunday evening watching football and eating pizza together means more to Dan than anything money can buy.

Rita describes herself as “clothing impaired.” She has enormous difficulty figuring out what goes with what and how to look like the professional she is. As is often the case, her daughter is her opposite–fashion-conscious and fashion-forward. When her daughter promised to spend a Saturday helping her mix and match clothes, Rita was delighted. The two spent a wonderful morning together sorting out clothes and sharing news and gossip. Rita doesn’t need another sweater. She does need, and very much appreciates, her daughter’s time.

Help. My friends at the lunch table that Saturday are all working at full-time and demanding jobs. Even the most fit among us are starting to slow down a little. Being around 60 does that to a person. Doing the myriad chores of maintaining a house or yard or car is getting harder. An offer to help with some of the heavier chores, to get something fixed, even to make a meal or vacuum the house is like gold. We all need a break from responsibilities and a little time to relax.

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“It would mean so much to me,” said Grace, “if my son would volunteer to make the dinner once a week while he’s living here. Oh, he’s good about doing things I ask. But it would be great to come home now and then to a good meal that I didn’t have to cook.” Carol agreed. “My husband thinks he can still do everything he used to but he’s 68. I worry about him shoveling the snow and doing the yard work. I sometimes call in the kids who live near us to help out and they do try. It would be great if they gave him a “gift certificate” for doing some of the more physically demanding chores. Actually, that would be a two-fer. He’d get some help. I’d get some peace of mind.” A commitment to lend a hand with heavy cleaning, painting a room, cleaning out the garage, doing a Saturday’s worth of errands, or even taking the car for an oil change would mean far more to most of us older parents than another tie or yet another scented candle.

Sure. If adult kids have the means to spoil us, we’re up for some spoiling. And if parents are living on barely adequate fixed incomes and need things, it’s important for their adult children to be as generous as they can. But most of us older parents, especially those of us who are still working, don’t need or want more stuff. Many of us are actively sorting out, throwing out, and giving away in preparation for downsizing to smaller, less expensive housing or just because we are weeding out and simplifying. It’s simply true that as people get older, material things seem to mean less and less.

Yes, we appreciate our young adult kids’ efforts to be thoughtful through gift giving. Yes, we know they feel that it’s an important way to show their love and appreciation for what we have done for them. We also know that they feel bad, even guilty, if they can’t come up with a present during the holidays. But what many of us would like them to understand is that the most meaningful gifts at this stage of our lives are free.

Priceless Presents That Don’t Cost a Thing

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Priceless Presents That Don’t Cost a Thing. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 22, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.