Adapted from
an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: My older sister has two children, 3 and 5. When I asked what gifts would be appropriate for them, she gave me a couple of ideas with links for both kids, adding, "But they don't really need anything." I purchased two gifts for each child after spending a good deal of thought and care.

Since then, I have visited their home a couple of times and was overwhelmed by the number of stuffed animals and toys both children had. In the end, I never saw the gifts I had given, and when I casually asked my sister if they had received them, she could not recall.

What should I do for the 5-year-old's upcoming birthday? I have considered giving a monetary gift of some sort, but, as my sister and her family are very comfortable financially, I see this as another stuffed animal on top of the pile. I feel odd to not give a gift, but I don't think my sister or my nephew would notice. I love them all very dearly and want my gift-giving to have meaning. Is a simple card okay?

— Childless Aunt

Childless Aunt: This is a huge problem, and not only for kids in wealthier families. The accessibility of stuff is just without precedent, and the kids — good for them, although it’s not necessarily conscious — are responding to the material glut by gravitating to meaning.


(Nick Galifianakis/for The Washington Post)

Plus, that’s the point of gifts anyway: connection. It’s just not as easy now to connect this way.

So, that’s your goal here, to figure out what has meaning to a kid for whom stuff has no meaning.

The card actually gets you closest, but it’s still not there, because he’s 5 and there’s not going to be a ton of connection there to words on a page. If you can write silly poems, that’ll help, though that’s a tall order.

You can also send a card that allows for a recorded message, so you can talk to him. Hit or miss, but it’s at least more human than material.

Or, you can send the “gift” of a ticket to ______ [outing he’d enjoy] one-on-one with you during your next visit. Time with you is of the ultimate value, and investing it when he’s 5 and then steadily thereafter can be meaningful many times over as he grows.

If you’re not confident enough for an outing, then bring a project you do with him, based on his interests. A craft, a model, etc.

Readers’ suggestions:

●Time with you is the ultimate gift for kids. Babysitting is the ultimate gift for parents. Win-win!

●I’d vote for books — a good book that you can read aloud to the little one when you’re there and a picture book he can look at by himself. They’re a great hook for ongoing connection, because you can talk about the books you shared.

●My parents used to send my children a book along with a recording of them reading the same book aloud, and saying, “Turn the page,” at the proper times. My children are grown but still remember when Grandpa read them “The Grinch.”

Write to Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com. Get her column delivered to your inbox each morning at wapo.st/haxpost.

Carolyn Hax