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.”

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Carolyn Hax