Last-minute gifts that don’t have to cost anything

December 1, 2015 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

gift box

For once, I’d like our tree-selection process to look like a scene from a Hallmark Christmas special.

In my movie version, we all pile into the car for the short drive to a tree farm. A few light flurries swirl around us as we traipse through the snow, bundled in our colorful scarves and winter jackets. My husband is carrying the handsaw he’ll use to cut down the perfect tree that we know is waiting for us just at the edge of the clearing. Someone breaks into song, and we link arms, watching as he quickly detaches the tree from its stump. He slings it over his shoulder and we nearly skip back to the car, excited to decorate this natural wonder.

The real version is typically quite different.

“Stop leaning against me,” comes a wail from the back seat of the car.

“You’re the one who’s taking up too much space,” another retorts, and we begin what seems like an endless trip to the tree farm just a few miles from our house.

We fall out of the car to discover one child forgot gloves, another is wearing a coat that screams fashion-not-function, and the third wants to know if we’re taking the Christmas card picture today. I grab my camera from the car as the flurries turn to a slight drizzle, and we slop through the slush toward a section of pre-cut trees. (We gave up on cutting down our own several years ago when we realized the experience was nothing like the movie version.)

If one picks a tall one, the other picks a wide one. The third will insist the tree with the gaping hole at the bottom is perfect – we can turn that part toward the wall.

“We are not taking the Christmas card picture today,” I hear as I attempt to capture this moment of family history on camera.

Somehow, we manage to get a tree tied to the roof and drink our free (lukewarm) hot chocolate before piling back into the car for the memorable ride home.

My children laugh about the tree-buying experience now. “We can never agree,” one said as they recently recounted mishaps of Christmas tree-buying trips past.

And yet, they wouldn’t forego the tradition for anything. This year, we’ve waited for our oldest daughter to return home from college before we trek to our local tree farm, pick out a pre-cut tree, and decorate it together, as a family.

Reminiscing about tree-buying experiences made me think about gifts we can all give our kids that cost us little in money, mostly in time; ways to create memories, instill lessons and establish traditions.

You may not wrap them and place these presents under the tree, but I guarantee these are gifts your children will treasure long after the last pine needle has been vacuumed off the carpet. (Which means they’ll remember them forever, because that’s how long it takes to vacuum up all those needles, no matter how hard you try.)

A love of reading.

Reading can be one of the most influential gifts you give a child, as research shows it helps children do well in school. Reading with children promotes literacy, encourages language development, raises reading levels, improves attention span and develops listening skills. Reading to older children reinforces lessons about grammar and correct sentence structure. And you can read anything with words on it: cereal boxes, store signs, a daily newspaper or a website that focuses on a topic of interest to your child.

Curiosity about the world around them.

Help your child develop a passion for learning and you open up the world to them. When you are curious and excited about learning, your child will model your enthusiasm. Whether it’s trying a new computer program, putting together a model race car or attempting a new cookie recipe, you can spend time with your child and foster an inquisitive mind. (Plus you’ll have something yummy to eat if you bake cookies.)

Acknowledgement of their individuality.

Children have different personalities, possess different strengths, develop differently and require different kinds of support to meet their individual needs. By acknowledging and accepting their individuality, you can help your child become more confident and have greater self-esteem. They will also realize that they have a unique set of gifts and talents to share with the world.


The late psychologist Rudolf Dreiicurs once said, “Children need encouragement like a plant needs water.” Encouragement helps a child grow and flourish. Words of praise that focus on effort rather than a grade encourage children to continue to work hard.


Children need for us to be supportive, but they also need us to tell them we care about and value them. They need to hear they are loved, no matter what.


Laughter is one way to connect as a family. Share jokes, play games or watch a funny movie together. Or, go pick out a Christmas tree (which, apparently, can be a great source of amusement). Laughter also makes us feel good, and who doesn’t want to feel good?


You cannot wrap it in a box or put a bow on it. You can’t return it or exchange it for something different. When you spend it with a child, you get and give an invaluable gift – memories that create the foundation of who we are and who we become. Giving your time tells your child, “You are important to me.”

Maybe your holiday won’t be the makings for a Hallmark movie either. But the traditions and lessons you share can bind your children to their past and create powerful memories for their future. And that’s a gift you can’t put a price on.

UPDATE – Dec. 2015

December 2014 did not prove to be the year – my expectations were quickly dashed when we pulled up to the seemingly deserted tree farm five days before Christmas. Gone was the hustle and bustle of families choosing trees, chatting with Santa and visiting reindeer. A few employees remained to oversee the scraggly trees – none of which received unanimous approval but one we ultimately settled on.

We opted this year to make our tree excursion the first weekend in December, when our oldest was home for a family event. When we arrived at the tree farm in this unseasonably warm December, I had zero expectations. And then, the movie reel began to roll. They talked, they laughed. They shared memories. It was magical.

The lesson? Never lose hope. Revel in unexpected moments. Delight in little things.

P.S. We even got the Christmas card picture.

Karen Nerney has been a communications specialist with Capital Region BOCES since 2011. Mom to two daughters, 19 and 17, and a son, 11, she looks forward to replaying her family’s idyllic Christmas-tree-buying experience as she addresses envelopes for the best-ever Christmas card.

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