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When parents want to give something more

By Kelly Wallace, CNN
updated 4:18 PM EST, Thu December 19, 2013
Looking for ways to make the holiday more meaningful than a toy or stuffed animal? Read on for unique gift-giving suggestions from parents around the country.<!-- -->
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</br>Amanda Rodriguez's 5-year-old son spent time at the Children's National Medical Center in Washington earlier this year. To thank the hospital, the <a href='http://dudemom.com/' target='_blank'>Dude Mom blogger</a> had him select gifts to help fill its toy closet for children who won't be home for the holidays. Looking for ways to make the holiday more meaningful than a toy or stuffed animal? Read on for unique gift-giving suggestions from parents around the country.

Amanda Rodriguez's 5-year-old son spent time at the Children's National Medical Center in Washington earlier this year. To thank the hospital, the Dude Mom blogger had him select gifts to help fill its toy closet for children who won't be home for the holidays.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Many parents want to give their kids something more meaningful than another possession
  • Popular ideas include encouraging kids to give back to children who are less fortunate
  • "Gifting experiences rather than items" is another idea gaining traction, moms say
  • Some of the most meaningful gifts include handwritten notes and the gift of time with parents

Editor's note: Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Every year I tell myself the same thing: Next year will be different.

After buying gifts for my girls for each of the eight nights of Hanukkah plus Hanukkah and Christmas presents respectively for my nieces and nephews on each side of the family, I find myself wondering whether any of them really needed another toy or more sports equipment or even a gift card.

I always end up wishing I gave them a gift that they would really remember, something that showed them how to give back, something that sent them a message.

Thankfully, this year, I'm at least thinking about the concept before the holiday season is completely over and taking some action.

READ: Don't panic! Try these gift ideas

While reporting for a story a few months ago on what we can do to end our kids' cell phone addiction, I learned about "Be Present" boxes -- small, wooden, carefully crafted boxes made by a woodworker in Austin, Texas, with simple directions about how to pack away your smartphone and be more in the moment with your family.

I bought three and gave them to my mother-in-law and sisters-in-law, and now I'm buying some for other members of my family. Shhh, don't tell them!

At the same time, I'm incredibly inspired by other unusual ideas that moms around the country, many of whom I know personally or professionally, shared in response to this question: What can parents do when they want to give more this holiday season?

Giving back

Beth Engelman, co-founder of the site Mommy on a Shoestring, decided to do something different this year with her 7-year-old son, Jackson.

They adopted a classroom in downtown Chicago along with other families and were responsible for buying gifts for one boy and one girl, both second-graders like Jackson.

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"Buying gifts for these kids who asked for shoes, clothes and an Easy Bake Oven meant more to me and Jackson than anything we could buy for ourselves," said Engelman, who's a single mom.

"Jackson loved picking out the clothes and toys for the kids, and he felt so happy knowing we were making someone else's holiday special."

READ: Just what do you mean by 'dress festively'?

When Cathy Futrowsky's girls, now 11 and 13, were younger, she asked them to pick out eight (or more) of their things to give away during Hanukkah -- "nice things that were still in good shape but which they had outgrown or in which they lost interest."

"We were trying to teach them about sharing with others, charity and the more mundane idea of cleaning out what you don't need anymore, and learning what to do without versus keeping things with sentimental value," said the Silver Spring, Maryland, mom.

Giving time

Giving to others, moms say, is a wonderful gift to give kids; so is giving them the gift of time with mom and dad.

Tish Howard, a newly retired elementary school principal, wanted to find a way to reciprocate for all the kindness and gifts she received during the holidays from her students.

Four years ago, she came up with the idea to make three "gift" cards for each classroom -- each classroom would be entitled to 45 minutes of her time, which could be spent reading to them, sitting with them during lunch or talking a walk off campus.

"When the kids went home and told (their) parents, I had parents tell me they were duplicating the same gift cards at home," said Howard of Fredericksburg, Virginia, who continues to work with ailing schools as CEO of Edu-Linx Consulting.

"I think we underestimate how much our kids value focused 'you' time because the kids always act like they don't want us around. Don't you believe it!"

"My preteen and teenage grandsons love when Nana comes and we disappear together and just get goofy, eat junk food and ride bumper cars," she said.

The gift of learning

Carmen Jones-Weaks said her 10-year-old daughter has plenty of things from skateboards to video games to Barbies but says her favorite possession of all is her laptop.

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That led Jones-Weaks to come up with the idea of the gift of classes to Black Girls Code, an organization designed to expose young and preteen girls of color to technology and computer programming.

READ: Toy Time: What makes a toy memorable?

"I believe that Black Girls Code is a gift that I can give her that is a boost to her self-esteem and that it helps to empower her with a gift that will last a lifetime, educational without being boring," said Jones-Weaks.

Jen Bosse, a mom of two and host of the site Defining My Happy, said she's noticed that "gifting experiences rather than items" is becoming more popular.

Some people are "opting out of stuff and opting in to creating a memory through exploration whether that be to an educational place like a museum or aquarium or simply to an amusement park," said Bosse, whose kids are 15-months-old and 2 1/2.

"There are so many ways to gift an experience that can teach, be thoughtful and show the positive of reconnecting with family that (is) often much more valuable in the long run than a new set of Legos or a Barbie Dream House."

READ: Help! My cookies are crummy

Lori Garcia, a mom of two in Southern California, said one of the greatest gifts she and her husband have given their kids are lessons, such as in bowling, art, karate or cooking, provided by their community's parks and recreation department.

"Giving them the chance to try out a new skill or hobby, along with the opportunity to meet and socialize with kids outside their regular circles, has been a great way to not only educate and inspire them, but provide them with new experiences that last much longer than the short-lived joy of a new toy," said Garcia of the site Mommyfriend.

After every Hanukkah and Christmas, CNN\'s Kelly Wallace wishes she gave her kids and family something more memorable than toys and clothes.
After every Hanukkah and Christmas, CNN's Kelly Wallace wishes she gave her kids and family something more memorable than toys and clothes.

Devra Gordon, a mom of two in Northern Virginia, makes playlists for her children on the digital music service Spotify during Hanukkah, and they do the same for her.

"The message in the playlists is we are sharing music with one another that means something to us or we feel will mean something to the person for whom we are creating the list," said Gordon, a clinical social worker and co-author of the book "Mommy Guilt."

"Sharing our past and present in music is akin to creating life soundtracks."

The gift of words

Every Christmas, Hanukkah and birthday, Rhona Maulano gives her son, now 25, a book that teaches a lesson and writes an inscription on the inside cover about why the book and its message are important.

The tradition started when her son was 5 with "The Little Engine That Could" and continues through this year with "David and Goliath," she said.

"We even wrote notes like 'Nine things to remember when you're nine,' " said Maulano of Plantation, Florida. "It's so easy to get caught up in the materialism, but you need to make a special point of what holidays are really about."

READ: Six ways to disarm a family dinner

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Susan Shaffer Guess, a mom of two and co-founder of a foundation to fight bullying, says she and her family have been writing notes to each other for several years and leaving them in each other's stockings to read on Christmas morning.

Her girls decided a few years ago to leave the old notes in the stockings and read them each Christmas, she said.

"We laugh at what was written on previous years, particularly when they were younger," said Guess of Paducah, Kentucky. "It always makes me smile, brings a tear to my eyes, and reminds me how much we have to be grateful for."

"It forces us to look beyond the gifts and into our hearts," she said.

Isn't that what the holidays are supposed to be all about any way? Time now to get to work on sharing some of these terrific ideas with my own loved ones. Hope some of these ideas inspire you, too!

Follow Kelly Wallace on Twitter, and like CNN Living on Facebook.

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