We always think of gifts in terms of things – things we buy and wrap and give to our children. But clinical psychologist Michelle Nortje says there are at least 10 things you can give your child that will be far more meaningful, and they won’t cost a cent!

Receiving gifts can make us feel special and thought about. But these gifts don’t necessarily need to cost money in order for them to be meaningful.

Buying your children the latest and brightest toy may bring about short term enjoyment, but eventually those toys become discarded as something newer and shinier is advertised. What children really need are the vital gifts of time, love, memories and experiences.

Here are a few ways to show your children how much you care for them, without it having to cost money.

1. The gift of one-on-one attention

In our busy, everyday routines it becomes easy to forget to spend time together. Spending special time with our children without the distractions of television, computer games, cell phones and tablets is necessary for children’s emotional and social development.

A child who feels seen and thought about will have better self-esteem and will be better equipped for making friends and being in relationships. By spending time with your child – in conversation or play – you are sharing with them the gift of listening and being listened to.

Even 20 to 30 minutes of special time a day can make a difference to your child and your relationship with them.

2. The gift of affection

It’s important for children to know they are loved. Hugs, kisses, and saying, “I love you,” and “You are important,” are ways you can show your child you care for them. Children may sometimes misbehave, but they need to learn that their parents will love them, even if they may not approve of their behaviours.

Affection is especially important for smaller children at times of separation; getting dropped off at school, or before bedtime, are times when rituals of affection and love are most significant.

3. The gift of curiosity

Children nowadays do not always have enough freedom and flexibility to create their own games and use their imagination. Curiosity is the cornerstone of learning. Helping your children to be curious about their environment allows them to explore and have adventures in their imagination and to respect and admire their immediate environment.

For example, the gift of a flower from the garden, a bird’s feather, sitting under the falling orange leaves of autumn, splashing in a puddle of rainwater, or searching for colourful butterflies and bugs in the summer months are all beautiful gifts from nature, already waiting for you!

4. The gift of health

A sweet or food treat is special and delicious! But, only offering food treats

as a replacement for your time is not going to satisfy your child’s needs and cravings for a relationship with you. Children who rely on gifts of unhealthy food treats may in time develop difficulties regulating their bodily sensations of hunger and fullness because their physical needs have become confused with their emotional needs.

The gift of a consistent mealtime is a more helpful way to connect with your child and to help them learn about what keeps them healthy and full of energy. Mealtimes should be spent as a shared space as a family, again without the distraction of technology.

Shared mealtimes offer a time for you to ask about your child’s day and for them to learn about your day as well.

5. The gift of playfulness

As parents you may sometimes feel that all you do is discipline or moan or set limits. This can feel emotionally depleting for both you and your child.

It is vital to balance your role as disciplinarian with your role as playful companion. Playing imaginative games with your child helps to stimulate a secure bond, allows your child to make sense of any tricky emotional problems they may have encountered in the day, and allows for laughter as a necessary stress reliever. Play is a child’s natural mode of communication and sense-making.

Games may differ depending on the age of your child. Board games, building puzzles, colouring in, playing dress-up, soccer or catch, or telling jokes are just a few ways to play with your child on their level. This is also so important because your child can see first-hand that they bring you joy!

6. The gift of sharing of yourself

Children learn about who they are by learning about their family, their history and their culture. Telling your child about who you are, showing them photographs of your life, and stories about when you were growing up helps them to feel a part of the family and to build up a sense of belonging and identity.

As a child learns that you were also once a child who had to grow up to become an adult, they can model your actions and so become effective and appreciated members of their family and community.

In many cultures sharing particular poems, songs or mythical stories is exciting for children and teaches them certain values and life lessons.

7. The gift of acknowledgement

‘Please’, ‘thank you’, ‘well done’, ‘good try’ … these are just a few important phrases to offer your child as praise and encouragement.

Parents often remind their children to use the magic words of ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, but as parents you also need to remember them. A child whose interests, efforts and achievements are acknowledged with words, not things, is more likely to persevere when there are obstacles and trust in their own abilities. These external gifts of encouragement soon become an internalised sense of motivation and self-esteem.

8. The gift of interest

Each child is unique and has their own set of strengths and weaknesses. As a parent it’s important to honour, treasure, celebrate and nurture those strengths! If your child enjoys cooking, for example, let them assist you with the evening meal with an age-appropriate task. Building your child’s self-esteem is an easy task if you show interest in their interests.

9. The gift of safety

One shouldn’t have to mention this gift, but many children in our country feel unsafe much of the time, both at home and at school. Safety and protection should not be a gift but a right and expectation.

A child who feels safe is more able to fulfil their potential, be curious and able to concentrate and learn, build healthy relationships and trust in their own capacities.

Safety is about providing adequate supervision, showing interest and acting if a child reports being bullied or abused. It’s also about allowing ample space for a child to feel they can come to you with trust with their feelings, and that their experiences will be taken seriously. On the other hand, a child who feels unsafe in their world shows signs of withdrawal, having fewer friends, being irritable, not being able to concentrate or not sleeping well.

10. The gift of creativity

This gift is closely linked to the gift of playfulness. When spending time with your child you can foster their natural ability to create. This does not need to be a costly activity. Old cans, yoghurt tubs, string, fallen leaves, pebbles, and other ‘found objects’ can be turned into a princess’s crown, a magic wand, an aeroplane or a treasure chest.

Your child’s imagination is their most prized possession, and this gift opens up many new worlds and experiences for them.

Sometimes children love to make their parents or teachers gifts as well, whether it be a card or paper plane. These gifts from your children, which also do not need to cost money, should be valued and celebrated. It means the world to a child when Mom or Dad appreciate their latest drawing masterpiece so much that it gets pride of place on the kitchen fridge!

You may have noticed that each of these gifts are also important values that as parents you may hope to instil in your child. These gifts are not discarded when they become worn, and cannot break like a plastic car. These are gifts that become a part of who your child is and will become, and are therefore lasting treasures of immeasurable worth.

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