Teenagers’ tastes can be pretty darn specific. My 16-year-old gives me wish lists detailed right down to product links and SKU numbers. But we all know that teens have other needs, too—and paying attention to where they are developmentally can turn up some surprising (non-gift card!) ideas:
1. Give together time (with a friend).
Doing special 1:1 things with you can still be a winner—but so is this idea: an activity designed with a friend in mind.
WHY IT’S GREAT: Teens are all about their BFFs—for social validation, for security, for helping them eke out their own identities. That’s why they’d rather hang out with their friends than anyone in the world. And a pile of studies shows that experiences bring more happiness than things.
Along those lines, try giving:
- Outside fun: Wrap a pair of passes for a day of skiing, horseback riding, an amusement park, or a paintball facility—ideally somewhere beyond their usual allowance limits.
- Two tickets to a concert or sports event: Check local listings for something happening in the coming month or two. Go for the artist or team you know your kid and his or her gang are talking about.
- Dinner for two: Some teens actually like dressing up and eating out at a place a little nicer than Taco Bell.
- A shopping spree: You set the spending limit and throw in lunch nearby to make it all feel very grown-up.
2. Give a (sneaky) stress reducer.
What these next ideas have in common, in a subtle way: They help kids chill.
WHY IT’S GREAT: It’s no secret that teen stress is way too high. Anything we can do to lower the pressure helps raise happiness and cuts the risk of anxiety and depression.
- Retro relaxation: Make old-fashioned Monopoly cool again with the Game of Thrones Collector’s Edition. Or, since vinyl is surging like it’s the 70s all over again, you might give a turntable like one of these Crosley classic portables in new teen-friendly designs.
- Sporty stuff: File under can’t-ever-have-enough. Think a Fitbit or other fitness tracker; ath-leisure clothes that can be worn in the gym or not; fishing gear; wheels (a longboard skateboard, mountain bike, or, if you’re feeling flush and can still find one, a HoverBoard); or a fresh gym bag to replace that stinky ratty one.
- Coloring books and art markers: They’re baaaack, and so much all the rage that bookstores are devoting whole tables to them. Teens are just old enough to find this childhood relic freshly kitschy, especially in these versions aimed at teens and adults.
3. Give back a piece of childhood.
Even though teens are all about what’s new, they’re not above a little Throwback Thursday—any day of the week. Get prints of your fave pix from babyhood to the present to put in a scrapbook, or upload the photos to a service that makes keepsake books, like Shutterfly or Apple. Or give a special keepsake box or big trunk for storing all the special mementos your teen is accumulating, for everything from cast-aside blankies to sports trophies.
WHY IT’S GREAT: At the same time that teens want to be bigger, cooler, more independent, looking back on “little kid stuff” makes them feel good about how far they’ve come.
4. Give something to read.
Nobody’s ever too old to unwrap (or download) a good book.
WHY IT’S GREAT: Reading for pleasure at age 15 has been called the most important indicator of a child’s future success, according to a U.K. economic study.
Some titles to try:
- 2015 YA standouts: The New York Times Book Review spotlighted The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz, Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older, Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson, and Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo—also highlighted by Amazon as a Best Book of the Year. Amazon’s top YA pick is An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir.
- Biographies (because teens love true stories): Recent standouts include Becoming Maria by Sonia Manzano (of Sesame Street fame), The Boys Who Challenged Hitler, I Am Malala, and Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War (for ages 10-14).
- “UpLit” classics: Give books that inspire, especially as a counterweight to all those depressing books they’re reading in high-school English classes.
5. Give a (future) fortune.
Open a retirement account or a “first-house” savings account, and fund it with whatever you can afford. Or buy a few shares of stock in a company you know your teen loves (and that you think is a good investment). Then wrap up a copy of The Motley Fool Investment Guide for Teens, so your teen can start learning all about saving and investing. (You can also use sites like MyMoney.gov and SchwabMoneyWise.com as teaching guides.)
WHY IT’S GREAT: Research shows that teaching kids how to manage money fosters a better understanding of finance than just giving them an allowance or a credit card. Teenagers are especially ripe for this as they begin earning their own money from part-time jobs and saving for college. And they’re not learning many of these basics in school.
Photos: Beach Reading/Flickr,