Ask Maxwell: What in the World Do I Gift My Tween?

published May 2, 2022
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Credit: Maxwell Ryan

I’ve always loved buying presents for my two kids, but now that my older daughter is 13, it’s hard. I’ve seen some of the things I’ve given to her end up in the bottom of her closet. What do presents even mean, at this rate?


(Good morning! I’m taking three weeks off for a little summer vacation, so I’m going back into the archive to share three questions that seemed very helpful this past year. One is about tween gift-giving and the other is about allowance. I read over each one and made some adjustments now that time has passed. I’ll see you in July!)

Dear Emily,

This has been something I’ve been learning about lately as well with my daughter, particularly during her birthday just a few months ago. I like to buy little and big things for her, and often start well before her birthday, stockpiling them over the months ahead of time. My mother used to do this too, and it has a warm feeling for me. I love all the little surprises that I get to reveal to her on her birthday or at Christmas.

But this year I was so excited for her birthday dinner and as each present was revealed she sort of just scratched her head. I was particularly excited about a bedside lamp I’d found that I thought was very “grown up” and would make her feel that way about herself. Instead, she said, “Is that for me? That looks like it’s for grandma.” I had to admit, that as she said it I had to agree.

The birthday was a bust and it felt like, as a dad, I was really missing her as she was growing.

I decided to sit with her before bed and talk about it. She was great and very direct. She said that she loved me, but I gave her a lot of weird stuff that maybe I liked, but it wasn’t “her.” I remembered when she was younger and wanted a bike and I had found a nice small bike and hidden it and we’d had a treasure hunt to find it. THAT had been exciting and it had been something that was really “her.” She wanted a bike, I knew it and she loved that bike.

Then I realized that I’d been talking about the exact same thing years earlier with my therapist. I remembered that I was complaining to her that my mother had often given me presents that I didn’t want to wear or use and always felt a little disappointed as well. In fact, my mother passed away two years ago and there’s still a stack of two Crock-Pots that she gave to me and my brother in living room of her house. Neither of us ever wanted or used them. My therapist then drilled into me that this was very much core to the relationship with my mother — that she didn’t really “see” me and that her gift giving was a continued expression of that. It made me sad because it felt right, and I thought that I would never do that.

But here I was doing it again.

Gifts are, in the end of the day, not about stuff or probably even need. They are about connecting with and “seeing” one another in a way that is honoring them intimately. When you get a gift you really like, you feel that the other knows you well and you can feel the wisdom and love coming through that.

So, my advice, particularly with children as they get older, is to not worry too much about the surprise and the mystery of gift giving, but simply check in with them and have a discussion about what they want, what’s “on their list.” While this may seem on the outside very transactional, it’s really the beginning of a conversation in which your child is revealing to you who they are and how they want to be known. And if you do that successfully, there’s always room for a little surprise.

My daughter this year wrote down that she wanted “clothes,” and when I asked her to be more specific she shared with me a Pinterest board she’d been building for weeks that I’d never seen. As we went through it she described the style, what she loved, and how it all worked. She’s 14 and this is peak excitement. I was glad she was sharing it with me as her dad.

Now I’ve got a lot of work to do studying that board and figuring out a few pieces that will really excite her … but I’ll show them to her first and have another conversation.

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Maxwell Ryan is a father and was an elementary school teacher in NYC before founding Apartment Therapy. He’d love to answer your question: This piece was created for Cubby, our weekly newsletter for families at home. Want more? Sign up here for a weekly splash of fun and good ideas for families with kids.

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