Twenty years ago, or so, when I was in graduate school, I thought it would be a great idea to take my two young sons Christmas shopping for their mom. They were probably 5 and 3. I loaded the Graco Duo stroller into the car and we headed for the mall.

I had managed to squirrel away a little over $200 for this shopping excursion. The goal was simple. I wanted to take the boys out to buy whatever they decided they wanted to give their mom for Christmas. In the car on the way to the mall we began to talk about our mission. My oldest son, Jack, was clear about what we were looking for. “I think we should get her a beautiful ring,” he said. Sam, my 3 year old at the time agreed enthusiastically.

Of course, I was the only one aware of our budget but I was pretty sure some sort of beautiful ring could be found that would leave us plenty of money for other gifts as well. We got to the mall, and with the boys loaded in our double stroller we took off to see what we could find. We passed a jewelry store on the way to the department store and both boys pointed and said, “Dad! We have to go in there!”

Reluctantly I wheeled the boys into the jewelry store. I was nervous because the goal was to facilitate their picking out Christmas for their mom. I was pretty sure we weren’t going to buy anything in the jewelry store and I was nervous about how I was going to steer them away without negatively impacting the experience by directing too much. We looked at rings and the boys knew what they liked. The prettier the better seemed to be the theme. It was clear they wanted something very special for their mom.

We were overlooked for quite a while, which was fine with me, until finally a man asked if he could help us. The boys told him we were buying a ring for their mom. He smiled and acknowledged their desire, then looked at me and I quietly said “low budget.” “No problem guys!” he said, “I have just the thing.” He showed us two rings they could pick from, a ruby or an emerald, and either could be bought that night for only $99. They boys were thrilled! They loved them both and after much thought decided the red ring was the prettier one. We purchased it and we all felt great! Mission accomplished, the rest was all frosting from there. We went to other stores and the boys picked out pajamas, socks, some gloves, and probably a few other wonderful things.

The joy of watching them pick out gifts for their mom was topped only by watching them as she opened her gifts on Christmas Day. A tradition was born.

We have done this every year since. We had another son so then there were 4 of us shopping. Eventually we had another son and it became a party of 5. Every year was somewhat similar and every year was somehow unique. We always looked at jewelry because that was the best way the boys could think of showing their appreciation and adoration for their mom. Often they could not agree on what to get so we got in the habit of looking and looking then going for some food. Over lunch we would talk about our options and decide what we would go back and purchase. Pajamas, gloves, earrings, a necklace, a very soft blanket, a candle, and many other thoughtful love-filled gifts have been chosen over the years.

One year consensus was achieved early that a particular bracelet was just perfect. We purchased it then went to get some lunch before picking out a few other things. After some food and beverages at Panera we took off to visit some more stores. We were all the way to the end of the mall when we realized nobody was carrying the bag with the bracelet! We freaked out. My job at this point was to keep everybody from falling into blaming each other as we hurried back to Panera to hopefully find the bag. It wasn’t there! As panic set in, I worked to remain calm. Everybody was worried. We looked all around but didn’t see it.

Eventually, as desperation was setting in, the family now sitting in the spot we left noticed us and asked if we had lost a package. We said we had and they told us they turned it into mall security. We went to the security office and after a little bit retrieved the bracelet. More than relieved, we headed off into the crowds to finish our shopping.

I can’t say that I remember every trip from every year but there are many memories from those outings I will never forget. With four boys we always received special treatment from the people working in the stores. And my guys, for the most part, all worked together and tried hard to get along. It was never without a hitch but that was OK because it wasn’t much of a goal-oriented endeavor. All I had to do was stay calm and we would end up with gifts for mom, and a few hours of meaningful time together. It was never really anything more than just a time to be together and pick out gifts for someone we all loved.

Over the years, the guys learned how to look for quality when choosing gifts. They learned about finding deals and how to know if we were getting a good one. They learned about sometimes stepping up and paying a little more when we knew we found the perfect gift. They learned about teamwork and getting along because the decisions were always made as a group. They learned how to stay calm in the stressful crowds of holiday shoppers. And they learned how good it felt to give.

As the dad, I learned valuable lessons about staying out of the way and letting each child be their own person. I learned how the process and the experience mattered more than the outcome. I learned to stay calm and be present with all of them and attend to each of them at the same time. I got to see how thoughtful and good they each were as people.

That Christmas outing became one of my favorite parts of the year. I always enjoyed it so much. I might have guided a little bit now and then but I didn’t direct, I was simply a facilitator, and that is what allowed it to be so enjoyable for me.

The Holidays are here and the memory is strong. In fact, I find myself encouraging dads who have young children to try starting this tradition in their family. If it is handled well, with facilitation instead of direction, and the simple goal of spending dad time with the kids while they pick out gifts for their mom, it can certainly become a good, warm, rich, tradition that everybody will benefit from.

Here are a few tips if you are interested in trying this in your family:

  • Tell the kids days in advance that you are taking them shopping for mom.
    • This will give them time to think about what they might want to get her.
    • Knowing ahead of time will also help ensure everybody is on board when it is time to go.
  • Give yourself plenty of time.
    • Plan on probably at least 4 hours so you can take your time.
    • Having a short time limit can cause you to feel rushed adding frustration to the experience.
  • Remember to facilitate, not direct.
    • This is crucial. If you are too directive with the kids they will feel like you were doing the shopping and they were there with you. You want them to feel like they are shopping and you are there to help them.
    • Follow the kid’s lead. When you are in the stores slow down to their pace. Let them look around and take it all in. This is a big decision for them. If they are checking something out then come up with another idea say, “Great idea. Let’s check it out!” then go find whatever it is they thought of.
  • Plan on time for a snack, lunch, or dinner.
    • Taking a break from looking at things to eat together works well to break up the time and reset everybody’s attitude. Kids can get tired fast and the nourishment will help replenish their energy.
    • This will be a time when you really get to chat. The kids can talk about what they’ve seen that they liked and what they still would like to find, or decide between items, or be excited about what they’ve already found. Think of it as a time to regroup.
  • Enjoy every minute of it.
    • Remember you are doing this for them. In every interaction during this trip you are teaching them by example. You are the dad so your attitude sets the tone for the experience. Stay calm and pleasant and patient.
    • Rely on your sense of humor. Seeing the humor in even the difficult moments will help you keep it light.
  • It doesn’t matter what they pick out.
    • Don’t feel pressure to help them get the “perfect” gift. Once they choose something for their mom it instantly becomes the perfect gift.
    • After all, this isn’t actually about the gifts themselves, it’s about the dad/kid experience.

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