When it comes to gift-giving, every parent wants to give their kids something they’ll remember and enjoy. It’s natural to think an amazing, out-of-the-ordinary adventure may be just the ticket, and it can be; but there are exceptions, as a recent study found.

Researcher Lan Nguyen Chaplin, a mother of two little ones and an associate professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, noticed that after special events her children seemed to care more about the goody bags and souvenirs than the experience, whether it was a kid-focused vacation or a birthday party. She wondered why material objects always won the day with her kids, especially since studies of adolescents and adults had found that experiences tend to be more memorable and offer longer-lasting perks.

Older children tend to get more pleasure from experiences; children between the ages of 3 and 12 are happier with gifts of material goods.

Adventure experiences involve richer social, physical, cognitive and sensory engagement, so they not only boost brain development in older children, they’re also unforgettable. If you have any doubts, just imagine the pre-COVID thrill of a rock concert for a teenager.

The same kind of excitement doesn’t hold true for younger children, as Chaplin and her co-authors from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Michigan State, the University of Minnesota and HEC Paris found, when they compared the level of happiness children got from receiving material objects with the happiness they derived from experiences. The researchers looked at four studies with children and adolescents. They confirmed that while older children tend to get more pleasure from experiences than objects, children between the ages of 3 and 12 are happier when they receive gifts of material goods.

Younger children’s blasé attitude about actual experiences isn’t a choice, it’s an issue of development. “For one thing, younger children don’t possess the brain capacity to remember their experiences in the same way that adolescents or adults do,” Chaplin told TheDoctor. “Secondly, they don’t yet have …the perspective to appreciate, or even comprehend, the bigger picture of their experience.”

Buying a souvenir at the zoo will not only make a child happy, it will help them remember the visit.

So does this mean we should forgo gifting our younger children with special experiences? Hardly. Chaplin is the first to stress that experiences are what enrich our lives — no matter what the age. “Children are eager to enjoy life and our study doesn’t discount that,” she said. “It’s just that the appreciation and memory, after an event is over, grows as the child gets older because they have the cognitive ability to hold onto the details. When they’re younger, they’re simply living in the moment.”

Parents can take steps to help younger children remember special events. Chaplin suggests choosing experiences that match your child’s interest. “For instance, if your kid is turned on by music, help them learn the app Garage Band. Even younger children can get into this by putting cool sounds together.”

You can have it both ways. Give younger kids gifts that create opportunities for memorable experiences. “Since young kids love to open gifts especially during holidays,” Chaplin suggests you “put your money into a board game that the family can enjoy playing together — again and again.”

Adolescents remember events because, unlike younger children, they can memorialize the details. Parents can help younger kids recall experiences by taking pictures or making a video of the event, so they can revisit the day. Drawing a picture of the experience is another option. Or give them a concrete reminder. Buying a souvenir at the zoo, for example, will not only make them happy, it will help them remember the visit.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether an experience becomes a long-lasting memory or a fleeting moment. As all parents know, what remains unforgettable for children is our love and attention.

The study is published in the International Journal of Research in Marketing.