5 Gifts Your Kids Will (Eventually) Appreciate More Than the Stuff They Asked For

From cooking to giving back, these presents will help your children build a strong foundation.

Illustration by Bee Johnson.

A big part of the holidays for many parents is the list of items their kids want this year, be it L.O.L. Surprise! dolls, furReal Munchin’ Rex, or even a new iPhone. But consider adding some things they might not have asked for: gifts that will teach them skills they need to succeed at life. These presents build invaluable foundations that will serve them well and make them better people. Bonus: Your children might even find them fun.


No more PB&J and microwave mac and cheese. The beginner’s series at the DC cooking school CulinAerie infuses kids with the kitchen chops they need to pull off serious eats—from soups and salads to steaks and sweets. They can graduate to more advanced cooking courses or take specialized sessions focusing on pastry, pasta, or globe-spanning international fare. For children ages ten and up; must be accompanied by an adult who is also registered. $340; 1131 14th St., NW; 202-587-5674.


Open and fund a Donors Choose account for your neophyte philanthropists. They’ll browse through thousands of classroom projects across the country—from instruments for budding musicians to diverse literature for students of color—and pick which they want to help make a reality. Once a project is fully funded, teachers send contributors photographs of their donation in action plus a breakdown of how the money was spent, so altruists in training can learn that it feels good to do good.


Got a city slicker on your hands? Tack-ling the wilderness with Baltimore Chesapeake Bay Outward Bound School will toughen a townie while teaching him or her soft skills and concrete proficiencies. For 8 to 12 days, kids ages 12 to 18 undertake rigorous adventures—trekking the Appalachian Trail, canoeing the Potomac River, or kayaking in the Chesapeake. One of the most profound moments is the “solo,” when participants have up to a day alone in the backwoods to process their internal and external journey. $2,040 to $2,900; 410-448-1721.


“Pics or it didn’t happen” is the millennial mantra. However, many shots posted on social media are artlessly composed, poorly lit, or out of focus. An introductory photography course such as Smithsonian Associates’ “Joy of Photography” will give your child an integral understanding of aperture, shutter speed, exposure, and more—thus ensuring that yes-it-happened Instagrams will earn all the hearts, while enshrining pivotal moments in a high-quality manner (in case people still print photos in the future). A digital SLR camera with manual capabilities is required. $275 nonmembers, $225 members; 202-633-3030.


Let your children learn how the stock market works by opening a custodial account at Stockpile and giving them a nest egg to buy fractional shares. For a sense of empowerment, they get a separate login. For your peace of mind, you have to approve any trades they make. The app allows pint-size Gordon Gekkos to take tutorials while watching their fortunes rise (or fall) in real time. 99 cents per trade.

This article appears in the December 2018 issue of Washingtonian.

Parenting writer

Nevin Martell is a parenting, food, and travel writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, Saveur, Men’s Journal, Fortune, Travel + Leisure, Runner’s World, and many other publications. He is author of eight books, including It’s So Good: 100 Real Food Recipes for Kids, Red Truck Bakery Cookbook: Gold-Standard Recipes from America’s Favorite Rural Bakery, and the small-press smash Looking for Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and His Revolutionary Comic Strip. When he isn’t working, he loves spending time with his wife and their six-year-old son, who already runs faster than he does.