When my three children were little, I went to great lengths to ensure that each one’s pile of gifts on Christmas morning was the same number and value. It was an annual exercise that made me (and my husband) a bit crazy. I would rush around, filling in, counting, recounting, wrapping, lining up receipts, and stashing some things away for birthdays; all for the sake of the pile.

That artfully arranged collection of gifts on Christmas morning was my way of saying, “I love each of you equally,” and they never even knew the lengths I went to for those piles.           

Now, as older teens and young adults, they have wonderful Christmas memories, but not about the gifts. They remember a few key moments: the “Christmas of silence” when the first iPads came out, the year my daughter got her cat, and the onslaught of Legos dominating every surface in our home.

To hear them talk of childhood Christmases, these are not memories of gifts, or things. They are memories of sitting down together to assemble Legos or brainstorm the name of a new cat together, which was Disco, by the way. As they got older, the best part was not the clothes they unwrapped. It was the fashion show for the family, and the inevitable group trip to return items on Dec. 26 and get lunch together.

They talk about things, but what they remember is the interaction. Looking back, I wish I had focused more on making sure we got to the candlelight service at church, rather than the early one that was more convenient. I wish I’d put more group experiences under the tree and served meals to others with them, rather than building the piles. I wish I had spent more time in my PJs with them making cookies or playing video games, rather than standing in line at Target.

This year, I told them a bit of what I used to do, and they stared at me. They said they never thought to count how many gifts they had or add it up. They only noticed if they unwrapped something indicating that we had been listening to them throughout the year, like a piece of jewelry they admired back in August. They also noticed when they unwrapped something “weird,” an obvious symptom of my obsession to fill in for the sake of the count.

My sister on the other hand took the “If it’s good enough for Jesus, its good enough for you,” approach. Three thoughtful, carefully selected gifts. That’s it. The rest of Christmas was experiences and time together. I thought she was nuts, and I would miss the tornado of wrapping paper in my house. Now, I see the wisdom, particularly as I clean out my college student’s room and find years of gifts still in boxes.

In building those piles and stressing about the count, I inadvertently taught them a lesson in the futility of chasing equity. I spent so much time trying to give them the exact same outcome on Christmas morning that our process was off-target, our spending was bloated, and the outcome was ultimately wasteful. I was chasing a number, hoping that it would yield an equal result or at least send a signal. Instead, we were better off addressing each child’s needs and a few wants, counting our blessings rather than gifts.

With the majority of my kids now out of the nest, we are happy just to be in the same room together. All I want from them is the stories of their adventures and to send me as many pictures as my phone will hold. All they want, it seems, is to feel like kids on Christmas again; baking, playing, and laughing together. I will make the most of this second phase; before grandchildren come, and I am back in line at Target.