Birthday parties: why do it this way?

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At least once a month, I see an article about de-cluttering your home. Beleaguered moms give advice on how to reduce the number of toys you possess. We tout the value of simplicity and the wonders of minimalism. Marie Kondo is trying to teach all of us the “life changing magic of tidying up.”

So, given that we all seem to be fighting this battle against excess clutter and toys, here is my question. Why is gift giving still a necessary part of every childrens birthday party (at least in the middle and upper classes)? In my ten years of parenting in three different communities, I have only rarely received an invitation that said “no gifts, please.” And we all know that when this is not explicitly said, then a gift is expected.

Why is this? The parents of my kids’ friends do not strike me as greedy, nor do they seem to be craving more possessions to fill their homes. Is it because the birthday child expects to get new toys, and the parents do not want to disappoint them? Is it because it’s what we’ve always done?

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It’s not that I don’t believe in birthday parties at all. I love to celebrate my child on the day of her birth as a way to say, “We are so glad God created you and gave you to us!” I enjoy inviting her friends into this celebration.

What I do not enjoy is putting burdens on other parents to spend money and time buying a gift. And, for many in our circle, both money and time are tight. I am uncomfortable effectively requiring someone to bring my child a gift. And that is what it feels like I am doing when I go along with this cultural norm. I feel uneasy when generosity is compulsory rather than spontaneous.

So, for our past two birthday parties, I tried something different. I explained to my kids that their parties were to celebrate them and their presence on earth, but that such celebration did not require that their friends bring gifts. I stanched their disappointment by reminding them that they would still be receiving gifts from their grandparents and from us.

On the invitation itself, I simply wrote the truth. I said,

Your child’s friendship is your best gift to our child. No need to bring additional presents.

In the case of our older daughter, a bookworm to beat all bookworms, I added that they were welcome to bring a used book that they thought she would enjoy, but no pressure. I didn’t even give that option to our younger daughters’ guests.

Can you guess what happened? At our older daughter’s party, everyone brought a used book or two, except for one of her closer friends who brought two new books, citing the closeness of their friendship. Fair enough. (See, a spontaneous rather than compulsory gift!) At our twins’ party, two thirds of the children brought no gifts and one third did. Everyone enjoyed the parties, and our children expressed little disappointment at the much smaller number of gifts. Success!

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Who needs presents when you get to make robots?

So, if our homes are so cluttered, our toy collections so mountainous, and our children so tempted by consumerism, why not try changing the culture? In addition to dropping end-of-party goody bags, why not drop gifts, too? What do you think? Can we learn to celebrate our children without new toys?

© Laura Goetsch and Thinking About Such Things, 2015.

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6 thoughts on “Birthday parties: why do it this way?

  1. Hooray! Last year, for my older son’s b-day party, I wrote in the invitation, “No gifts, please. I am very serious in making this request, as this special time with good friends will in itself be a huge gift for my son.” Everyone complied and just brought him a card with a note inside!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Beng Cher

    I did this with small party of a couple of our close friends when we celebrated my daughter’s birthday. We still have the used book they gave her, and it still pulls a string in my heart when we read it. Thanks for sharing this.

    Like

  3. Laura

    You always choose such good topics to write about, Laura! I have complicated feelings about this one, so I’ll try not to write you a novel. 🙂

    On the one hand, I completely agree with you. We have hosted several no/alternative gift parties for our kids, including one where the birthday child wanted to collect money toward a favorite charity. And, interestingly, my experience is that my kids have been invited to far more “no gifts” or alternative gift parties than the traditional sort. We even received an invitation at one point that said “presents are okay.” (I think Emily Post rolled over in her grave on that one.) In fact, this article came out near the peak of what I jokingly call our career as professional birthday-party-attenders: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/27/nyregion/27gifts.html?pagewanted=all&_r=2&

    With the big kids, we’re mostly past those days. But, having a soon-to-be-two-year-old, it’s occurred to me that we’ll re-enter this world. And, reflecting on my experiences, I think we’ll leave our days of hosting no/alternative gift parties in the past.

    Why? There are several reasons (too numerous for a blog comment!), many of which intertwine, but the heart of it is that I came to feel that gifts–of any kind–and the parameters thereof are solely in the hands of the giver. I felt uncomfortable dictating the role of the giver in any way, whether it was by creating a toy store registry, collecting charitable donations, requesting a certain type of gift, or asking that there be no gifts at all.

    Logistically, I found that some guests always brought gifts anyway, making it awkward for those who honored the “no gifts” request. I also realized that giving and receiving gifts is a recognized “love language” for adults and children alike. If I have a child for whom that’s true, receiving gifts can be an important part of receiving love from friends. I don’t want her to feel guilty about desiring them. And, perhaps a guest feels most authentic expressing friendship through a gift.

    But, I agree. Consumerism! Clutter! What to do? We’ve addressed it by hosting friend parties less frequently, and keeping the guest lists small. On off years, we host a family party or have the birthday child choose a special outing with just one friend. As gift givers, we spend $10 or less and try to choose books or consumable gifts (art supplies, etc.). It seems to work for us.

    At this point, I’m sure you’re thinking, “Gee whiz, get your own blog!” I’ll stop. 🙂 Thanks for starting such a good conversation!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Laura

    You always choose such good topics to write about, Laura! I have complicated feelings about this one, so I’ll try not to write you a novel. 🙂

    On the one hand, I completely agree with you. We have hosted several no/alternative gift parties for our kids, including one where the birthday child wanted to collect money toward a favorite charity. And, interestingly, my experience is that my kids have been invited to far more “no gifts” or alternative gift parties than the traditional sort. We even received an invitation at one point that said “presents are okay.” (I think Emily Post rolled over in her grave on that one.) In fact, this article came out near the peak of what I jokingly call our career as professional birthday-party-attenders: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/27/nyregion/27gifts.html?pagewanted=all&_r=2&

    With the big kids, we’re mostly past those days. But, having a soon-to-be-two-year-old, it’s occurred to me that we’ll re-enter this world. And, reflecting on my experiences, I think we’ll leave our days of hosting no/alternative gift parties in the past.

    Why? There are several reasons (too numerous for a blog comment!), many of which intertwine, but the heart of it is that I came to feel that gifts–of any kind–and the parameters thereof are solely in the hands of the giver. I felt uncomfortable dictating the role of the giver in any way, whether it was by creating a toy store registry, collecting charitable donations, requesting a certain type of gift, or asking that there be no gifts at all.

    Logistically, I found that some guests always brought gifts anyway, making it awkward for those who honored the “no gifts” request. I also realized that giving and receiving gifts is a recognized “love language” for adults and children alike. If I have a child for whom that’s true, receiving gifts can be an important part of receiving love from friends. I don’t want her to feel guilty about desiring them. And, perhaps a guest feels most authentic expressing friendship through a gift.

    But, I agree. Consumerism! Clutter! What to do? We’ve addressed it by hosting friend parties less frequently, and keeping the guest lists small. On off years, we host a family party or have the birthday child choose a special outing with just one friend. As gift givers, we try to spend $10 or less and to choose books or consumable gifts (art supplies, etc.).

    At this point, I’m sure you’re thinking, “Gee whiz, get your own blog!” I’ll stop. 🙂 Thanks for starting such a good conversation!

    Like

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