“No Gift” Birthday Parties

August 7, 2007 at 6:52 pm 16 comments

So, the New York Times Select ran an article July 27 about this “new trend” of no-gift birthday parties. Well, not really no-gift; the article is talking about birthday parties for toddlers and kids where guests are asked to donate to a certain charity in lieu of gifts for the birthday kid.

Because this is one of my “issues,” I cajoled a friend into cutting and pasting the article for me (she had linked it on her blog, but then it’s subscriber-only), but I can’t in good conscience reprint the article on my blog. If you have NYT Select, it’s called “Cake, but no Presents, Please” by Tina Kelley. If you don’t, I’ll summarize (and, of course, add my two cents).

Kelley talks about several facets of this “trend”:

1. How it is “the first hyper-parenting trend that does not reek of wanton excess.”

My first thought here is history. Any other late 60’s/early 70’s kids out there who recall ALL kids birthday parties being no-gift? Like, duh, we just played games and ate cake and maybe did a craft? Gifts came from family, not the kids in the neighborhood. This idea doesn’t seem “new” to me.

But, then I had the thought that perhaps this reporter was born in the 80’s (which made me feel old, but that’s another story). Isn’t that when the gift excess birthday party trend started? Or am I just from a different income bracket than most NYT Select readers?

And that leads to another set of issues, which she taps on…

2. That Miss Manners shuns this no-gift trend, because birthday gift-giving teaches children valuable lessons about giving and receiving.

This came up in a debate a few months back when I proposed the old version of “no-gift” birthday parties to the “natural parenting” playgroup we attend now and then. (See above description.) Some people really want to give and receive gifts. We talked about maybe self-made gifts, or very small gifts (like something from nature, a dress-up item, etc.). However, it seems the realities of dictating gifts still detract from some of the carefree fun that birthdays once were.

My friend (who I consider a fabulous mom) told me her son was invited to a party where they were supposed to bring one of their kid’s toys and do an exchange. Her kid was just a toddler and not in the mood to give away a toy (and perhaps too young for this particular “valuable lesson”), so she ended up buying one. Then, another party said to bring a book undr $8. Same friend couldn’t find a book she liked for less than $10 and found the whole thing a bit annoying. Another friend was going to a book donation birthday party (i.e., bring a book to donate) and she felt pressure to go buy a beautiful book rather than give one she or I already had.

The truth is, by trying to impose this lesson of charity, other lessons we may not want could be inadvertantly taught in the process. And can’t kids learn these valuable lessons from less gift-giving, just not every kiddie birthday party? (More on “lessons” ahead.)

Why is this getting so complicated?!

3. Kelley mentions a website called Birthdays Without Pressure.

I looked at it. I like it. It contains a million examples and lesson plans for parent educators. It actually makes me happy to see that people are organizing around a rant I’ve had since before I became a parent. A sad statement that they need to, but I suppose going in what I consider the right direction. Enough already. Back to basics, folks.

4. She talks about how the charity parties are becoming a competition in and of themselves.

“Kind of like rich people and their gala charity balls,” she writes. I can see it. Kelley also mentions goodie bags, like one party where kids went home with organic EcoBags filled with organic fruit leather and wooden toys. Again, it’s a lovely thought, but human nature (the web site claims this is not just an American, or even a solely upper class, trend) to then feel that you need to provide something on par. This is what prompted the Minnesota parents to start Birthdays Without Pressure, the goodie bags.

Another problem I see with these charity parties is that they still force parents to open their wallet for every kid’s party, this time with a dollar amount for all to see. I don’t want that, for me or from me. Here in California, most of us are house poor. Re-gifting is a savior and budgets are tight. Can’t birthday parties be one less thing we are constantly asked to spend money on?

Plus, these parties also dictate other people’s charity giving. (Isn’t our personal charitable giving supposed to be “from the heart” and all that, not dictated by Mrs. Johnson across the street? And what if it is a cause perhaps counter to someone’s values?) Parents in Kelley’s story talk about the “valuable lesson” of charity, but can’t that lesson be taught within a family? By, perhaps, volunteering time or choosing a charity to donate to at the holidays (that’s what we always did)?

That’s not to say I think we should never ask others to rally for important causes, quite the contrary — but making donation a part of every birthday party seems a bit of a trap, not to mention a somewhat skewed “lesson.” There is no choice involved there. Kelley didn’t go into all of these issues, but I think they are important in this conversation.

In short, I still fall back on the good old seventies townhouse-living birthday parties where kids came and played, and if they did a craft that was their take-home. It was fun. We got birthday cards from friends, presents from family only. I’d be happy to find a group of parents who wants to do this. Kids can make the cards, or parents can buy them (as it’s always been) and the party ends up actually enjoyable and “without pressure” as the Minnesota parenting groups calls it. Anything more becomes a controversy or a competition for many of us, and I think it spoils the fun.

Of course, this will only work if we can all agree, and that may well be impossible. Still, I have hope that our generation of parents can make real progress in the backward direction. Let’s learn from our predecessors. The Earth, the stuff, the relationships, everything needs some simplifying and good old-fashioned thought and care. Less is more and all that. Parties that are solely about gathering with people who care about one another and enjoy the company — what a concept. I swear, it’s fun!

Change isn’t easy, but clearly it happens. It happened in the 80’s and it can happen now. Check out Birthdays Without Pressure and throw in your two cents (no more, no less) here or there. Let’s have this conversation.


Entry filed under: Parenting.

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16 Comments Add your own

  • 1. melissawilkins  |  August 7, 2007 at 11:08 pm

    We do no-gift parties, but it never quite works. We ask on invitations, we ask when people rsvp– but most people assume the no-gift request doesn’t apply to them.

    That said, I think if you want to have a charity-collection party or a book exchange or whatever, that’s fine– but don’t do it for a birthday party. Let your kids throw a backyard party for their friends with one of those themes at some other time of year. Birthday parties are sort of an obligation for friends and family– they shouldn’t have to give as someone else sees fit just to be able to attend.

  • 2. Diana  |  August 15, 2007 at 9:48 pm

    I tried to do a no-gift party as well with the genuine belief that the last thing my son needed was more “things”, and that all I wanted was to have a casual moment to celebrate him. Instead, I ended up with lots of “things” because no one stuck to the no-gift rule. When I tried to broach the subject with the group, they all insisted that giving was part of the fun. But no, not always, not for me. I love to give, but everything that comes with it (from competition to worldliness) makes me think that it would just be fun to make the celebration our gift. Can’t anyone find satisfaction in that, or have we just gotten too objectified?

  • 3. Mrs. Jones  |  September 14, 2007 at 3:21 am

    I remember those days! One birthday in particular, my family gave me Ker-Plunk, the stick and marble game. After cake and ice cream, we cleared the table and played a game. It was great!

    As a general practice, I have tried to give gifts that spark imaginations. I give books, arts and craft supplies, and gardening items (seeds, flowers, tools) that I know the kids will be active in mind and body. (My new favorite is The Dangerous Book for Boys, by the way.)

    Alas, I am ashamed to say that I have strategically moved my children’s birthdays six months so that they don’t “miss out” on any presents since both of their birthdays are in December. I am hanging my head as I type this. I must rethink this. Thanks for the topic. So refreshing to see people living truthfully.

  • 4. Julie B. Kelsey  |  November 23, 2007 at 9:25 pm

    Copying a friend of mine, I’ve taken to writing “Your presence is the best present” on invitations to parties we throw. But I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about gift-giving at birthday parties. On one hand, I hate to feel like I am charging our guests “admission” for a party. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem fair if my children bring gifts for other children’s parties but never get any in return. I’ve found it easier to seek a balance with close friends; we’ve taken to discussing limiting either gifts or dollar amounts for holidays. But with casual friends or classmates, I think it can be challenging.

    • 5. Serena  |  April 30, 2011 at 2:39 am

      I’m going to use that line in my invites.

  • 6. maryn  |  November 30, 2007 at 3:36 am

    We do very minimal goodie bags at parties, and gave a kite-flying party at the park for our daughter. Everyone had a great time hanging out, the kids amused themselves, and it was very relaxed. But I notice that our kids get elaborate goodie bags at the parties they attend. I was a room parent the last couple of years and did minimal parties. The other classes would receive huge baskets of treats and my class began complaining. I won’t do parties for them anymore. The point is, if you give kids elaborate parties now, what do they have to look forward to? Nothing will ever meet their expectations again, unless all their parents win Lottos.

  • 7. anniegirl1138  |  April 19, 2008 at 4:11 pm

    My daughter attended a party where everyone brought a gender neutral gift and at the end each child chose a gift to open and take. The birthday girl seemed fine with this and was as excited as her guests.

  • 8. Skypiesmommy  |  September 28, 2009 at 12:11 am

    Last year we had a no-gift party for our daughter. It actually worked, and to tell you the truth, I think people who came actually appreciated it. Some checked before hand to “make sure they were not going to be the only ones not bringing something” and I assured them they wouldn’t be. We just enjoyed a nice meal and homemade cake and that was that. Pretty simple.

  • […] five kids to avoid the traditional holiday and birthday glut as well.  So, I sent her my post on “No-Gift Birthday Parties” (from 2007 and to date still my most popular post ever!) and she sent me one of the most validating […]

  • 10. Dara  |  January 27, 2010 at 4:24 pm

    We tried a no-gift party for our son’s first birthday. After all, what does a one year old need or want?!
    Invitees felt the occasion should be marked, however, so we ended up asking for gently used books or toys for our local children’s hospital.
    Half the guests still brought presents! And they wanted us to open them in front of everyone – including the guests who brought no present.
    So frustrating.
    At the last few birthdays I’ve made it clear that we don’t expect presents, but most parents still bring them. I REFUSE to have my child open them in front of everyone, though. I hate how the presents become an “event” at the party with everyone gathering around and the opening ceremony taking up the last 20 minutes.
    If a child brings a present to my children’s parties and really wants to see my child open it, then they do so on their own, away from everyone else. And if my son rips into a giftbag as his friend walks through the door, so be it.
    And they ALWAYS write thank you cards afterward.
    Another friend told me of a 2-2 party. Everyone was asked to bring $2 for a charity and $2 for the birthday child. Kind of a good idea, but the idea of asking for money for my own child is a little creepy to me.
    I think our next party will be charity only and we’ll either have a blind donation tin or set a specific small amount.
    The no presents at all let’s just have fun party is ideal, but it’s so difficult to find other families that agree.

  • […] 10,768 views, and my most popular post by a landslide (which still gets over 250 views a month) is No-Gift Birthday Parties, with 5,503 views to date.  This tells me something important, and validates some ideas I have for […]

  • 12. Kelly Simcoe  |  March 8, 2011 at 4:56 am

    Hi Megan, I just read this and LOVE it!! You are so right. Now if I could only follow through with it (and get the rest of the family on-board),

  • 13. Serena  |  April 30, 2011 at 2:44 am

    I came across this when looking for the proper wording for my sons 1st birthday invitations. I want to say that no presents will be accepted but if you have an overwhelming urge that requires you to bring one it will go to this nice charity – nicely. You wouldn’t think it would be so hard.

    We plan on doing all his birthdays this way and picking charities that line up with gifts for his age group.

  • 14. The Birthday Imperative « Live from the Pink Wars  |  August 17, 2011 at 3:53 am

    […] I consulted the Oracle at Google, and I found this and then this, and I was a bit relieved, but also a bit skeptical about how well it would work […]

  • 15. Jennifer  |  May 17, 2013 at 10:16 am

    We are doing a book exchange themed disco for my sons 7th birthday. All the kids bring a new or excellent condition book, and come dressed as their fav book character. When they arrive place a book on the “birthday” table, then its off for crafts. Make book marks, cupcakes etc . Then there will be a big disco, with all of the games that our son and his friends love. Now my son loves this idea for the party and has been heavily involved with the planning, and cant wait for all of his friends to take a book home each. Some of my friends love the idea, and others are dubious. My mums having a fit worried that we will be seen as “cheap”, I must be getting old because I dont care what people think. All the children will be going home with a loot bag (sweets, tattoo, bookmark craft, cake craft, and a this book belongs to sticker) a book , cake and probably a balloon. After having an hour and half of fun disco, crafts etc. So how is asking them not to bring a present but a book they already have or a new one cheap? Obiously we will be putting extra books on the table for more choice. Any left over we will prob donate. We will then have a family party at home where my son will get 17- 18 presents. He is happy with this, and would rather have a blast with friends then have 25 extra presents. Also my sons birthday is right after Christmas, and his birthday weeks is shared by 10 other classmates.

  • 16. Smallerfootprints  |  November 22, 2013 at 6:45 am

    We tried to organized a no-gift party but that is not work out…Because always people come to party with a gift…So I thing we trying to organize a charitable party or gift exchange party…Your blog is very nice and give a lesson .. Thanks for shearing this blog…


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