We have entered “birthday season” in our family. Try as I might to have a spring or summer baby, our third child just extended our already-concentrated season of celebration. It kicks off in mid-October now, followed two weeks later by my middle child, my mom and husband soon after that, then my dad in December, Jesus’ birthday of course (and all that goes with that!), and finally my firstborn’s big day in January.
I think we made it through one cycle of birthdays and Christmas with two children before I realized the toys were starting to take over. Big Sister–first grandchild in the family–continued to be spoiled, Little Sister had gobs of hand-me-downs plus new things that could be just hers, and a busy family schedule meant even less bandwidth and tolerance for the “stuff-maintenance” part of parenting.
It was Little Sister’s second birthday–kickoff to the “season”–at which we decided to implement a no-gifts request for the girls’ birthday parties. Family members were exempt, since there’s no way we could have deterred them anyway, but asking other guests to abstain seemed to be the right decision for us.
- We have more than enough already, and we get more than enough more from family members.
- The decision opens up conversation with kids (from around the 4th birthday onward) about needs, wants, and the notion of “enough.”
- Guests (their parents, that is) can save money and time procuring a gift for a kid they might not really even know.
- The party can focus on fun with friends, rather than on the ritual of gift opening. (A quick aside: I’ve been surprised in recent years at parties where no mention was made discouraging gifts, therefore friends brought gifts, but the gifts were not opened during the party. Perhaps someone can explain the reasoning there to me, but I tend to think gift-opening should be a relational experience.)
- The party can be an opportunity for generosity toward people who do not have enough.
The big question is often:
How do I phrase it?
I tend to go with a straightforward, “No gifts, please” or “No gifts needed!”
A subtler option might be: “Your presence is present enough!” or even a rhyme like “I don’t really need another toy / your presence alone would bring me such joy!” (I actually saw a multi-stanza poem to that effect recently, which might be overkill, but also rather creative.)
After five years of no-gift birthday parties, I’ve come to think the best option starts out, “In lieu of gifts…” and presents a specific giving opportunity.
Collecting items for donation in lieu of gifts for the birthday child relieves the social anxiety some people may experience about showing up emptyhanded, helps kids see beyond themselves, and does some good in the world too. Brainstorm with your child what you will collect.
Since I love a good theme, for my daughter’s farm/harvest-themed party, we collected food for our church’s food pantry in the leftover veggie boxes from the farmer’s market! Avid readers might enjoy collecting books to donate to a school, library, or hospital. Kids might have a school-organized drive like “Socktober” for which they’re collecting. Our church has a monthly item appropriate to the season–school supplies, coats, etc., so on the invitations we distributed this week, we asked guests to consider bringing hats or gloves for that collection of winter gear.
While I feel pretty committed to this policy for my family, I’m absolutely not judging the traditionalists for whom it’s just not a kid’s birthday party without a gift from every guest. Some people just like to give gifts (or feel awkward not bringing one, even if suggested) and will bring one anyway.
The first time we said “no gifts, please,” I hadn’t given enough thought to what we would do with our time, so we went ahead and opened gifts from grandparents and the one or two friends who had brought a gift anyway. Awkward! I learned my lesson then, and made sure to sincerely and profusely thank those who did not bring gifts (and apologize for my awkward inability to fill the party time otherwise!)
I’ve learned now to graciously accept and set aside the present, have plenty of activities planned for the kids, open the gift later when we do family gifts, and always, always write a thank you note within a few days of the party.
There are so many considerations to balance when deciding on a “no gifts” plan, but if it’s in keeping with the values of your family, it’s worth navigating the complexities for a celebration that is less about stuff and more about memories.