No-Gift Birthday Parties

Filed under: Holidays, Opinions

It is birthday season at our house and our eldest will soon turn nine. He has been planning his party for a month, and already knows the theme (Lego) and the menu (pizza), but this birthday he's been begging for something else, too: "Could my friends bring presents this time?"

My answer is no.

"But why? I would get so many toys!"

Since we started hosting friend parties for the kids' birthdays (around age six), we've chosen to request no gifts. Cards welcome.

Does this seem like an odd and puritanical rule? From the conversations I've shared with friends, I suspect most readers will have a strong response to the idea. You are likely either thinking: Brilliant! I wouldn't have to race out to buy something last-minute for a child I hardly know, and nobody's sad post-cake because his present isn't as cool as someone else's. Or, you are thinking: That poor deprived child! What is wrong with parents these days?

Over the years, we've received phone calls from baffled parents who really really really want to bring a gift, but everyone has so far respected the request (and the kids have received some truly creative homemade cards from their friends).

The principle behind the no-gift party is simple: Our family is trying to live a less wasteful life: less packaging, less greed, less of what we don't really need.

And the way we see it, the best gift of all is the presence of friends--and the party itself.A no-gift party does not equal a no-fun party--quite the opposite. The birthday child chooses the theme, the menu, the guest-list, the cake, etc. The party requires parental effort, but the payoff is tons of fun. Adding ten gifts into the mix would be like over-salting the soup.

(Sigh.) "Just think of the toys I could be getting."

To which I reply: "Just think of the toys you will be getting."

Because I must add, to spare you concern, that the child receives gifts in abundance at the casual family party we host--yup! we like parties!--to which relatives come bearing gifts. Additionally, we pick out a special gift for our birthday child, as do each of his siblings.

The no-gift, less-waste party goes both ways: We also choose not to hand out giant loot bags. Instead, we send every guest home with something they've made or used at the party. For a "tea party" birthday, guests took home pretty china tea cups and saucers I'd found at a thrift store; for another birthday, we decorated t-shirts that all the guests wore to a "bike rally."

The occasional guest has asked, "Where's the loot bag?" but when told that he or she can take home the decorated straw hat, or the hobby horse, or the stuffed animal won at the "fun fair," it's problem solved. Children are more accepting that we often give them credit for being. There is room to be a little bit different.

But is it fair to ask our children to be different from their friends?

That's a tough question and a difficult choice to make, as a parent. It's risky. Your child could respond by craving whatever it is he is missing out on. But it could also be the entry point for a really interesting conversation about a complex issue.

"Do you need more toys? What's the difference between needing and wanting?"

It is important for children to know that their parents are not making arbitrary decisions, but, rather, choices based on beliefs and principles. I believe that we live in an enormously privileged country, and that it's easy to want more and more and more without recognizing how much we already have. Does my son hear what I'm saying? By the end of our conversation, he is reconciled to the basic idea of doing with a bit less. Somewhat reconciled, anyway.

And if he decides, in the end, that he wants a friend party with gifts, we will compromise. We offer our kids the option of inviting one or two friends to a scaled-down bring-a-gift event. It's worth noting that there are other alternatives, too. My children have attended parties where donations for a charity (of the birthday child's choosing) were being collected, instead of gifts. And a company called ECHOage combines charity with gift-giving, as guests contribute to both through an online RSVP.

What do you think about no-gift birthday parties? More-with-less? Or party-pooper?

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.