What Do Kids’ Birthday Parties Actually Celebrate? Alternatives for Raising the Next Generation by Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee

I love birthdays. Maybe it’s partly because I’m a twin, so my parents always wanted to make sure that each of us felt adequately celebrated. For whatever reason, they’ve always been a big deal – your special day in the whole year, where you get to choose what’s for dinner and everyone is extra nice to you. So of course I’ve had even more fun now that I have kids of my own to celebrate. I love making crazy cakes and experimenting with fun party themes; and bring on the singing!  In our family, the traditional one verse birthday song was nowhere near celebratory enough – we added to it until it felt sufficiently festive, so ours goes on for a good five minutes.

But I’ll never forget my oldest daughter’s fifth birthday, the first we celebrated after moving out of the People’s Republic ofCambridge,Massachusettsand up to the suburbanNorthShore. The evening after the party, we looked around; instead of the educational, wooden Melissa and Doug puzzles and toys of the past, this year we were somehow surrounded by a mountain of pink princess plastic in varying shapes and forms. My husband and I took one look and said, “never again.” Our new tradition of charity birthday parties was born.

We already knew about donation gifts, which some people in our family give at Christmas. My two daughters always look forward to seeing what animals their aunt and uncle have donated in their names through Heifer, International. Lest we appear scroogie, even if we don’t have big gifts

Telynia petting a baby chick held by her Uncle Eric.

under the tree, we always have stocking stuffer gifts – maybe even tickets to a fun event. So when I suggested to my oldest that her family gets her plenty of birthday gifts, and wouldn’t it be fun to pick a charity to have her friends donate toward for her birthday, she jumped at the chance. The first time, she picked Heifer, too. So we had a farm animal theme, her friends watched Wallace and Gromit: A Close Shave, and we even had live baby chicks for them to hold and pet at the party. Then we drove the chicks out to their new home at Heifer’s Overlook Farm, where the girls got to see all the animals as well as choose how to allocate all the birthday donations. All in all, she and her friends were pretty proud to raise over $200 to help raise communities out of hunger and poverty, and they each took home some fun Heifer booklets and stickers to help them understand what they’d helped to do.

Although the children’s friends seem to enjoy these donation parties, they’ve had a decidedly mixed reception among the adults. Some parents have reacted with near reverence to the idea of less clutter and ‘junk,’ and some love the idea of the kids doing something meaningful. Others, however, seem to think it somewhere between mildly bizarre to downright cruel.

What I think these latter parents miss is the sense of agency, empowerment, and satisfaction the girls get when they feel like they are able to make a difference in the world.Caroline Kline’s

recent blog entryof November 22, 2011 reminded me of these kinds of choices we make in how we run our homes.  She correctly points out how our homes have been targeted to become consumption sinks, rather than communal loci of creative idea sharing and production of useful goods.  Where do we really find deep fulfillment in life? And how do we want to celebrate a person’s birth and life? Our choice to give as well as receive not only offers opportunities for children to engage in their own communities with issues of social and ecological justice and transformation; it also reclaims the celebration of them as a person, pointing to all the wonder that they are and all the promise of whom they will become.

In a world choking on consumption, we need more opportunities for this kind of engagement. Consumer culture has desperately tried to monopolize all of our holidays and holy days; but we can experience these celebrations of birth, life, community and the sacred more deeply through celebrating and fostering the true riches of our relationships with one another and the blessed Earth. Many more years to us!

Both girls enjoyed climbing this old tractor at the farm.

Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee is a doctoral student in Environmental Ethics at Boston University School of Theology, studying the engagement of congregations with the local food movement. She previously did graduate research on Alzheimer’s Disease and preventive research on Ovarian Cancer. She received a B.Sc. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in Molecular Biology fromHarvardUniversity, and an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology. She lives on the North Shore of Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters, and enjoys gardening, canoeing, learning about medicinal and edible wild plants, and rewriting old hymns to make them more inclusive.

Author: Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee

Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee, PhD is an Ecological Ethicist and the founder of Climate Resilience Leadership, which offers resources for Climate-Proof Leadership and Unshakeable Hope. She studies intersections of ecofeminism, permaculture ethics, grief, and nature connection. She previously did graduate research on Alzheimer’s Disease and preventive research on Ovarian Cancer. She received a B.Sc. in Biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in Molecular Biology from Harvard University, and an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology. She lives in metrowest Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters, and enjoys gardening, canoeing, learning about medicinal and edible wild plants, and rewriting old hymns to make them more inclusive.

19 thoughts on “What Do Kids’ Birthday Parties Actually Celebrate? Alternatives for Raising the Next Generation by Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee”

    1. I’m so glad! I hope the idea spreads – there is so much good that our children can do in the world; and, it’s really FUN, too!


  1. I used to love birthday parties as a child. Pin the tail on the donkey and button button who’s got the button were enough for us “back in the day.” How times have changed. I got sick of buying stupid little gifts for my grown up friends as none of us needs anything any more, so I make donations in their names to Friends of the Animals who spay the ubiquitous local stray dogs and cats. Good on you for introducing this idea to your children and even for forcing it down some parents’ throats.


    1. I do admit that some parents absolutely insisted on getting a gift. One parent was telling me that they always just go to the Dollar Store and fill up a bag with ten dollars worth of stuff, because the fun part for the kids isn’t really the gift, it’s opening the gift. It was as though their family had the exact opposite philosophy on gifts from what we were trying to do – and yet, it came from a place of love, because they really wanted to make sure my child had gifts to open. I guess, for them, that was the really fun part. I have found child parties can get stressful quickly when gifts are involved; kids worry that the birthday child didn’t like their gift, or liked someone else’s gift; or perhaps, as in my family growing up, we didn’t really have money for a ‘nice’ gift, and even gave second hand gifts. Sometimes, other kids get stressed watching one person open gift after gift, which is probably where the ‘goodie bags’ have come in, to try to offset that issue. I try to be sensitive with donations – they are not collected with any pomp or circumstance, so if someone forgets, or feels they can’t afford a donation, no one else will know.

      I love your idea of donating to the Friends of the Animals in others’ names. We do this at Christmas – we don’t give gifts, only ‘stocking stuffers’ – little treats, things we have made, perhaps, or fun little toys for the kids; and we all choose a charity and donate to it in everyone else’s names. We give out cards in the stockings, so people will know where we’ve donated. My kids love getting to choose a donation at Christmas time, and it takes away the stress of having to find gifts for everyone, plus all that waste. It took our family a little time to adjust to this idea, too – and, we still get gifts, even though it’s been many years since we’ve given any! – but I have to say, it has drastically cut down on the stress, cost, and waste of Christmas!

      PS. You’d probably love a friend of mine – when her friends have a second child, she tucks a pamphlet about human overpopulation and family planning into their gift!!


  2. I had a slightly different upbringing than my peers (my mother was Active Duty Army growing up, so we moved every few years), but my sister and I never had the big birthday parties with all of our friends, sleepovers and balloons, etc. We were able to pick what we wanted for dinner, and my parents always celebrated our birthdays, but they were never extravagant events. Admittedly, I loved Barbie growing up, and would often get one for my birthday or Christmas, but I don’t recall the mountain of princess paraphernalia you experienced with your daughter. I do love the idea of charity gifts, but one could also simply tone down the consumerism, yes? In terms of spreading change to my peers, I like to take baby steps and plant seeds rather than suggest overwhelming change of habit. In that spirit, I wonder if perhaps it might be fun to give a child a birthday gift, *and* to tell them that a gift was also donated in their name, to celebrate their presence in the world. Thank you for sharing!


    1. I totally agree that change takes time, and we are always gracious when people bring gifts (alone or along with their donations). The whole point of the idea was not to refuse all gifts, but to change the whole approach to birthdays. Before we left liberal Cambridge and our Harvard-affiliated daycare, birthdays were so different. They were large, because my kids were in a class at daycare; but the gifts did not feel consumerist – educational toys, books, etc. It was not until we moved to the suburbs that I experienced the startling difference, and I was truly stunned, not just by the pink-ness and the plastic and the princess; but that people were really honestly just being generous and kind, and this was their way of expressing it. I did not feel critical of their generosity or kindness at all; but I admit, I did feel a bit alarmed at some of the cultural messages in the gifts (such as giving a girl of 6 a High School Musical movie without checking that it was something our family would want in the house).

      I realized that it was simply a different culture from both where I grew up (rural Maine) and where my children were born (Boston). I also realized that it was not sustainable with our goals as a family. I really thought of it more as a way to help channel all the love and generosity of these new friends and their families into something that would not end up creating enormous stress and waste over the course of multiple kids and years. Sadly, I think it’s more common for people to feel they must give both a gift and a donation, and the last thing we intend is to make people feel more pressure. We put on the invitation, ‘I get plenty of gifts from my family! Instead of gifts, I invite you to make a donation to ___,’ and then a brief sentence about what the charity does. Over the years, all their friends/parents seem to have adjusted and now they even look forward to what it will be.

      The girls also take a few minutes before the cake, to explain to the other kids what their donations are going to. They give a short talk about the organization, what it does, and why it’s important. We have all learned so much together! And, it give them public speaking and leadership experience from a young age, which they both seem to appreciate as well. I find it’s easier to create change if you aren’t just taking things away, but also adding things. (Although I’m not sure anything will ever top the live baby chicks!) Thanks again for your important comments.


  3. The rule in our family growing up was if you had a big birthday party, (more than 5 people) then it was a donation party. We usually collected items for a homeless shelter in my city that we volunteered at. My sisters and I never felt gypped of gifts, and now I’m grateful that my parents instilled that sense of generosity in us from such a young age.


    1. This is wonderful! I’m sure it felt good to donate to a place where you had also volunteered as well. One year, my daughter had a canoeing party, and her friends donated to the group that was helping conserve the ecology of the lake we canoed on. Everyone had a wonderful time, and the folks who rented the canoes were so impressed, they gave her a gift certificate to come canoeing again sometime for free. I find this kind of theology of abundance and kinship can be contagious in wonderful ways, don’t you?


  4. It’s an interesting point about other kids’ parties – I don’t think I’ve ever suggested they get a friend a donation gift unless it was requested by the friend. That said, some places make donation gifts pretty fun these days – Defenders of Wildlife will send you adoption certificates and very cute stuffed animals for donations, and other places will give you a free pass to their locale (zoo, aquarium, etc.) in exchange, which you could pass on along with the donation ‘gift’ – so I suppose there are ways to pass it on to others that might not seem so ‘either/or’ – baby steps! (Or, in this case, young children-sized steps!) =)


  5. Excellent Tallessyn! We recognized a similar trend with materialism. Our son goes to a preschool in Cambridge that reads like a who’s who of Harvard and MIT professors as well as venture capitalists. The first party he was invited to included a visit from some New England Aquarium animals and lots of gifts. We talked to him about stuff…about his buddy from Fitchburg who lives with his mom and sister in a homeless shelter. So we suggested that he’d have plenty of gifts from us so he could ask people to help the Somerville Homeless Coalition. He agreed. I was concerned about the reaction of other parents. Would they think we were judging? Would they just say, “Yeah, Justin’s a pastor?” I carefully worded the evite reminding people that all of our children have everything they could ever need so we suggested a donation in his honor to SHC. I was pleasantly surprised. The invitation was seen by some parents as freeing. They said they wanted to do that but were afraid. It opened them up to conversations of materialism, privilege, and even faith.

    Let’s set the new standard to finally raise a generation of stewards.


    1. Justin, that’s wonderful! I like your word ‘freeing’ – I agree, it is really a big relief in many ways! I have also found it important not to be too rigid, too – if a little kid really wants to get something small – a token – as a gift for the birthday child, who am I to refuse? Perhaps these new ideas and habits need to be practiced and learned over time, like everything else..


  6. What a lovely idea! I can certainly understand the children’s delight, too. For the first time ever, this last Solstice I had a dear friend gift me with $25 donation money to kiva.org. I got to go to the website, peruse the possible recipients, then choose who I’d gift my donation to. It was great fun! I received many other gifts as well, but I find it interesting the kiva.org one is the one I both remember most, and felt best about.


    1. That is so interesting that this gift was the most memorable! Maybe because you had so much of yourself invested in your choice? As I mention in the original blog post above, my girls really enjoyed the part where they got to choose what animals their friends’ donations would provide through Heifer! To be so young, and get to make those choices – it’s very empowering for them! They also set aside a certain amount of their allowance for donating, and some of it goes to church, while other times, for example, in the wake of a disaster or injustice, they choose to donate to another kind of cause. Some folks like to give ‘experience’ gifts – like tickets to something, for example – and it’s interesting to me that you actually had a fun experience of your own, even though it was a donating experience. I remember one pastor telling me that the youth of the church never showed up for fun events, but if you told them they were needed to help with something, they would all come! So interesting how we engage different kinds of gifts and experiences.


    1. I am so glad you like this idea! I have actually been encouraged to start a non-profit service where I help organize charity birthday parties for kids and parents. I have to admit, it sounds like a really fun thing to do! I’m sure someone else will get to it first, though; I’ve got to finish my dissertation! In the meantime, I have noticed that some things are spreading – parties at animal shelters and other non-profits have become more common, as an alternative to bouncy houses and game centers. At our animal shelter, we asked if the kids could actually volunteer, in addition to having cake and meeting puppies. The kids LOVED it. they all brought old towels and sheets with them, and they cut them up and stacked them, and opened newspapers, removing the shiny magazine sections, and stacked them as well. They were so proud of themselves! I hope the shelter will start to offer volunteering as part of their birthday party ‘package.’ It’s like we have a huge population of beautiful souls who want to help, and they are mostly forgotten, ignored, or dismissed! But if we just give them a chance, they will change the world!


  7. I appreciate the notion to explore alternatives to celebrating birthdays, and that somehow through time, we’ve forgotten the meaning and essence of the “birthday party”. Part of the problem is, as you so insight-fully state, corporate domination of the holiday schedule and the consumption of items and products that occurs. But I also think the individual’s desire to do thing’s “different” from others is a play here., as well. Great article!


    1. Thank you for your kind words! It is tiring to be a trail blazer, of course; at the same time, it models something important for our kids, that we don’t have to accept things the way they are. I did tell both my kids that if they really wanted a ‘fun house’ kind of party, we could shell it out for that once each. Interestingly, my older child thanked me and never asked for such a party; and my younger one chose New England Aquarium, so her friends could learn about helping save the oceans, and donate to their Sea Turtle Rescue program. So much for corporate domination!

      It may help that in my family, birthdays have always been a big deal, in that it is the one day set aside to celebrate you. I am an identical twin, but my parents always made sure we had two separate cakes and they sang ‘Happy Birthday’ twice, the whole way through (all the verses!). Perhaps from a young age, I saw how good it feels to have a day set aside to celebrate your life. Having children we care about deeply (whether they are your children or someone else’s) really inspires us to want to make them feel truly celebrated. It’s nice to think that we do not need corporations telling us how to celebrate and nurture the beautiful children in our lives!


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