We will be celebrating our oldest child’s fifth birthday in about a month. We will also be continuing a tradition we began two years ago—politely requesting “no gifts” at his party.Our parenting choices are apparently part of a growing trend. In a New York Times article entitled “Cake, but No Presents, Please,” author Tina Kelley states the following:
In part to teach philanthropy and altruism, and in part as a defense against swarms of random plastic objects destined to clutter every square foot of their living space, a number of families are experimenting with gift-free birthday parties, suggesting that guests donate money or specified items to the charity of the child’s choice instead.
To be sure, “no-gift” children’s birthday parties are still more counter-cultural than commonplace. A blogger on workitmom.com who had just RSVPed to two such parties in one month was still struggling with the idea, noting that “it fe[lt] strange going to a kid’s birthday party without a gift. It’s just something that seems absolutely core to the experience, rightly or wrongly. Adult birthdays? That’s another story.”
Recently, my brother and some close friends of ours with young children have asked us why we do what we do. I’ve told them some version of the following:
- Critique of greed and materialism: We don’t want our children to grow up thinking of gifts as the highlight of their birthdays or as the reason why we host parties for them. We want them to enjoy playing with their friends without asking or secretly wondering, “So, what did you get for me?”
- Hospitality: We don’t want to overload our guests with obligations. We are always happy when our children get invited to parties, but it’s not always easy for us to juggle nap schedules with schlepping them to the parties with figuring out childcare (e.g., if only one child has been invited) on top of buying or making a present for the birthday child beforehand. So, in service to our guests, we try to remove as many of those potential complications as possible (e.g., by inviting the guest’s entire family to attend). By stipulating “no gifts, please,” we also eliminate the perception that a present is their de facto admission ticket to our child’s party.
- Better stewardship of time and resources: for the past two years, we have invited guests at our son’s birthday party to channel their gift-giving kindness to people with greater need instead, such as our son’s school, UNICEF, Habitat for Humanity, or their charity of choice. Approximately 13 families ended up coming to our son’s fourth birthday party. I’m not sure how much they ordinarily would have spent on a gift for him, but we if assume $10 per family, then last year $130 was either donated to charity or otherwise saved (by not being spent). That is a sizeable amount of money, particularly in today’s hard economic times. We believe that the common good was served better this way than if those 13 families had spent time and money buying gifts for our child that he really didn’t need.
These are values, in short, that emerge from my feminist and Christian commitments.
(In case you are wondering, our “no gift” birthday party policy was a natural extension of our more than decades long practice of donating to various charities in lieu of buying or exchanging gifts for (adult) family members on Christmas. Because holiday gift-giving is such a large part of mainstream White American culture, it took several years for my husband’s family to come around. They have since come to see our practice as “win-win” for everyone, particularly since they no longer have to add our names to their long Christmas shopping lists).
Thankfully, we are not the only family in our community or circle of friends who do what we do. The most popular alternative to gifts that we’ve seen is a book or CD exchange, where every child brings a wrapped book or CD that she has outgrown and ends up going home with another. To this day, some of my boys’ favorite bedtime stories have come from gently used books they have received through these exchanges at their friends’ birthday parties.
Still, all of us parents who host “no gift” birthday parties know that there are detractors. The guru of etiquette, Judith Martin of “Miss Manners,” has poo-pooed the idea with this sharp critique: “People seem to forget that you can’t spend other people’s money, even for a good cause…. Do you really want the birthday child to grow up hating philanthropy because it’s done him out of his birthday presents?”
I have no worries that my children will end up resenting charity, but I have had to entertain real concern from some loved ones that our children will grow up feeling (comparatively) deprived. To be sure, we spent a lot of effort on party decorations, invited lots of their friends, and served a full meal (and plan to do so for the foreseeable future for both kids), so we believe that our kids see how “special” birthday celebrations are from ordinary gatherings.
Still, I empathize with one thoughtful parent’s question on ParentDish–“Is it fair to ask our children to be different from their friends?” Her response to her own question is equally worth reposting:
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….We live in an enormously privileged country, and…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?
Last year, I totally admit that we as parents didn’t do a sufficient job explaining to our four-year old the reasons why he wouldn’t be receiving any gifts from his friends (only from family). By that age, he had attended so many birthday parties that he had come to recognize that presents were one of their key features (along with “the happy birthday song” over cake and candles, a piñata, and goody bags) and thus was confused as to why his party was different from others. In our defense, we had told our son in advance not to expect gifts from guests, but apparently our explanations hadn’t really sunken in.
This year, we have vowed to do a better job in explaining our values and commitments to our son. We even had our first conversation about the matter last week. Let’s hope for more understanding time around!
Let me close by adding that it is not my intention to shame parents who host birthday parties for their children in the traditional way (i.e., with presents from guests). I fully recognize that there are other ways for those who share our values (of anti-greed/materialism, hospitality, good stewardship) to live them out without going the “no gift” birthday party route. To use the words of a book that is still wildly popular in some Christian circles, I also understand that some people’s primary “love language” is “receiving gifts” (as opposed to words of affirmation, quality time, acts of service, or physical touch) and so it can seem downright cruel to them to either discourage guests from buying presents or to prevent their children from receiving them.
So I can in all honesty respect the decisions other parents make. For the reasons previously described, however, we have chosen a different path for our family.
Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics at Claremont School of Theology. She is the author of Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Georgetown University Press, 2011). While currently on sabbatical, she is working on her second book project and two co-edited books, in addition to carving artificial pumpkins in preparation for her son’s upcoming Halloween-themed fifth birthday party.