No-Gift Birthday Parties by Grace Yia-Hei Kao

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 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.

Restocking the “spells and potions” Halloween-themed birthday party table

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.  

Categories: consumerism, Family, General

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33 replies

  1. Thanks for a thoughtful and empowering post. Why not require (in addition to recommending the option of the philanthropic donation to the organization of the child’s choice) that all gifts, if any, be handmade or found by the children attending? Children of that age don’t care about the monetary value of gifts, but they love to give and receive to mark the importance of the occasion. A special pebble or shell or pinecone could be wrapped in handmade giftwrap. A watercolor drawing could be rolled up and tied with a special cord made of braided yarn. These kinds of gifts would be fun for all involved and no extra trouble for parents, and perhaps they would send the message of anti materialism even more strongly—because they would demonstrate that the alternative to mass consumer consumption is not deprivation and lack, but joyous acts of commercial-free generosity. And it would remind all involved of the pleasures of creativity and ingenuity.
    Kids do love presents– and that’s ok! but presents don’t have to mean spending money or adding to plastic clutter. It’s the thought that counts–and the thought is important! Something simple like a bluejay feather tied to a safety pin could feel special to a new 5year old as a “badge” of flying through another year!!
    Also, the ceremonial aspect of presents can be replaced by an annual tradition such as everyone making a tunnel of their arms that the birthday child walks through–there are wonderful games like this in a book called Through the Rainbow Bridge.
    Thanks again for sharing your quest to make your family life more meaningful!


    • Annie – I love all of these ideas and especially appreciate the tip re: the book. One thing I’m really grateful about is that at the very least, the children’s birthday parties (of others) we do attend never do the opening of presents in public — they rightly see that it would be torture for the other kids!


  2. I totally get this! My partner and I are getting married in a few weeks and, because we’re full adults and have everything we need, we’ve asked folks to donate to charity instead. People have been alternately relieved and weirded out and maybe some won’t donate, but it’s better than getting 4 toasters and a set of dishtowels. Kudos to you!


    • Thanks for writing and congrats on your upcoming nuptials! It’s awesome that you are living out the “stop buying us stuff we don’t need” lifestyle, too!


  3. good for you. i regularly make a gift to the animal welfare fund (stray cats and dogs) at my friends’ birthday parties. the last time i had xmas in the US i was so offended by the gifts for children–so many they didn’t even want to open all of them–I wanted to throw up. i know it is hard for some parents, but more stuff is not more love. actually it could be the opposite, teaching children that having is more important that caring for others.


    • Carol – thanks for writing. I have to admit not really understanding the whole “love language” of “receiving gifts” — how did that person become that way, where others need to spend money on them in order to feel loved? As children, we were taught the total opposite. Apparently, however, some people really have been “formed” that way…


  4. Our children are now teens and college age and we did quite a few no-gift birthday parties, starting when they were a little older, like age 9 or 10. Their grandparents were always very generous so we had to curb the material stuff somehow — the house was overflowing! We encouraged the guests to bring cards if they wanted and sometimes we asked for canned goods or items for an animal shelter. That seemed to help those that had a need to bring something.


    • Peg – thanks for writing. I also appreciate your point about the role that generous grandparents play. Thanks also for addressing the felt need for guests to bring something, anything. In light of your and others’ comments, I’ll follow-through this year with saying that cards are welcome (in addition to making our plug for them to donate to charity),


  5. My oldest’s sons birthday is today! His birthday party was yesterday and we do gifts, but our circle of friends is like-minded so the gifts were pre-owned toy passed on, a homemade card with some $, and some fabulous laser tag supplies from Goodwill. That feels like a good balance to me! :)


  6. Very interesting! How about when we have a birthday, we give gifts to people who need stuff?? And nuts to Miss Manners.


    • Barbara – thanks for writing and yes, I love your logic. Although I don’t live this out fully, a part of my rationale comes from Luke 14: 7-14 in the no gifts policy (although of course that passage has problems of its own). Sometimes I’ve noticed that people get into “gift wars” where they have to compete or give “as good” as gift as they have previously received. But when the giving is done in ways that cannot be directly repaid, the cycle is broken to the benefit of all.


    • Nuts to Miss Manners is right!!

      As I wrote above, I’m getting married but I recently read a “Dear Abby” post where someone asked if it was wrong to be irritated that some friends of hers (40-somethings) were asking for gifts for their pets. Dear Abby said “No,” I say if you have to start asking for stuff for your pets you clearly don’t need anyone to buy you anything.


      • Carol – agreed – you are really talking about the foundations of ethics. I actually wrote a book about such a question (with respect to human rights) and concluded that their underlying rationale need not be religious. My metaethical stance, however, is not universally shared. I have friends and colleagues who really believe in some version of divine-command theory or otherwise that religion undergirds our morals. So, to reach multiple audiences, I often give different rationales (some Scriptural, etc.) to the same end.

        2 Girls Getting Married: right on. Apparently, Miss Manners (and her ilk) say it is tacky to say ANYTHING about gifts on invitations, including saying “no gifts.” Boo to that!


  7. I was talking about this with friends this past weekend, at a book-exchange birthday party. I was wondering if it was an “East Bay” thing, or if other people were doing it, too, since it is so common in our circle. One of the things that was mentioned is that it is hard to show up at a party empty-handed, which sometimes happens with the “no-gift” parties. One parent said she asks children to draw a picture or write about their favorite memory with the birthday child, and then she put it together into a little book for him.


    • Kayko – thanks so much for writing and for sharing that idea. I love it! I really like the idea of empowering the kids to get involved in the giving us gifts and I the fact that this is at once creative, personal, and practically no-cost (assuming of course that one already has paper and markers, etc.)!


  8. This post is so encouraging!

    My spouse and I just got married in rural Alabama (that shining bastion of progress!) three weeks ago. Our parents begged us to register with retailers, saying that registering with Heifer International instead might be weird or offensive to guests, and that people would ignore it and buy us blenders anyway.

    A big donation toward asset-based community development and only one (!) store-bought gift later, we are so glad not to be tripping over unwanted crockpots and silverware in our house. People were more ready for this kind of move than I expected!

    Wish I could have read this months ago when I was starting to wonder whether the whole no-gift thing was crazy and insensitive after all! Thanks for this post, Dr. Kao!


    • Caitlin – please call me Grace and thanks for writing. Kudos to you for going the route you did and I’m so glad to hear of your positive outcome. As you experienced, bucking tradition can be so difficult. When I got married 10 years ago, I told my parents that after the ceremony at our (Taiwanese) church, I didn’t want to have a small reception in the fellowship hall — I just wanted to go to the reception site (at a hotel) for the meal and remainder of the celebration. My parents were really, really worried about that, since they couldn’t recall any couple in our church doing that (i.e., foregoing the church fellowship hall reception) and they were afraid of being seen as inhospitable. I told them that since practically everyone in the church had been invited to our wedding anyway (n.b., our final headcount was 319 – yes, we had a “big fat Taiwanese wedding”), no one would think that they were failing in any social obligations. We prevailed and soon several couples followed us in also skipping the church reception. It’s a really small example, but it does illustrate the point of real fears of incurring negative social reactions from others and the “good” things that can happen when people break from tradition.


  9. I agree with Barbara! Very interesting piece Grace!
    I like how consistent your ethic is; as you demonstrate in many of your blogs. I have mixed feelings about gift giving– partially, because I am one of those who expresses love in that way. Granted, I also hand make art-type gifts frequently (paper cut dragons usually– in fun scenes). I also see some gift-giving as a way that communities help one another. For example: baby showers. I know that all the contraptions the market throws at us are not all necessary. But having a child and preparing for his or her arrival is, even when done second hand, quite expensive. I have been to showers that are more minimal. I have been to ones that seemed over the top. But I always bring a gift, because I feel like I am really helping in some way– even when the family could afford their own necessities. I feel like, in that instance, I am a part of the community that is taking care of that child. However, I very much understand your emphasis on the materialistic and greed oriented aspects of gift giving.
    I do really like the idea of second-hand gift parties that you talk about– honestly, this is easier for me to imagine for my own future children (if I have some). But again, I really appreciate your consistent and very deliberate praxis! It pushes me!


    • Sarah – thanks for your response and please let me clarify that I am not anti-gift, not even anti-gift when the gifts are new purchases. I agree with you that it can be a beautiful thing for the extended community to surround a new parent or a young couple who are about to start their lives together. The trick is that in some cultures (my East Asian one included), gifts also incur heavy obligations and so they are never purely altruistic.


  10. I think kids of that age love gifts, but they don’t care if the gifts cost money or not. What about stipulating that any material gifts be handmade or found by the children who are guests? A special stone or shell wrapped up, or a watercolor drawing tied in a special cord of braided yarn, would be very meaningful to the child. A gorgeous birdfeather could be attached to a safety pin to make a special badge for a child who has flown another year on the earth! It would send the message that the alternative to consumer culture is not necessarily deprivation, but could also be a joyous expression of the guest’s creative ingenuity. Also, a special tradition, such as the birthday child walking through a tunnel made of everyone’s joined hands, can make the day special without gifts–there’s a great book called Through the Rainbow Bridge full of ideas like that…


    • love that idea, annie


    • Grace, great blog. We have the same practice in our family of no-gift giving b-days, but it only extends to friend parties. We often ask for a tangible donation like kids underwear for shelters or food for the local pantry (the kids pick something each year). Family (parents, grandparents, cousins, and aunt/uncles) can give gifts. This is a balance our kids like. However, as they got older, they also modified what they asked of friends on the invitation because so many people brought presents anyway. They ask for something homemade – a picture, card, craft, anything. That’s what they now give to other children regardless of the invitation criteria. Similar concept to Annie Finch’s response.


    • Annie – thanks so much for those ideas. I have thought of saying something like no “new” gifts – cards, handmade and second-hand items okay, but I admit to being concerned that people will be annoyed that we are telling them how to bring gifts (n.b., of course, the same people might be annoyed that we are telling them “no gifts” but at least in the latter case, we save them time and money). Your post — and Kate’s response — makes me reconsider whether I need to get over my hesitation.

      Kate – yes, thanks for writing. I remember our conversation at the SCE about this. I hadn’t realized that I had sisters in solidarity who do similar things – it gave me so much encouragement that we were doing the right thing in living our our convictions this way! And thanks also for tips on how to manage this as the kids get older — you are right, the strategy may have to change!


  11. Great timing! I have been wrestling with what gift to purchase for a friend whose friendship, while stable, does not allow for close contact. I’ll do what I ask of my own family, to donate to one of my own causes.

    Birthday parties for children have become epic in nature and financially challenging. In raising my own kids, it was always difficult to feel I did not have to compete with their peers and the over-the-top parties the parents threw.

    Great post and reminder to incorporate our feminist ideals into everyday practicers.


    • Cynthia – thanks for writing. I’ve also been talking with several friends of mine about the “epic” nature of children’s birthday parties these days. While my knee-jerk reaction is to balk at the incredible sums of money that are being spent, my more considered response is to remind myself that I don’t know the whole story (i.e., I don’t know the way that the family normally spends money or their total set of values). For instance, I know of some parents who always rent a space and “go somewhere” for their child’s birthday party (e.g., Chuck E. Cheese, My Gym, bowling alley) because they either don’t have a house or backyard large enough to accommodate their number of guests OR because they don’t want to spend their time cleaning pre and post-party. (Of course, they could simply host the party at a (free) park, as some do, but many others go a different route). I also know that some parents either can’t or won’t want to spend the time I do planning for birthday parties. For me, in all honesty, it’s really fun — it’s a real treat and study break to browse photos on Pinterest or surf crafting blogs for ideas, though I understand that party-planning for others feels like a real chore. The last thing I want to do is create pressure for parents to “keep up,” but I know that we are always evaluating our choices in light of others and so comparison is inevitable.


  12. I totally get this, and I’m glad that you are taking this action (and blogging about it). Many years ago, I decided to “boycott Xmas”. Oh, I still celebrate my religious tradition’s winter holiday, but I no longer put myself through the annual trauma of buying gifts and going to parties. The reason is, in years past, my jobs have invariably either been working overtime for the holidays, or shut down for the holidays. I, in turn, either have no time, or no money. The time and energy put into trying to find the right gift for every person got to be too much, not to mention the expense…. speaking of which, I think that there is a general theory that if you give gifts to others, they also give gifts to you. There is a reciprocity agreement there. However, most of the gifts are either totally irrelevant, or at least, unnecessary. Finally, one day, I just said “I am done buying things that people don’t need with money that I don’t have.” Of course, our consumerist culture/economy is dependent upon people doing just that. But, one day, I just decided that I don’t want to play anymore.

    I do, however, continue to buy chewies and cat nip for my animals for Yule, and I’ll put a little money into a friend’s PayPal account if I know that they are struggling. I might buy something for someone from their Amazon Wish List, because I know that this is something that they want or need (especially if I know that they are struggling). But I am done making the huge production out of the holiday that most other people do.


    • Joan – thanks so much for writing and for sharing your “boycott Christmas” story. I’ll blog about my Christmas experiences in a future blog, but I echo several of the reasons you stopped the craziness of gift exchanges. What is totally ridiculous and almost paradoxical about me, however, is that I love – LOVE – Christmas decorations (ornaments, stockings, wreaths, trees) and yet I know that, particularly in malls, they are designed to be extravagant to encourage shopping (which I detest) and that they detract from the religious significance of Christmas (in which I believe). I’m a walking contradiction when it comes to Christmas.


  13. Dear Grace,
    Yes, saying it needs to be handmade or found by the child who is coming to the party would probably be felt as a fun creative request, sort of an advance part of the party (and it will save the parent time and money too, since they will in fact not be making the gift). So many things kids do nowadays require the parents driving somewhere or buying something –what a a nice chance for those children to be able to give a gift all by themselves! Even when my daughter was quite old–10 or 11–she would continue to give handmade gifts to her friends, and I used to be afraid other kids would scorn them but instead they all enjoyed having something, even something simple, made by their friend.


    • Annie – I went to bed last night chatting about all of your ideas with my husband. I’ll keep you posted about what we’ll end up doing for our son’s birthday (in about one month). Thanks again for writing and for sending all of those great ideas (and positive energy) our way!


  14. In my circle of Mormon friends, it’s relatively common to host no-gift birthday parties for kids. I think a lot of this stems from the fact that many of my friends are students or grad students and have very little extra money, so they believe it’s a courtesy to not ask their similarly poor friends to buy gifts for their kid. I also have friends that put on the invitations, “no gifts please, but if you really want to bring something, please bring one or two cans of food that we can donate to charity.” I think that’s a nice approach — similar to what you do, Grace.

    With my kids, our normal modus operandi is to have a birthday party with friends only once every few years, and we make it clear that gifts are not necessary on the invitation. However, my kids do get gifts from grandparents, aunts/uncles, and parents, so they always do have a few fun things to open for their birthday. This seems to me like a nice moderate approach.


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