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Birthday gifts: Too much to ask?

Categories: economy


My son turned one on Monday (HOW?!), and over the weekend we threw him a birthday party that, against all the advice in the world, was completely out of proportion to anything a kid his age should be made to tolerate: thirty-plus guests (mostly adults) invading his house for four hours in the middle of the day, talking loudly over rock-and-roll music and pinching his cheeks whenever he toddled within pinching radius. The poor thing weathered the celebration and adoration like a champ, though, and instead of fussing his way to an early exit, he partied hardy to an acceptable naptime of 4:30, after all the guests had gone, no harm done.

The event was a success by all accounts, but the one thing that had me wringing my hands after it was over was the pile of gifts–nice gifts, too nice–that our friends had brought for a kid who, let’s face it, barely knows the difference between a brand new toy and one we’ve just hidden from him in the closet for a few months (or worse, a toy that is really just a paper grocery sack with HANDLES OMG). I just felt a little awkward sitting there opening gift after gift in front of a rapt audience while also trying to keep the star of the show focused on the task at hand when he’d clearly rather be pinching his fingers in the mail slot again and again.

I got like this after my baby shower(s) too (and every Christmas, come to think of it), and perhaps it’s just that I’m no good at accepting gifts, but I suspect it has more to do with my hypervigilance about the difference between “want” versus “need” versus “need.” (Funny how living on a shoestring will do that do a person, huh?) Now, as I look at the new books and clothes and delightful wooden toys and cursed lights-and-sounds plastic toys, I can’t help feeling like we shouldn’t have all that–not that we don’t want it or don’t deserve it or don’t appreciate it, but that we don’t need it–especially when there are starving kids in Africa (or in Oakland, probably just a few streets over). Things like this always take me one step further down the path to selling all my worldly possessions and donating the money to something with Mother Theresa’s official stamp of approval (see also: charity bell-ringers at Christmas and homeless people beggging for change next to ATMs), but then of course I don’t because, man, I do love me some stuff. Hence the moral dilemma.

I saw this coming, though. I agonized a fair amount over what to include on the invitation regarding gifts; “No gifts, please” has been popular for years, but lately we’ve also seen some “No gifts necessary,” which, really? No gifts necessary? What am I supposed to do with that? At least with “no gifts, please,” I didn’t have to feel quite so awkward if I couldn’t afford to bring anything–I  was just following instructions, after all–but “no gifts necessary”? Well, that pretty much means I have to bring a gift, doesn’t it? And even that is beside the point because I LOVE to buy gifts when I can, especially for kids, so then why do I dizzy myself in this roundabout in the first place, making a big deal out of nothing? (Or is it nothing?) In the end, I sent out our invitations with no reference to gifts at all–out of sight, out of mind…until I look at the living room floor and see it littered with new puzzles and puppets and all thins Elmo and then I think of the kids in Zimbabwe with no shoes.

I’ve read with admiration as parenting magazines profile mothers who host children’s birthday parties at which the guests bring donations to food banks or clothing drives instead of gifts–some moms even going so far as to make the entire party a charity event by taking kids to visit shelters or plant trees or pick up trash at a local park–but I never thought I was the type who could pull it off, especially considering how much I loved my own cake-and-ice-cream-and-gifts-galore parties when I was growing up. Then again, I never envisioned myself as a babywearing, cosleeping, full-time-breastfeeding, homemade baby food-making person either, so maybe this gift-shunning is just another thing motherhood has done to me (rather than something I’ve done to it, which is how I thought this whole gig worked before I found myself in the thick of it). Maybe becoming a mother has made me more sensitive to the needs of the needier. It’s definitely made me more sensitive to the needs of the mortgage bills and electric bills and grocery bills enough to drown out the more frivolous gimmes.

I imagine this issue is something that will change over time–when my son is older, I’ll be able to ask him what kind of birthday party makes him happy–but I also hope that the decisions I make when he’s younger will be a positive influence on the kind of person he becomes, i.e., that he will be concerned about the feelings and welfare of others even on days that are celebrations of him. My best-case scenario? That future birthdays will be occasions to help others and have our cake and eat it too.

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8 comments so far...

  • I had one party for my kids - it was a combination 1st birthday / welcome home party. I requested no gifts. A few people brought gifts anyway, but I didn’t open them in front of everyone because that would make everyone else feel awkward. I have never regretted just saying “no gifts please” right up front.

    I haven’t had any other birthday parties for the girls. Lord knows they have everything they could possibly want, and if there is something else I want them to have, darnit, I want the pleasure of buying it for them myself.

    I’m thinking when the girls are much older, I might have one big bash but again ask for no gifts, or some specific type of gift that doesn’t involve a lot of bulk or spending.

    SKL  |  December 16th, 2009 at 7:08 am

  • My daughter’s 1st birthday was actually a subdued event; a few friends. They brought gifts and my daughter adored the paper & bows that covered them. She wore bows for days!
    Her 2nd birthday was organized by others in my family and was a huge party in the yard, with a birthday girl who is clearly bleary-eyed. And you know? not as fun. She was interested in one gift that was actually presented as a naptime gift pre-party, and that did it for her.
    We then did away with parties for 3 years until we reached school-age. And then, everyone ELSE had parties so of course she wanted one.

    Mich  |  December 16th, 2009 at 12:06 pm

  • Maybe you could donate some of the toys to a family shelter/sick kids hospital/foster home/local agency toy drive? Kid won’t know the difference.

    For future parties you could ask that guests bring non perishable food or donate to your favourite charity. I love buying presents for people too, and hate showing up to a party empty handed. Recently one of my friends had a birthday party and asked that everyone bring children’s multi vitamins for a charity that she was supporting. It was a great gift idea- no unwanted presents and the donations went to a great cause.

    Cathy  |  December 17th, 2009 at 8:53 am

  • I stole one from my girlfriend - ‘Please make your presence your present’. They still all brought gifts though, but it was toned down. For us there were older kids who love to give and receive gifts so they just had to pick something out.

    I also don’t think that at ages 1 and 2 you need to open presents in front of everyone. We didn’t for my daughter. We had her party at a play place (didn’t have to set up or clean up) so the kids had more time to play. She was so tired opening things and this way she didn’t show preferences either.

    StaceyS  |  December 17th, 2009 at 11:37 am

  • StacyS–I definitely thought about that, but I figured people like to see reactions to gifts in general, and especially when the birthday is for a kid. We didn’t open our baby shower gifts until after everyone had gone, and as self-conscious as I would have felt opening in front of everyone, it was almost worse doing it alone for some reason. Maybe because it felt less personal? Not entirely sure how to describe the feeling…

    Leah  |  December 17th, 2009 at 11:44 am

  • We’ve always stuck to the age of kid=# of guests (excluding grandparents) rule, and so we have yet to get too many presents. For us, we generally can’t afford much in the way of toys, so it’s a real blessing to get the gifts, especially while the kids are small and outgrow certain types of toys more quickly. We go through twice a year as a family and give away toys and clothes that aren’t needed anymore. So far, this has worked for us.

    LMJN  |  December 18th, 2009 at 5:07 am

  • Thank you for bringing back to the fore, memories I thought I had suppressed of my own daughter’s first birthday this past spring. Reading your description/account/replay was like hearing my own words over again. About the same number of adults, music, wine, beer, food and present overload.

    The presents were lovely, but I had asked in advance that people not get her toys - that if they got her anything at all to contribute to her college fund or donate the money.

    Not one person listened to me.

    I don’t know what I’ll do for her second birthday, just around the corner in about 4 months.

    Phe  |  December 21st, 2009 at 8:54 am

  • We did the same thing for our daughter’s first birthday only most of our friends have kids so it was crazy. Actually my daughter enjoyed it because some of her favorite people were there and she is a natural ham. I had stated no presents - and I was laughed at by my friends. However everyone kept the gifts small. The problem is my daughter’s birthday is on the other side of Christmas. We kept it small last year (my parents, my husband’s mom and sister, his dad and stepmom and then my best friend and her family - three kids - they are their own party) and are doing the same this year. In the summer this year or next we are planning on doing a party at one of those crazy places with our friends and their kids.

    Heather  |  December 22nd, 2009 at 9:16 am

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