I’m not the only one. One particularly desperate invitee in Michigan was moved to write to Dear Abby, “When an invitation to a party states, ‘No gifts, please,’ do people really mean it?” Although Dear Abby answered, “‘No gifts’ means exactly what it says,” several of the dozen mothers I informally surveyed admitted they bring a small token even when asked to bring no gifts at all. And I understand why. We were invited to our first such party about six months ago, and, accordingly, arrived empty-handed – only to face a pile of presents as soon as we walked in. My husband and I felt like the biggest suckers in the world.
Of course I understand that my friends who make the decision to ask for no gifts do so with the best of intentions, not to provoke a collective anxiety attack in a majority of their guests. Ricki Eisenstein has thrown such parties for her children in the hopes of “trying to eliminate a ‘greed culture’ in the house” – which pretty much encapsulates my biggest concern for my own children, as well as that of many parents we know. In fact, as I was mulling over the philosophical implications of heaps and heaps of birthday gifts, September’s Philadelphia Magazine arrived in the mail, with its cover story on the “bad parents” whose desire to give their children everything they wanted has produced a generation of kids who, instead of well-rounded and appreciative, turned out weak and spoiled.
But you can still be pro-gifts and anti-spoiling. Another friend, Rhea Lee, believes that birthdays are exactly the time to relax the limits enforced throughout the rest of the year. In an effort to keep her two daughters from growing up with a sense of entitlement, she makes it a habit not to buy them the toys and treats that all kids ask for on outings. Birthday parties, with their extravagant piles of presents, represent for Rhea a contained opportunity for the indulgence she feels is, in small amounts, a necessary part of childhood.