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.
There are certainly practical reasons for “no gift” parties. Jaime Gusdorff chose that route because she has found that many birthday presents tend to be “stuff you either don’t want your kid to have or stuff they already have.” If her two daughters are desperate for something she and her husband think is appropriate, they either buy it for them or let grandparents or other family members give it to them on birthdays or Hanukah. And as the mother of five myself, I can certainly sympathize with the desire to reduce the amount of unwanted clutter in the house. When my twins turned one last June, I seriously considered asking guests not to bring any gifts. After all, with the hand-me-downs of three older siblings representing both genders, Aaron and Gretchen truly wanted for nothing. And it seemed like the perfect opportunity to get out of writing thank-you notes, which I hate more than anything else in the world. Furthermore, the twins certainly wouldn’t miss opening the gifts the way my older kids would, so it was really about what I wanted.
And the truth was, it saddened me to think of a birthday party without presents. There’s nothing more exciting, more full of potential, than a wrapped gift. It could be anything – yes, something your kids already have, or something with a thousand pieces you know will be irretrievably dispersed throughout your house, or even worse, something with Play-Doh. But it might also be something clever or original, something your kids didn’t even know they wanted, something that might spur an entire new interest. We’ve received some very special gifts over the years: adorable outfits that have passed from child to child, books that have become beloved favorites, charming decorative items that make me think of the friend or family member who chose them every day.
Of course I’ll grant that most of the hundreds,Kids learn to be gracious hosts by thanking their friends for presents they don’t really want. maybe thousands of presents our kids have been given are closer to Play-Doh than to anything truly spectacular. But that’s okay. Play-Doh can be donated to charity. Or it can be re-gifted (virtually none of the moms I surveyed were offended by the idea of re-gifting). I just think the advantages of exchanging gifts as a practice far outweigh the inconvenience of disposing of some unwanted toys.
Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners, who opposes “no gift” parties, points out that kids learn to be gracious hosts by thanking their friends for presents they don’t really want. For me, helping my children choose gifts for their friends that they think their friends will like (instead of picking out what they themselves covet the most) has been, and continues to be, an important part of teaching them to be considerate, empathetic and generous people. Now, my six-year-old daughter Erika will often linger at the close of a birthday party to ask the birthday girl to open our present, she is so excited about what she picked out. It’s a big step up from the pre-schooler who couldn’t watch her friends open gifts without crying out of frustration and envy.
Erika has also started thinking about gifts on other occasions – or even when there’s no occasion at all. She’s discovered how easy it is to brighten her friends’ days by sending them cyber gifts through Webkinz, or to cheer up her sick sister with a stuffed animal from the drug store. As encouraging as I have been of these impulses, I can’t help but wonder if Erika would have developed them in the first place if she had been told when her friends turned four, then five, then six, that her gifts weren’t wanted. And those impulses are ones I hope she carries into adulthood. My grown-up friends are equally delighted with a chocolate-chip scone, an interesting book, or any other unexpected little present. As reductive as it sounds, I have come to believe everyone would be happier if more gifts were exchanged, not less.
But what, you might ask, about the also admirable goal of teaching kids philanthropy by having them donate birthday cash to charity? The New York Times praised this type of “no gift” party as “the first hyper-parenting trend that doesn’t reek of wanton excess.” And I certainly want my children to develop a desire to help those in need. But there are many opportunities throughout the year for kids to participate in philanthropic activities. Schools, synagogues and churches often hold seasonal drives to collect food, toys and clothes; hospitals, fire stations,I want my kids to think about charity as something routine – unlike birthdays, which are special. animal shelters and countless other organizations welcome donations of time, money and supplies all year round. And that’s how I want my kids to think about charity, as something routine – unlike birthdays, which are special. Despite the old joke that “every day is children’s day,” birthdays are really the only day kids get to be the absolute center of attention, the only day that is all about what they (and not their siblings, friends or even the homeless or the cancer patients) want. Teaching them to be charitable, that’s what we want. Lucky for us, we get the other 364 days. That’s plenty of time.