As the parent of an extroverted 5-year-old, it feels like we go to at least one birthday party every single week. Most of the parties we attend are pretty over the top — petting zoos, performers, face painters, and well, the gifts are over the top too, with the birthday girl or boy receiving at least 30 packages!
One time we went to a party where paid valets actually had to roll the presents out to the parents’ waiting SUVs (yes, plural) on huge luggage carts. I saw the modest gift bag we brought, with its modest princess puzzle, smashed under a giant gaming system, and I knew immediately that the birthday girl was never even going to remember our gift. How could she possibly when she was buried under an avalanche of abundance?
Children today have too much stuff (my own included). I go to the homes of my dear friends and family members and half the time I can barely make it into their living rooms because I’m tripping over trikes and kitchen sets, life-sized stuffed tigers, cowboy hats, Sofia’s magic amulet, a pile of building blocks, and 16 coloring books. This is not to mention all the toys that actually managed to stay IN the kids’ rooms, plus the outdoor accessories littering our lawns. And look, I’m not saying I’m not a part of this too. Because I am. My daughter has been blessed to have a lot of generous relatives who get her gifts at every opportunity.
I’m not ungrateful, but I strongly believe that all of this excess breeds a terrible sense of indifference. When kids have too many material things, they can’t keep track of them. Nothing is special anymore. The items lack meaning and kids aren’t thankful for them. In fact, I think they’re overwhelmed, and how couldn’t they be?
I tested this theory a couple of times. First, I asked my daughter if she could remember what her auntie got her for her birthday a couple of months ago. Predictably, she shrugged. Heck, I couldn’t remember either! Next, I asked my daughter’s friend, who just had a big party celebrating her 6th birthday, what her favorite birthday presents were. The kid had no idea, and let me tell you, their entire foyer was packed with brightly wrapped boxes and bags fluffed out with rainbow tissue paper and curly ribbons. Surely she could remember something?
“So what do you remember from your birthday then?” I had to ask.
“Playing games with all my friends!” the little girl chirped enthusiastically.
So there you go. Kid can’t recall a single one of the things she received, but she gets excited thinking about playing with her friends.
That’s why I recently vowed to stop giving birthday gifts. I don’t want to waste money on something that won’t be noticed or appreciated. I don’t want to contribute to wanton materialism and the clutter in anyone’s home. Instead, I want to gift kids with something a lot more important: meaningful experiences.
When I come to your birthday party, do not, under any circumstances, expect me to bring your child a gift. I’ll be glad to help clean up. I’ll cut and pass out cake, and I’ll cook three dishes for your potluck buffet. I’ll also gladly bring you a bottle of wine because I know that won’t go to waste! But I will not get your kid another present. Period.
I promise, this is going to be better for everyone involved, starting with me. First of all, I hate shopping and I’m on a strict budget anyway, so it just seems wrong for me to dip into my savings and stress myself out in a crowded mall at the last minute (because I am a notorious procrastinator) to get a toy or bauble that isn’t going to come from my heart. Second of all, I am the worst wrapper in the history of gift exchange. Banning gift-giving will surely save me some humiliation and parents won’t have to smile politely and awkwardly when they see the pile of wadded wrapping paper and mangled scotch tape with which I would mar their gift tables.
This is going to be better for the other moms and dads, too. I’ll be providing a little negative space, a welcome vacancy of sorts. Because of me, there will be one less toy to have to clean up. I will provide the absence of another screen, another beeping, singing, whirring, buzzing, screeching siren thing in a profusion of other such migraine triggers. And isn’t that kind of a gift in and of itself?
But before you think I’m rude, selfish, and entitled just showing up to enjoy your fete and eat your free pizza and cake empty-handed, here’s what I’m going to do instead of shopping. I will host a playdate for our kids; I’ll take the birthday child to that movie that just came out; we can all go to the science museum or the zoo. I’ll make a picnic and we can take our kids to the beach to celebrate instead. We can have an afternoon at the park. I’ll buy all the ingredients and your little boy or girl can come over and together we will bake a birthday cake. I’ll even spring for sparkling cider in fancy champagne glasses, or I’ll make a tea party and everyone can wear funny hats.
Instead of things and stuff and clutter, I want to give your child a memory — a chance for meaningful interaction with other human beings instead of plastic action figures or flashing screens. Don’t we have enough of those things already?
Most of us are pretty lucky to be the recipients of all this unbridled generosity, but there comes a point when we need to say enough stuff is enough stuff. The clutter is harming our kids, making them spoiled, unappreciative, burdened with clutter, and desensitized to real joy and excitement. Let’s teach our children to give and receive love through gestures and experiences rather than objects. In the end, what they remember is time well spent with the children and adults who truly engaged with them. Above all, the greatest gift we can ever give our kids is to teach them to build lasting relationships with others — relationships based on laughter and good memories and delightful experiences.