To Give or Not to Give – The Pros and Cons of Birthday Gifts

My kids have been invited to a lot of birthday parties over the years. One thing I’ve noticed (or to be more accurate, my wife has noticed…I only noticed her noticing it!) is that more and more kids are having parties where gifts are politely declined. “No gifts” has been scrawled on more than one invitation in recent years. Yet the importance of ‘public gifting‘ has been an ongoing theme around here, so I’d like to look at what I see as the problematic implications of a gift-free birthday party.

First of all, in defense of all the moms (including some friends) who have organized gift-free parties, I want to acknowledge that I’m sure they’ve made this choice for good reasons, like trying to minimize consumerism and environmental waste, not financially burden others, not spoil their child, etc. But it seems to me that this approach is misguided.

Because eliminating birthday gifts eliminates giving as well as receiving. It discounts the value and joys of giving and instead focuses on the perils of too much receiving. But giving is important. It creates a bond between kids. It allows guests to spend time thinking about the birthday boy or girl, choosing something appropriate. And it eliminates the strengthened relationships that can (though admittedly don’t always) arise from the giving of gifts.

Moreover, it eliminates thanking. A gift is an opportunity for a guest to contribute something to the event and thereby to show their appreciation for being invited to participate. Otherwise they just receive. Loot bags, cake, fun, etc. All without giving. Yet when we go to a dinner party, we bring a bottle of wine. Not because the hosts don’t already have wine, but because that gesture is important. We’re in this together. Even if you’re hosting us. We’re sharing in the creation of this event.

In addition, the giving of gifts is an occasion for the birthday boy or girl to express their gratitude to each guest individually, for their carefully chosen gift and for their presence. And implicitly, for their friendship. This thanking is an important art and a skill. It teaches children to value each other. And it highlights the real importance of expressing gratitude, especially publicly.

When gifts are excluded, so are all these positive aspects of giving and receiving. That’s why I think gift-free parties are a bad idea. If eliminating waste and consumerism is the (worthy) goal, then maybe ask for a handmade gift, or a baked gift, or a personalized poem or bracelet. Or ask the guests to re-gift a cherished item. There are many ways of celebrating the joys of giving and receiving without enriching Walmart or polluting.

Lastly, if the main reason for not wanting guests to bring gifts is because the birthday boy or girl already has too much stuff and more would simply be overkill, then regrettably, that child may already have been ‘spoiled’. And asking 10-year old guests to bear the burden of that over-indulgence is not the solution. I’m not sure what is, because I’m the furthest thing from a parental counselor, but don’t stop other kids from giving gifts just because you’ve given your child too many! (Maybe asking the birthday boy/girl to donate one toy for each new gift received to a local charity would work in that situation.)

Public gifting is deeply valuable. It’s an ancient tool for bonding friends and communities and we shouldn’t be so quick to abandon it. Because even in these acquisitive times it’s still better – and more important – to give than to receive. Especially when we all do it.

2 thoughts on “To Give or Not to Give – The Pros and Cons of Birthday Gifts

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  1. Even though we’ve hosted some no-gift parties as well as lots of bring-a-gift parties I am totally in agreement, John. I also feel this way about our families’ decisions to pick names at Christmas so that you don’t get to think of small special gifts for every relative, only one big gift for one person. I find this means that there is more pressure to choose the “perfect” gift, and one often resorts to asking for a suggestion in order to make sure that the gift fulfills expectations since it is the only gift to be received. I, too, lament the loss of gift choosing and gift receiving skills. I would rather think of (or make) small gifts for all my loved ones than pick names, but I’m afraid that I am in the minority, in our family at least. And I hate it when someone asks me what I’d like because I’d rather they think of it them selves- surely the thought put into choosing something represents a gift in itself…..

  2. hear here! and why not more real gifts of giving, where donations to thoughtfully selected causes are made on behalf of the birthdayee? i believe that you would agree to eliminate loot bagging…unless to match the donation!

    in our family we have a glass ceiling at 20: gifts cross it and exchange below it but not above it unless we think of something. like this year my aunt gave me psylium fibre pills – at first i didn’t know how to take it but now that i have well…great gift!

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