Thoughts on birthday gifts, regifting and no-gifting

Photo of my wife wearing five pieces of finger-shaped pieces of paper on her fingers. Read the whole article to discover their purpose.

My daughter’s fifth birthday is rapidly approaching and it has me thinking about what I’ve learned from her first four birthdays — I really don’t like gifts.

My wife and I put a good deal of thought into the types of products we do and don’t surround our kids with. Birthday parties are a big gamble, sure to produce a few gifts we don’t want in our home no matter how much they excite our kids.

In those cases, if the parent slips in a gift receipt, it’s much appreciated. If not, the present is re-gifted to another child whose parents don’t have the hangups we do. Or we donate it to our local Toys for Tots toy drive each December. That sort of thing works, but soon our daughter won’t be so quick to forget the toys that mysteriously never make the journey from her party to her bedroom.

Daddytypes had an excellent post yesterday on The Case for Regifting.

For our part, we try our best to avoid giving inappropriate presents. We call parents to find out the types of toys we should be considering while still remaining within our comfort zone.

Oh, your 3-year-old boy likes books and Transformers? Uhh, okay, let’s look for a book. Your daughter is very girly and loves Disney princesses and whatever pink thing we give her will not be girly enough? Okay, here’s a fairy book with a read-along CD, and a gift receipt.

On our most recent gift, Scrabble Junior, my wife checked with the other mother beforehand to be sure it was a good fit for her 5-year-old. Does he play board games? Is he interested in spelling? Do you have Scrabble Junior yet? Yes, yes and no.

So, anyhow, here I am at a crossroads. You know I’m a book hoarder. Writing a sometimes-product-blog, I also love acquiring things. But on my off days, I rail against conspicuous consumption. Yes, I’m conflicted.

And thus I was challenged by a recent comment on my book hoarding post from Thinga-reader “NRBP” when she wrote:

“We attended a birthday party recently that was also a book exchange — no presents, no goodie-bags — everyone brought a wrapped book and had the opportunity to trade it in for one someone else had brought. There was a little bit of book envy, but the hosts had provided a few extras and everyone went home happy.”

I asked her for a few more party details:

  • Party for 5-year-olds
  • Held at a gymnastics place
  • Wrapped books were opened by everyone after cake
  • Books seemed carefully chosen and were fairly gender-neutral
  • No serious arguments over who received a better book
  • Some kids wanted their book read to them pronto. Several reading circles broke out.
  • Upon departure, a few kids lamented not receiving a goodie bag.

It sounds wonderful, right? I had a similar idea for my daughter’s party, but with a greedy difference. We will accept gifts as per usual, but request they be books. The implication is, parents will buy her a new book. We’ll have a book-shaped cake. Our party favors will be gently used books with the kids picking one from a table.

I bet my idea would have sounded cool if you hadn’t read NRBP’s version first. And there you see my conflict. Either approach is so much better than every party I’ve ever attended, but deep down my version makes me feel dirty for still wanting a piece of the gifting scene that all of my daughter’s friends partake in at their parties.

On the flip side, because we own so many books, there’s a good chance some of the new books would be duplicates.

So I guess it’s untrue what I said at the top of the page. I really do like gifts, but only appropriate gifts. At the same time, I know in my head the ideals I should be striving for — non-materialism, sharing, selflessness, and so forth.

And by writing all of this here I suppose I’ve forced my hand because a few of the mothers will read it and think so very less of me if I turn around and expect them to buy a spiffy new book for my daughter.

A brief tangent

Now, the thing to know about my daughter is that she is preoccupied with making her friends gifts with what she can manage using colored pencils, paper, scissors and tape. On her last day of preschool, all of her classmates received a picture of a flower addressed to them individually by name (she copied their names from a class list).

On our recent vacation, she made “finger warmers” for Gramma and Grampa, although we forgot to give the gifts.  A finger warmer is what it sounds like… two finger-shaped pieces of paper taped together with your name written on the outside. You stick your finger inside to keep it warm.

Ohhh, so now the photo at the top of this page makes sense. I like to include a little prize for the people who read an entire article. There you go.

Tangent concluded

And as for what my daughter thinks of the birthday situation, she says, “I don’t need presents. I need friends.” I guess I need to be as big a human being as my daughter.

So, the only thing left for me is to solicit your opinion on NRBP’s version of the party. Should each kid bring a used book, or should we state up front we want no gifts at all? Should books be wrapped or unwrapped? How does the communal book sharing process go down? I’ve been collecting duplicate picture books for this giveaway, so if they bring their own to share, I could very well send kids home with more books than they brought.


20 Responses to “Thoughts on birthday gifts, regifting and no-gifting”

  1. Paul says:

    Here’s an interesting idea, especially considering what your daughter said about gifts. Find a children’s hospital that accepts gifts for the sick children. Then announce in the invitation that each guest should bring a toy for that. After the party let your daughter be the one to deliver all the toys to the hospital.

    Credit goes to my kids’ preschool director who put this idea in a newsletter recently.

    May 15th, 2009 at 2:43 am

  2. RobMonroe says:

    BackPackingDad did a food drive for his daughter’s birthday party. Sounded like a great idea for me.

    I like sticking with books, as the whole family loves them, I think Paul has a good idea. You’re mixing charity with something you love. Win win.

    May 15th, 2009 at 5:29 am

  3. Tiffany says:

    As for wrapping, kids love unwrapping things- but the possibility of trading out for other books is also a perfect way to make sure everyone gets a book they actually want. And you could take the above toy donation idea and apply it to the books as well- most hospitals need more than just toys- books are good too. I haven’t actually given in to the birthday party idea at all yet- so far my 3 year old son has never had a birthday party- just cake at home with mom and dad. No junky toys I’ll just have to get rid of!

    May 15th, 2009 at 6:30 am

  4. Kara says:

    This topic flares up repeatedly on a parenting message board that I read. I always come down on the same side and that is, it feels impolite to me to make any requests regarding gifts unless specifically asked by the giver. And requiring a kid to donate his/her birthday presents feels a little “Mommy Dearest” to me.

    I’m sure this will change when Henry starts school, but as of right now most of his friends are the kids of my friends and they’ve all been to my house and know the types of toys we keep around here. And in our circle most everyone has a wishlist/registry at Target or Amazon and we’re all pretty quick to ask for that information when an invitation comes out.

    We do regift and donate things. Henry has some control over that. We have a limited amount of storage space and our rule is everything has to have a place, so if there isn’t room we have to make room.

    May 15th, 2009 at 6:33 am

  5. adrienne says:

    Here’s a vote for no birthday party gifting.

    Dagnabbit. My explanation turns out to be way too long for the present time AND for comment etiquette. I will post a response on my blog this weekend.

    May 15th, 2009 at 6:59 am

  6. Ticia says:

    I’ve tried putting in the invitation no gifts, but everyone except a few ignore it, and the few who do follow feel like cheapskates for not bringing a gift.

    If you really don’t want to have gifts you don’t want for your kids do the book exchange party. That way people don’t feel like you’re telling them what to bring (which gets people ticked off) and everyone doesn’t have to feel like they’re not bringing a present for the birthday girl.

    May 15th, 2009 at 7:06 am

  7. My Boaz's Ruth says:

    I don’t feel comfortable going to a birthday party without a gift.

    I would be fine with the bring a book to exchange. MUCH better than not bringing anything at all.

    But I do get upset being told on the invitation not to bring a gift at all. Because it does feel tacky. And it puts me in the uncomfortable position of not being sure what to do because of statement 1. I’m not comfortable going to a birthday party without a gift. Now, call it a party to celebrate life or anything else — and I’m fine going without a gift (except for a thank you to the hostess for inviting me). But when it is called a birthday party or a shower, then it means gifts.

    May 15th, 2009 at 7:50 am

  8. MoJo says:

    My 6 year old went to a party recently where the little boy didn’t want gifts. He has recently read about condors and their plight. He decided that he wanted to help and asked for donations instead of presents. He parents loved the idea and really emphasized in person that he didn’t want any gifts. At the party (at a local gym) he was at the door with a fish bowl to collect money, and lots of information and pictures he as drawn about condors. My daughter and another girl I took were really excited to hold a $10 bill and deliver it to him. And they took extra time to make him a nice card. The little boy really had a sense of accomplishment after wards when he saw all the bills in the bowl. Maybe that isn’t for everyone, but it is certainly something I will consider later for my kids.

    May 15th, 2009 at 10:08 am

  9. MoJo says:

    Oh and for goody bags, our kids circle of friends has really gotten into making mix CD’s of their favorite music and passing them out at the end. It has been a huge hit with parents and kids. It is always fun to see what kind of music other kids are listening to. No candy, plastic junk or tattoos. We still listen to some from years ago.

    May 15th, 2009 at 10:10 am

  10. JMo says:

    I’ve also requested no gifts for parties in the past and it never works out. As Ticia said, most people ignore the request and the few who do follow feel like cheapskates for not bringing a gift.

    So I think the book exchange is a great idea. It’s the best of both worlds – attendees get to bring a gift and every kid goes home with a useful present instead of a goodie bag full of molded plastic crap.

    May 15th, 2009 at 10:14 am

  11. Jeff says:

    I’ve struggled with this myself. The Bear turned 5 in March and we’ve never had a party involving kids from school/daycare. One of the main reasons is the present thing, I don’t want people who really don’t know her to buy gifts. Too many parents just run into Toys r Us or some other toy dept. and just get “what a young girl is supossed to be in to” – because that’s what’s on the pink shelves. That just ain’t happening in our house. When she’s invited to parties we usually go with great kid’s music, giving a CD, but we always ask her if she knows what the kid likes and we try to be as thoughtful as possible, even within the music choice.

    May 15th, 2009 at 12:28 pm

  12. Allison says:

    Lots for me to think about in this post and the comments! So far we have mostly avoided the birthday party thing. We have been invited to a few and we have not invited anyone other then family to our son’s celebrations.

    I really like the book exchange idea and might file that away for future use. Kids do like unwrapping stuff so I would probably do the wrapped books.

    Another idea I heard somewhere was to base a party off the story of Stone Soup. Each guest would bring an ingredient for the soup or something to eat with the soup and then at the party you can tell the story, make the soup and eat the soup.

    For the few parties we have been invited to so far I have pretty much stuck with gifts that you can always use more of. So age appropriate art supplies, play-dough or books. I also include something handmade. I knit and sew so for babies I generally knit a hat. For toddlers I have been sewing crayon holders and art aprons.

    May 15th, 2009 at 2:20 pm

  13. Amber says:

    Attending a birthday party at which you both bring and receive a “gift” (used or not) seems like an invitation for disaster and a missed learning experience. What if those kids then expect that they will get something at every birthday party they attend? And, then, also missing out on the chance to say “See how happy your gift made her? You made her feel special on her special day. Doesn’t it make you feel good?”

    Maybe that sounds rotten and materialistic, but there are lots of times in life when others will get and your child will not. They need to learn how to be gracious and happy for those others, even if they are sad they didn’t get something themselves.

    Just my take.

    As to the “to gift or not to gift”, I wouldn’t feel at all upset if someone said to me “we’d like to do only learning toys this year” or something similar. You’re not beating them over the head with “We will accept only this or this”, but expressing your desire not to get, say, a bratz doll and certainly upping your odds and getting something you deem appropriate for Little Miss.

    May 15th, 2009 at 3:42 pm

  14. KGS says:

    I really like both versions of the book birthday party. AJ, I don’t think you should feel guilty about your version. Most kids enjoy receiving gifts on their birthdays no matter what the presents actually are, and wanting your daughter to feel the excitement of opening her stack of wrapped books sounds just fine to me, especially as she’ll also be a part of giving any duplicates to someone who needs them. It’s not until we’re much older than 5 that we start to feel bummed that people have spent money buying us gifts we don’t need or want. I think your version of the book party sounds like a perfect compromise between the traditional gift-giving most of us feel comfortable with at a child’s party, and a less wildly consumerist approach a lot of us *wish* were traditional.

    I’ve been to adult parties with a “no gifts” request some guests ignored. Usually the host says thank you and then tucks the item discreetly away to open later, which seems like a good approach in those situations (assuming you send a thank-you note after opening it, anyway).

    May 15th, 2009 at 3:43 pm

  15. Jill says:

    I love the idea of the book exchange, but I do sympathize with the idea that kids should not expect to GET something at a party at which they are guests. We have been moving in the direction of CD mixes as party favors, not only because it doesn’t cost us much to make them, but also because it’s different from what other kids give out and it is clearly homemade/shows thought. (Plus, we’re big theme people, so it’s an easy way to carry it through — pirate music for the 5th birthday, Olympic music for his 6th, etc.) My son’s favorite part of getting ready for his party is creating the goody bags — a few pieces of candy in keeping with the theme, and making/burning/decorating the CDs. I have never given CDs as birthday gifts, though — and now I will remember that idea! :)

    May 15th, 2009 at 7:40 pm

  16. Paul says:

    > Usually the host says thank you and
    > then tucks the item discreetly away
    > to open later, which seems like a
    > good approach in those situations
    > (assuming you send a thank-you
    > note after opening it, anyway).

    KGS makes a great point here. If the people involved demonstrate grace and handle themselves in an (ahem) adult manner instead of being petty, the various misunderstandings or differences in tradition that people have shouldn’t be any source of problem or bad feelings.

    May 16th, 2009 at 10:53 am

  17. Jen says:

    I did the no gift thing last year, almost everyone brought gifts anyway, which probably then made the people who didn’t a gift feel bad about not bringing a gift.

    You can’t win no matter what you do…

    May 16th, 2009 at 11:04 pm

  18. Ari says:

    good point, Jen… i think the ‘no gifts please’ at the bottom of the invite is a nice gesture but rarely do 100% of the attendees ‘comply’..

    i love the condor donation idea… how cute is that? as a follow up though, i think it is nice if the parents got an update email/letter saying ‘thank you for coming to Max’s birthday party. We are happy to announce that as his birthday gift, we were able to raise $150 to donate to Condor Conservation International.’ JUST so that there’s info on where the $ went.

    I like the book theme party but that’s b/c I’m a big ol’ hokin’ nerd…. I dunno that my fellow mommies would ‘understand’ this… and we have not had a birthday yet so i’m worried about how to deal with this. I already have inlaws who over-spend on non-necessities (extra clothes and toys already at <8 months old- believe me, I’d rather have it go to the college fund since baby is NOT at a loss for his wardrobe.)

    I gave a fellow mommy who had a 1 yr bday party last month 2 things: a board book and a sturdy wooden puzzle. Toys I Can Believe In.
    (Not sure if fellow mommy liked the gifts. we’ll see.)

    May 17th, 2009 at 7:21 am

  19. mike says:

    I first heard of the book-exchange party idea on Slate a few years back. I’ve been emailing this article to people ever since. My daughter has only had parties with 1-2 friends thus far, so we haven’t had the chance to do a book party yet. But, with her 4th birthday looming (and the 15 friends from preschool we’ll need to invite), I’ll be using all of your tips to help me figure out how to structure the party’s gift policy.

    The original Slate article:

    May 17th, 2009 at 8:42 am

  20. adrienne says:

    Why we host no gift parties (the extended play version):

    May 17th, 2009 at 5:07 pm