It's Okay to Have a "No-Gift" Birthday Party

by - Friday, March 10, 2017



This week, I read a pretty funny letter from a lady named Hinda Mandell to herself. In it, she gives herself a damn rough time. What is her crime?

She asked for no gifts for her daughter's birthday, asking instead that everyone brings a dish,

Hinda says (to Hinda) that the invitation was annoying and that everyone knows (including her, in retrospect) that you have to bring a gift no matter what. Hinda tells Hinda to get over herself, to let go of the idea od this as a trend, and DEFINITELY to not take it a step further and ask for donations to a charity instead.

She ends with this-

"Remember. This is America. Any attempts to curtail consumerism are futile. Besides, that glow-in-the-dark unicorn pillow your sister-in-law gave your kid is really something."

Alright lady, I don't want to get in between this serious conversation between you and you, but I think you both have it all wrong. You are breaking my Enviromentalist Light heart. So I am going to write a letter too.

Dear Hinda (and Hinda),

Sorry your birthday party didn't work out the way you wanted it to- at least your one year old won't remember! But I don't want you to think "curtailing consumerism" is a futile effort. A gift-free party isn't impossible at all, you just need to jimmy your approach a bit.

I know it is a real thing- I have lived it! Most of my son's birthday parties are gift-free. Most of his little toddler friends' parties are gift-free. People mostly don't complain, and the kid has no idea it should be any different. If the real point is just to celebrate this tiny person, having the people they love there ready to have fun, eat cake, and give them attention is really all that is needed for a fun party.

You got stuck in a classic mom challenge- do what you feel is right for your kid vs. what everyone wants you to do. But let me validate you- setting the stage so your child receives fewer (not none, because let's not kid ourselves) gifts is a gift to her in itself. It helps her from building associations that mean all holidays mean gifts (because if you don't want a materialistic kid, it's never too early to start) AND it keeps that much more toy and clothes waste out of landfills. People feeling awkward at your party is a bummer, but their need to still bring a gift is neither your fault or your failure. Our culture is fueled by consumerism, and one marketing genius after another has left us in a situation where all occasions seem to require gifts. We are all supposed to want things and want them all the time. You are building opportunities for your kid to chart a less capitalism-driven path.

(And just because your mom can't help but give your bub something doesn't mean your idea is bad. Grandmas are allowed to do whatever they want. And give what they want. That includes giving gifts when you said no and giving you dirty looks when you aren't doing things the way they would. That is their right. Your right is to do what you think is best anyway)

You will still get gifts, because some people aren't comfortable stepping out of those norms or because they are just gifters, but less is a success! You can't control what people do, but you can communicate what you want (and have other fun things planned than the horrible everyone watch gifts being opened fiasco- seriously, can you imagine something more boring when they have no idea what is going on?), and if you cut down on gifts that's a success. So you succeeded, madame, pat yourself on the back again. Your baby is alive and had a perfectly acceptable celebration!

You learned a couple of things, and I bet if you tried it again next year, you could tweek it enough that before you know it, your friends are planning gift-free parties as well. Maybe your mom will even get on board (I'm kidding, she won't).

So, if you want to take this challenge on next year (and I think you should, because this letter was written in 2014, so by now you may already be trapped under the mountain of your kid's junk. This is all a safety issue, people), I do think I have spotted the mistake in your strategy. The whole thing fell apart when you asked your guests to bring food.

Bring food?

I get it. A one year old has about as much idea of what is going on at a birthday party as I know what is going on at a sports game (he threw the ball thing into a goal thing!).

One year old parties are always for the parents. Always. It is a damn victory lap punctuated by pictures.

As it should be. Parenting a baby is hard! You earned this. girl.

But I think your suggestion made it too obvious what this is really about.Your one year old is just graduating out of the mush stage, so we both know who benefits from guests bringing food. It also sends a mixed message- "don't bring anything, but bring me some food." "We don't want anything, but this would be nice."You are making your queen mama crown shine too brightly. The two requests don't match. They perceive gifts to be for the bub (hence, a bunch of plastic toys that make noise and haunt your dreams). They don't want to bring you a gift.

Also, people are more willing to spend their money than their time. Buying a gift takes a couple of minutes on Amazon. Bringing a dish requires some real work and time.

If you don't want people to bring anything, then don't ask for things. None. No donations to charity, no food, nothing physical. Once people get on board, you could try the charity idea, but I would save that battle for another day.


 Say you will have a place for everyone at the party to write the Bub a note or make a video, so they can add a picture or a funny story. It's all about how you frame it, and letting people know it is really ok to show up open-handed. Here is some phrasing I like-

"We'd love your well wishes
And congratulations too.
No gifts are necessary
We just want to see you!"

"No gifts please. Instead, we will have a birthday book for you to sign, put pictures in if you have one you love, or share a favorite memory."

"No gifts please. Instead, bring a list of a few favorite songs for a playlist for Hinda jr!"

"Hinda Jr. has everything she needs. No gifts please. We just want to spend time with you!"

Or the old faithful "Your presence is gift enough"

For our son's birthday, we said "Felix mostly likes playing with garbage. If you want to bring a gift, he would love something from your recycling bin!" People brought us their recycling, and he loved it. We only got all of it out of our house a year later.

 It doesn't have to be self-righteous or annoying. Just be honest, have a sense of humor about it (and the results), and people will either follow suit or they won't.

Some people will still bring gifts, because it is their love language, so it is important to make space for that. In the end, it is between them and your kid, and you don't want to get in the way of someone caring about your kid. You are right that we never get total control over these things, and honestly we shouldn't. But you can make it very clear not to do it out of obligation (or if they ask, that an afternoon spending time with your baby is a way better gift than anything they could wrap and bring). Even if your effort just cuts down on gifts, you have succeeded. Put the gifts in a space away from the party and just open later. so people who skipped the gift don't feel shamed.

So madame, when you reach the glorious 2 year milestone (oh they are so fun by 2), and you are prepping for another shindig, you may still feel like your bub has as much stuff as she will ever need (spoiler alert- the stuff problem only gets worse). I say dust off your shoulders and throw another "no-gift" birthday party.

Sincerely,

Barbara

PS-If you are going to a first birthday party and want to get a gift that is a little better for the environment, check out this list of ten perfect (and eco-friendly) options.

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