Guest Post By Colorado Wedding Photographer, Chris Loring

Our son will be 6 in September.

For his birthday parties, we have always told guests that their presence in his life was a gift, and that showering him with toys was simply not necessary, nor was it expected.  We encouraged guests to simply come and enjoy themselves and for the most part his birthday parties have been free of colorful wrappings and bows and bags.

To be honest, we felt great about this. In theory, it’s a noble principle: make children’s birthday parties about friends and family, not about gifts or acquiring new things. In some way, we also believed that it was a play against commercialism and the acquisition of piles of meaningless, quickly-forgotten things.

I’ve read so many well-meaning articles on this topic; my gut reaction was that the idea of the no-gifts birthday party was a positive, well meaning idea and should be embraced.

So we embraced it, but going into the 6th birthday, we’ve had a change of heart.

7 Reasons We No Longer Embrace The ‘No-Gifts Birthday Party’

1. Our son loves to pick out gifts for his friends

Only a small handful of his friends have had ‘no-gift birthday parties’, but we quickly realized that when the invite specified this, our son was not only sad, but a little hurt.

I never saw it from the perspective of the older child until my super giving kid was told not to bring a gift. He absolutely loves making crafts and picking out thoughtful things for his friends; he enjoys putting together brightly colored combinations of wrapping paper and bows, and writing notes to them in his Kindergarten handwriting.

His favorite part is when his friend opens the gift. I love that he feels the joy and spirit of giving.

Who are we to tell a child that they should not be giving?

There will always be disappointing things in life for a child to deal with, and perhaps this is just one of those lessons. For it to come from this place though, this idea that we tell children not to give to each other, makes me question if there isn’t a bigger picture we need to consider with the ‘no-gifts party’.

2. It puts friends and family in an awkward place

Whether we like it or not, gift giving at birthday parties is part of our culture. It is ingrained in us from a young age, and especially for people who love to give gifts, it can put them in an awkward place.

I don’t want our birthday party guests to have to make a decision between what makes them happy and comfortable, and what makes us happy and comfortable. It’s a direct breach of etiquette, and by saying ‘no-gifts’, we put that ball in their court.

3. People tend to bring gifts anyways

The people who followed our rule to not bring gifts might actually have felt rude (I know I have in the past), while the people who chose to ignore the rule may feel like they are being singled out when they awkwardly show up with a gift in hand.

Worse yet, because a few people always do bring gifts, the people who did not, might feel even more awkward  having shown up empty handed.

This is so much more complicated than it needs to be, but something else that I noticed as guests would come to our son’s birthday parties. Those who brought gifts would quietly tuck them into the corner, and those who didn’t would approach me and apologize for coming without a gift.

Looking back on this, I feel bad for putting them in this position.

4. No gifts may translate to a kid as ‘why bother giving to us, we don’t want it’

They way a child sees the world is very different than a way an adult sees the world. When somebody tells a child not to give them a gift, a child may see that as ‘your gifts are worthless and meaningless’.
It destroys the giving spirit most children have in them.

5. We want to give to others, why tell people not to give to us?

At least in our home, we tend to be very giving of our time, talent, and love. We actively encourage our son to be giving in many ways; we dedicate our own lives to helping others and come from families who have given years of their lives to the Community.

We want our son to share in that same spirit; but by telling people not to give to him even on his birthday, we are essentially telling our son on a basic level that he is to give, but not to receive.

6.  I worry it makes our child feel less worthy

We tell his friends not to bring him gifts, while at the same time we encourage him to give to others. This disconnect is something that should be considered.

As our child has become more aware of things, we realized that we weren’t really being fair to him. Since starting school, he has been attending what seems like endless birthday parties, and very few have a ‘no gifts’ rule.

I can’t help but see a larger picture there.

Ultimately, I want my child to know that it is ok to feel the joy that our friends & family have in giving to us. I never want him to feel guilty when a gift is offered to him, and further, I never want him to feel like he cannot ask for the gifts (time, talent, love) of others when he desperately needs help in the future.

I never want him to feel that same sense of awkward guilt that I feel when others give me gifts.

We have to operate under the assumption that gift giving is meant to be a beautiful part of our community contract; and that gifts don’t have to be about ‘things’, but rather about showing love, and affection. Learning this starts with birthday parties.

I’ll say this again, it’s not about the toys.

7. Can’t we just let kids be kids?

Birthday parties can foster some of the most amazing memories for a child, and the simple fact is that kids love toys. As a matter of fact, they also love little handmade tokens; some of his favorites have been cute little DIY projects his friends have pieced together.

So maybe there really isn’t anything wrong with that. Just because I don’t love bright colors and boxes of toys with a million plastic pieces inside, does not mean that my kid doesn’t love it.

I personally now see more harm in telling children to ‘not be giving’, than I do in allowing my child to receive these things. While I may find them excessive or obnoxious or silly, perhaps that’s ok. Perhaps it’s part of being a kid.

We have chosen now to focus on other, more meaningful ways to make sure our child knows that life and parties are not about material things.

When he gives gifts to his friends, we encourage thoughtful items, educational and creative toys, and hand-made gifts. I think this is the best thing any of us can do as parents.

Year-round, we encourage him to be organized and neat and thoughtful with his toys. We ask that he respects his things, and is creative with what he has rather than wishing for more. Our recycle bin and back yard is an endless source of ‘new things’ to explore, play with, and create with.

We foster his built-in sense of giving, and allow him to use that to help others. We are open and honest with him about how others have less through no fault of their own, and ask him to contribute his ideas towards how we might help others in a gracious and graceful way, without expecting anything in return.

I have found that I can encourage my child to focus on people and relationships rather than things, without having a ‘no-gifts’ directive for birthday parties. Just last week, he found immense amounts of joy cutting lilacs and bringing them to all of our neighbors and his teachers at school. It was sweet, thoughtful, and his idea; it really speaks to the spirit of what gift-giving should be about.

To be perfectly honest, I’m actually looking forward to his birthday party this year. I know that he’ll have a fresh set of toys to play with and explore, he will be allowed to feel love from his friends however they choose to show it, and I won’t be putting pressure on myself or his party guests to do anything other than what they feel compelled to do.

Just because we aren’t saying ‘no-gifts’ this year, doesn’t mean that we expect them either. . .and perhaps that is the difference.

Author Bio:

Chris is a wedding photographer, blogger, and mom who believes the best decisions in parenting are the ones that come from the gut.