The dilemma of the birthday gift

Birthdays. Kids get to choose their adventure, choose the guests, and buckle down and get busy ripping open the wrapping on their presents. It’s joyful, it’s special, and it ends with a lot of extra stuff in the house.

With the amount of shiny but disposable stuff that kids see advertised and overwhelmingly want, I hear people talking more and more of “no gift” parties, or charitable donations in lieu of presents.

When my kids are invited to a birthday, I tend to ask what the birthday kid is into. That way I can get a gift that the kid might like, and the parent won’t mind having in the house. One friend always requests homemade gifts, but she says that no one ever listens. A different friend once asked that guests only bring stuff to donate, but everyone ended up bringing a gift and something to donate.

So, if your kid is invited to a “no gift” birthday party, what is the etiquette? Well, it’s not a bad policy to believe what the host tells you. If they say it’s a pool party, you wouldn’t likely send your kids with a tennis racket and runners—in case the host didn’t really mean it about the swimming.

Still, some people consider the “no gift” approach as a courtesy statement, a brag, or even sanctimonious, and choose to bring a little something anyway. Surely, they didn’t mean “no” gift? Yet, that little token can make the other guests feel stingy, and the host flouted.
Whatever the host’s rationale is when stipulating “no gifts”, listen to them. Don’t react by doing what you think should happen. That’s what you get to do for your own kid’s party.

Then there’s the donation to charity gift. Muddle comes in when we ask ourselves if the charity donation is for the child or the parent. Is it a sincere effort to help the child learn about helping others, an attempt to regulate the amount and quality of stuff coming into the house, or a sort of badge of false piety for the parent?

The charitable donation route is one that should be undertaken with a bit of education and with consensus. A parent’s job is to guide a child toward ethical choices and good judgement. It’s hard for kids to process what they want versus need, but with discussion, I think a lot of kids will actually choose sharing with those who need things more.

One compromise between unwanted gifts and feel-good philanthropy is the half charitable donation, half gift route. The donation and gift friend from above opted for a “card and $5” option for her daughter’s next birthday. Her daughter took half of the birthday money for donation to the charity of her choice, the other half was for something special for her. She ended up with $200. If all of those kids had spent $20-$30 on some plastic toy, how much money would have been totally wasted (the mom’s words) on that one party?

Echoage is a Canadian online birthday party service that manages party organization, and is affiliated with 13 Canadian and 10 American charities. Invitations to the child’s party are electronic, and guests are invited to make a cash donation online in lieu of purchasing a gift. Half of the donation goes to the birthday kid’s charity of choice, and the other half will go toward the child’s dream gift. The goal of this service is to facilitate “an environmentally respectful and socially mindful celebration.”

Or, you can send out an e-vite and choose your own charity to support. Or ask for no gifts. Or just let people bring what they want. Take it or leave it, it’s your kid’s party. Do what you need to make it their celebration.

Curious about Echoage? Check out www.echoage.com.

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