Please no gifts.
Seriously, no gifts.
The kids don’t need more stuff and their parents don’t need more clutter.
So why do some of us moms and dads insist on lugging presents to other kids’ birthday parties when the invitations clearly tell us not to bring them?
“Embarrassment insurance,” his co-parent, Nick Lansing, of Duluth, told me. “We’ve attended enough ‘bring nothing’ events where most/all other guests brought something.”
In Lansing’s case, the lesson came more than a decade ago when he accompanied his younger son to a child’s “No Gifts” party. Lansing quickly found that his son was among the few guests who complied. Other parents flatted out the faux pas, politely assuring Lansing that it was okay if they showed up empty-handed.
“What I’ve seen is that they take credit for their superior parenting skills,” he said. “I didn’t want to get mad at a kid’s birthday party.”
But after that, Lansing went secretly. He made a point of keeping a modest supply of gifts, such as Lego sets or jigsaw puzzles, so he was always prepared for the next birthday party. If the event didn’t call for gifts, Lansing and his kid would roll over to the party — with the gift still hidden in the car — and read the situation.
“We kind of eyed the other guests,” he recalled. And if we saw – ‘OK, she comes with a little gift bag’ – we’d pull ours out of the trunk.”
Having also experienced the humiliation of being the only one to comply with the request for free gifts, I could see Lansing coming to this absurd compromise. I did too. Bringing a gift to a gift-free party is like refusing to comply with the Minnesota Zipper Association. We know we should do it, but it only needs to be burned once to be conditioned for the rest of our lives.
Not giving presents to children is not new, even if opening presents is as traditional as blowing out candles. The New York Times wrote about the gift-free trend back in 2007, when parents were trying to instill in their children the values of altruism and sustainability — while protecting their hallways and basements from another plastic onslaught. (“I guarantee no child was ever asked about this,” Lansing said of the movement.)
The pandemic has thwarted many celebrations, but now children’s parties have returned in full force. And the no-gift dilemma confuses guests who want to do the right thing but feel the pressure not to be caught on the wrong foot.
“You think it would be child’s play. It says ‘no gifts’. Read the invitation,” said Twin Cities etiquette expert Juliet Mitchell. “It’s about respecting what the host asked you to do.”
Mitchell, who has 18 grandchildren, loves the concept of free birthday parties. Perhaps the child is lucky enough to already have a lot of toys. Parents may want their child to prioritize experiences with family and friends over material things. Some guests may not be financially able to purchase a gift, so a no-gifts rule ensures that every child can attend the party without embarrassment.
We have to trust that parents have good reasons for not giving gifts — and that they’ve talked to their kids about it, Mitchell said.
If you still feel compelled to bring a gift, Mitchell advises calling the parent throwing the party first. The host may thank you for your attention, but will graciously direct you to a preferred charity that welcomes donations, while reassuring you that your attendance really matters.
Be aware that if you go against the host’s wishes and bring a gift anyway, “it really throws everything at the person who complies,” Mitchell warned. “You can make someone else feel out of place. You can get the host to say to themselves, ‘Didn’t they hear me?’ “
I recently requested no gifts for my two boys at their birthday party together. It turned out to be a nice experiment.
Most of the guests showered my sons with adorable homemade cards. A young boy decorated a bookmark with two stick figures holding hands – a cute image of his budding friendship with my 5-year-old. My 9 year old received a handful of seashells that his friend collected on a recent trip to Florida. Another friend pasted a Pokémon card onto a piece of colorful paper funnily colored with an arrow and the words “This is your present.”
The few store bought gifts my boys got were small toys or thoughtful gift cards secretly sealed in envelopes.
As parents, we try to have exactly what we need. After the free party, it felt like we hit it in the face. My kids remarked how much fun it was to meet up with their friends after missing so many things over the last few years. And I was relieved not to be lugging mountains of stuff into my house that would soon be forgotten and thrown away.
If you show up to a gift-free party empty-handed, don’t you dare feel guilty about it. Fulfilling this wish can be a gift for both parents and children.
“Bring a happy face and a good time,” Mitchell said. “If the host says ‘no gifts’, believe him.”