Are birthday gifts bad for kids?

Should we all be having 'no gifts, please' parties?

Deborah chose a one-of-a-kind 10th birthday party that nobody expected. Instead of a spa day, ice skating, or dance party like most kids her age want, my friend's daughter invited her classmates to volunteer at a local food bank. At the party, the children bagged rice, stocked shelves, filled pantry bags, made sandwiches, and rolled silverware. In lieu of gifts, the birthday girl requested everyone bring food to be donated.

As a parent, I started to feel the pressure. Is this the new standard? I thought. If I want to be a good person, do I need my kids to have community service birthday parties? Should I forbid my kids from receiving gifts because it makes us look like a greedy family teaching materialism to our children?

Sure, some parties are out of control — celebrations at country clubs or fancy lunch buffets, complete with expensive favors that cost more than most of the gifts the birthday girl or boy will receive. I think we can all agree those parties are annoying and generally uncalled for. But are the trendy save-the-world, "no gifts, please" parties, like Deborah's, which break with most birthday traditions entirely, the only alternative?

Listen, I love teaching my children the importance of helping others. But I also love celebrating the day they came into the world by showering them with love and attention. And that includes presents. In fact, I think taking away the joy of birthday gifts could actually put a damper on their childhood. The challenge, of course, is to not overindulge or spoil them. But I'll admit, I love seeing my kids' eyes light up while they rip open a new gift. And without those special moments, I fear they may feel deprived, or that they themselves are being punished.

On top of that, taking away pleasure from our own children will not actually encourage them to help others. It will only build up frustration and irritation, and they will begin to resent us and those who they were told to help. I want my children to demonstrate kindness on their own. I don't want to force it down their throat.

A "no gifts, please" policy can also put a strain on your guests. It goes against the widely accepted social etiquette that guests should bring a gift to a child's birthday party. Several parents I spoke with who tried to encourage guests not to bring gifts said their efforts eventually backfired. Most people still bring gifts, so what do you do about that one family who actually follows your request and shows up empty-handed? They walk into the party and see a pile of gifts and then feel awful and embarrassed. So even if you have good intentions, you end up hurting others in the process. It's just not worth it.

When I asked my son and daughter if they were willing to give up their birthday gifts to help kids less fortunate than them, they got sad and upset. "No, that's not fair!" they said. But this initial repulsion was followed by a kind inquiry: "Isn't there something else we can do?"

And yes, there are more effective, thoughtful ways to save the world through our kids' birthdays besides banning birthday presents entirely. Here are some options:

Give away old toys. Before your kid's birthday arrives, help them choose some toys that have become passé. Then let them go with you to a local charity to donate them. This way, they will learn to appreciate what they have, feel good about helping others, and realize that less is more.

Choose some new gifts to donate. When I spoke to my children about giving up gifts for their birthday, they were quick to object to the "no gifts" idea, but very willing to donate some of their presents. Shockingly, they agreed to give away half of their new gifts, which was way more than I expected.

Organize activities with a purpose. Doing Good Together, a nonprofit that encourages families to raise generous, thoughtful, civic-minded children, has a guide filled with creative ways to choose activities that reflect a charitable cause. For example, party guests can decorate flower pots to deliver to a nursing home or put together bags of candy to hand out to community helpers to thank them for their service.

Give out party favors with meaning. Finally, consider sending your guests home with a treat that can make an impact. Encourage your child to pick out favors related to their party theme and include a note explaining who they are helping.

Whatever tactic you choose, make sure your children play a primary role in the planning. According to Sarah Aadland of Doing Good Together, "The ideas really have to come from your kids to avoid them feeling badly about helping others." She encourages parents to not be afraid to dial it back a bit when they feel the pressure to produce the perfect birthday party. "It's okay to go against the grain and get creative," she says. Just be mindful of not pushing them too hard and not getting caught up on the other side of the competition trying to come up with the best philanthropic party ever held on the face of the Earth.

By taking a balanced approach, we can raise a generation of children who want to help others and will take initiative on their own without being forced. I am thrilled that my kids have already planned out their springtime birthday parties with a twist of charitable giving. My daughter wants to have a dance party with a stuffed animal art project. The kids will make two animals — one to keep and one to give to children in need. My son plans to have an ocean-themed party, so we decided on surf lessons and giving out bracelets from an organization that raises money to clean up the ocean. We can't wait.


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