Parenting Traps

Party politics

Saying “no gifts” for a young child’s celebration can teach a lasting lesson.

By Linda K. Wertheimer
March 14, 2010

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We are not anti-gift people. But the invitation to our son’s second birthday party included this brief request: “No gifts, please.”

During his first birthday party, presents filled a corner of our living room at a party that probably meant more to us -- first-time parents in our 40s -- than our child. There was a mechanical plastic dog that barked and whimpered, a toolbox that sang the ABCs, books, blocks. The presents, while appreciated, were overwhelming. We spread the gift-opening over several days.

For Simon’s second birthday party in late January, we invited his grandparents and a handful of children. We ate homemade Elmo cupcakes, then sat in the living room for a singalong. Laughter, music with friends, and a sugar high -- those were the gifts for our birthday boy at his party. (We, his grandparents, and others still gave him gifts, just not at the party.)

The no-gifts policy, we hope, will start to teach our son that a birthday celebration is about more than presents. We also want him to frequently use the best toy at his disposal: his imagination. Susan Marx is a parent educator for Families First in Cambridge, a collaborative of Wheelock College and the Children’s Museum in Boston. Marx, who has taught parenting workshops for 17 years, says this is a good way to establish family values.

“People can show love in different ways,” she notes.

At some point, a child is likely to question why he does not receive gifts at his birthday party while other children do at theirs. Explain your family tradition and point out, Marx says, “that different families have different ways of doing things.”

But am I a hypocrite, I wonder, because we handed out goodie bags to children who attended?

No, says Marx. That teaches the child the pleasure of giving to friends.

And, if we let our child help with the goodie bags, she says, we also send a powerful message: “It’s not a gimme, gimme kind of world.”

Send comments to Have you ever defied a “No gifts, please” request? Why?

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