We’ve actually turned down party invites in the past because they hit at times when we’d had to cover a major, unexpected expense and were feeling too strapped to cover any extras.
While more and more folks are employing the “No gifts, please” approach these days (thank you, thank you!!), plenty still go it the old-fashioned way.
Why? Because kids love getting stuff. Stuff wrapped in sparkly paper. Stuff tied in fancy bows.
No matter what plastic crap made in China is waiting inside.
And I can’t say I hold it against them!
Toys are the tools of a child’s trade, after all, and that trade is growing up. Sure, every kid can jam with an empty cardboard box or a roll of Scotch tape, and they grow up just fine. But only so many hours pass before the cardboard gets shredded or they’ve taped their eyelids shut and now they’re crying.
Besides, pressing buttons, painting pictures, banging on drums, pulling cords, zooming cars and spinning tops is how kids learn, develop and grow*.
(*At least that’s what our privileged culture in modern-day America tells us. The Reductionist is painfully aware that this entire post smacks of privilege and that children raised in other cultures grow up just fine with almost nothing. For a fascinating exploration of kids from around the world posing with their toys, check out this photo album from The Guardian).
My son Leo turned five this weekend, so it was our family’s turn to burden other parents with the dreaded birthday invite. It was his dream to have a ‘science experiment party,’ where a small cohort of close friends would help him celebrate.
There would be cake, pizza, balloons, beer for the grownups, and baking soda and vinegar for making potions, of course.
But, months ago, Leo laid down one hard-and-fast rule for how this shebang was gonna go.
“I want a gift party this year, Mom,” he announced firmly. After all, he’d watched his big sister have her long-awaited gift party when she’d turned five, and then again at six.
(*6/29/18 Correction: I totes forgot we let Teagan have a gift party when she turned 4, too. Forgive me! Poor Leo's gotten the shaft this whole time. Dang.)
Until now, our kids haven’t had traditional “gift parties,” not with friends, anyway. Aunts, uncles, and grandparents are always incredibly generous with gifts for all seasons, but anytime we’ve invited friends to celebrate the kids’ birthdays, we’ve stuck to the “your presence is your present” motif.
Generally these parties have gone okay, but we realized over time that some people were weirded out by them. They hit up Target anyway for “something small” like a dollar-bin puzzle or a keychain that broke within a day, because showing up empty-handed didn’t compute.
One person actually stuffed a twenty-dollar-bill into a card because she just couldn’t stomach bringing nothing to a little child on his birthday.
Until they’re mature enough to fully understand why we do the no-gift party in the first place, going totally giftless just isn’t gonna fly.
So I found myself in a conundrum. We’re Reductionists. We don’t like to accumulate stuff, even though we are already swimming in plenty of it. My kids have everything they could possibly need, and more.
And yet, Leo was feeling deprived of something lots of other kids get to have. Of course I wanted him to finally experience that special feeling of being honored. If that had to be achieved with stuff, I would make it my mission to find a creative solution that wouldn’t require gross consumerism.
Given that this was a “science experiment party,” I decided to conduct a little experiment of my own. I called it an Experiment in Disrupting Social Constructs and stuck a special note to parents in the Evite.
“While we'd prefer to continue the no-gift tradition, Leo would be over the moon to see things wrapped up in festive paper all for him. So, may I suggest if you could kindly grab a random toy or book from your house that your kid has lost interest in & is ready to part with (especially if it has to do with construction, science or music!) and toss it in a gift bag or colorful wrapping paper? It's a win/win for all: you get to offload a lonely old toy without spending a dime; Leo gets a new-to-him gift; everyone goes home happy! If this turns out to be more frustrating than it's worth, just bring yourselves and don't worry 'bout a thing:) Thanks for humoring us!”
That’s right. I asked parents to regift an old toy and give it to my kid.
And no, Leo has no idea this went down. Are you crazy?! I’ll tell him when he’s older!
So, what happened?
Parents accepted the challenge with gusto. Their kids learned to negotiate. They experienced the selfless act of parting with something they no longer needed. One friend who’s moving found a new home for wonderful art supplies that she didn’t want to take with her to her new place.
One family went a different route with their gift, which was still modest but altogether awesome in its thoughtfulness. They assembled a whole bunch of ingredients for conducting DIY science experiments (think Pepsi and Mentos explosions; turning pennies green with vinegar!).
A couple of kids weren’t satisfied with regifting old toys—it didn’t quite register with their idea of what a birthday is supposed to be—so they insisted their parents make a special trip to the toy store anyway, which was lovely, too: I’m just thrilled to know those parents got to exercise their own free will; glad it was up to them to define the limits of their generosity, rather than us imposing ours on them.
And while I’m not a proponent of material displays of love—they’re not the real kind of love, obviously—I’m grateful we could make this happen for my five-year-old without anyone having to break the bank.
Soon Leo will tire of these toys, just like he does the rest, and we’ll send them on down to the Goodwill store, just like we always do, for the next kid to enjoy.
How do you scale back when it comes to gift-giving? I'd love to hear! Fire away in the comments below or shoot me an email!