I remember almost every single one of my childhood birthday parties. I was born at the end of June, which meant I was lucky enough to have backyard pool parties. In my case, that pool was a rigid green plastic Mr. Turtle pool that my friends and I spit watermelon seeds into and jumped into after swinging as high as we could on the rickety metal swing set. I remember running around barefoot, trying to outrun my friends as they chased me to try and give me traditional birthday spankings. I remember cake, Kool-Aid, sunburns and sandcastles.
But I don't remember any of my gifts.
Our decision to host no-gift birthday parties started six years ago, when my son turned two. Isaac is a Christmas Eve baby and was one of only two grandchildren at the time, so the amount of gifts entering our home seemed too extravagant. The gifts he received for his birthday party made me feel tremendously guilty that families who may have already been cash-strapped because of the holidays had to spend an extra $20 to buy a gift for a kid they barely knew. This isn't to say we weren't thankful—but the ugly flip side of our toddler receiving a mountain of gifts was that, for several weeks following his birthday, Isaac's normally sunny behaviour turned sour—especially if someone came to the house empty-handed. At two, he didn't grasp the concept that his birthday and Christmas were separate, and, therefore, assumed the holiday season was all about him. It was behaviour we were not happy with at all.
After that, we banned birthday party presents from our house.
Note that I said birthday party presents—not birthday gifts or birthday parties themselves. The following year, I wrote carefully worded birthday party invitations, welcoming friends and family for an afternoon of cake and ice cream—but stated that gifts were not needed. Each guest who RSVP'd asked to bring a gift and I politely turned them down. On the day of the party, our house was filled with rambunctious boys who jumped on my couch, tormented our pets, threw cake on the floor and generally had the time of their life. No one missed having to sit quietly in a circle and watch my son open presents. The pint-sized guests were also having so much fun that they didn't notice that loot bags weren't part of the day either—except for the handful of pinata candy and helium balloons I sent them home with.
This weekend, my soon-to-be five-year-old daughter Gillian will have her first "big girl" birthday party and, although I've already sent out invitations asking guests to come sans-gift, she isn't as keen as her brother about having a stripped-down party. Already she is asking for an elaborate gravity-defying cake, a guest appearance by Elsa from Frozen and a trip to Legoland. Oh, and loot bags with scratch-n-sniff stickers. But I'm standing firm on my no-gift birthday parties rule, choosing instead to focus on the fun that can be had by having your house filled with friends. I'm sticking to this rule because I know, years from now, my kids will remember blowing out candles and making wishes. They will remember these things because it's the friendships forged at childhood birthday parties that matter most.