Little Kids

Debate: Do you ban presents at birthday parties?

Are birthday presents essential at your kid's party? Two parents weigh in on both sides.

By Today's Parent
Photo: Jessica Rae Gordon Photo: Jessica Rae Gordon

Jennifer Pinarski, mom of two. 

Other than the banana-seat bicycle I got from my parents when I turned five, I don’t remember any birthday gifts from my childhood. I bet you don’t remember any of yours either, which is why I don’t feel guilty about hosting no-gift birthday parties for my children.

Our present-free policy was put in place after my toddler son caught a serious case of the “gimmes,” caused by the generous (yet excessive) number of gifts he received at his second birthday party. His normally sunny disposition turned sour and selfish with each gift he frantically unwrapped—and tossed aside as he grabbed for another. Even my husband and I were overwhelmed, especially knowing that the 20 bucks shelled out for another toy my son wouldn’t play with was unaffordable for some parents. Yet they still brought gifts, because they felt obligated and because for whatever reason, our consumerist society links loving kids with giving them stuff.

For the past six years, I’ve sent out carefully worded invitations, asking guests to join us for party games and cake, but no presents. When calling to RSVP, parents always ask whether I’m sure they can’t buy something for my son or daughter to celebrate the occasion. Although it would be easier (and some would say more polite) to accept trinkets, I always decline. After all, their child’s friendship is the gift.

I’ve been told my no-gift rule sucks the joy out of a childhood tradition, but if you were to peek in on a birthday party at my house, you wouldn’t be able to tell there weren’t presents. Our celebrations look just like yours—cakes piled miles high with frosting, out-of-tune renditions of “Happy Birthday” and contagious belly laughs—we just don’t have the aftermath of torn wrapping paper and bows strewn everywhere. Because long after the candles on the cake are blown out, I know the memories my kids have of a day filled with frosting, fun and friendship will last much longer than any plastic toy.

"No" Jason Anderson, dad of one. 


My wife is organized, clean and ultra-minimal, while I am the grown-up pack rat version of Pigpen from the Peanuts comics. But together we hope our four-year-old daughter, Violet, will land somewhere between her parents’ two extremes and have a healthy relationship with the stuff that fills her world. 

We’re a one-kid household with few relatives close at hand, so we rely very much on our network of friends—lest this family unit begin to feel hermetically sealed. Our need for meaningful connections to others is one reason I value the wisdom and novel ideas imparted through gifts. I associate objects so strongly with the givers—as such, Violet’s things mean a lot to me, too.

There’s the ingenious wooden robot that folds into a cube, a second-birthday gift from a bandmate of mine. There’s the glider bike covered with a selection of stickers specially curated by her uncle. There are the several pairs of mittens knitted lovingly by her aunt, the Hello Kitty sunglasses from her daycare BFF, the personalized apron and baking utensils from her mom’s bestie and all the books that swiftly became favourites. What would our lives be like without I Want My Hat Back

Of course, what’s under the wrapping paper may not always be so meaningful, and Violet’s princess predilections mean she increasingly favours anything sparkly and regal. But the most thoughtful presents say, “This is something that had meaning for us—now you can enjoy it, too.”

Way more often than not, they’re received in that same spirit by our girl, who has a knack for remembering who gave her what and excitedly makes the same warm associations I do. Thankfully she doesn’t wheedle for more gifts (at least, not yet) and shows generosity to others by freely sharing her stuff during playdates. The best part: She’s pretty skilled at putting everything away (before requiring a fourth request). Her mother’s not so fortunate with me.



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