Sunday, May 25, 2014

birthday gift alternatives

Everyone who has kids knows: kids accumulate way too much stuff.

When Faith had her first-ever party for her third birthday this year, I wanted to try to find a way to stem the influx of toys. After searching around on the internet, we decided to do a book exchange-- each child brought a wrapped, age-appropriate, new-or-nearly-new book, they were exchanged at the party, and each child got to go home with a book. Everyone was happy (including us).

Recently (with Josie's first birthday looming on the horizon) I've been using Ye Olde Google to look into the subject a bit more. It seems that the "no-gift birthday party" is actually quite a hot-button, controversial topic. Lots of parents love it-- it minimizes the clutter, it's a "lesson" against materialism/greediness, it's less expensive for the guests. The naysayers' objections typically follow one of these lines of reasoning:

1. "Gifts are just part of children's birthday parties. If you don't want gifts, don't have a party."
2. "I'm offended that you don't want the gift my child and I would choose."
3. "I went to one of those no-gift parties once. I didn't bring a gift, just like the invitation said-- but everyone else brought one, and I felt like a jackass."
4. "People like bringing gifts for the birthday child. It's fun."

My answers would be as follows:
1. That's plain ridiculous. Why can't a birthday party be about the child feeling special on their birthday and blowing out candles and having fun with their friends?
2. I'm sure the gift you would pick out would be lovely. But say a child invites their whole class to the party. Does a first-grader really need 20 new toys, on top of what they receive from their family? That's just crazypants. It's a matter of limiting sheer quantity.
3. That's a pretty reasonable objection. I would hope that if a family was hosting a no-gift party and someone does bring a gift, they would thank that person graciously ("thank you" is the only appropriate response to receiving a present, after all) but not make a big deal out of it, to avoid making the rule-followers uncomfortable-- aka, not have a gift-displaying table or a gift-opening ceremony.
4. Also not an unreasonable objection. Parties should be fun for everyone, including (obviously) the guests.

So to take objections #3 and #4 into account, here's what I've come up with as a middle ground-- alternatives to gifts (to avoid accumulating vast quantities of toys) without simply saying "no gifts please" (to avoid making guests feel uncomfortable). The ideas I found fall into several loose categories.

Charitable Giving
- Ask guests to bring, in lieu of gifts for the child, items to donate to your (or your child's) charity of choice-- be it the local animal shelter, the hospital NICU or children's ward, a blanket drive, a food pantry, military care packages, etc. Kids attending the party can have fun picking out a dog toy or whatever, parents don't have to worry about showing up empty-handed, the birthday child can feel good about bringing all the loot to the donation center, and everyone learns something about selflessness/generosity.
- Ask guests to bring, in lieu of gifts, $5 (or some other small, defined amount) to donate to XYZ charity. Have a donation box set up (the birthday child could decorate it beforehand!) with a slot in the top for guests to put in their donation.

Gift Exchange
Every guest brings a gift, but instead of giving them all to the birthday child, they're exchanged among the party guests and everyone goes home with one. (This can be in lieu of a loot bag, too!) It might be a good idea for the host parents be prepared with a couple extras in case a guest forgets to bring a gift to exchange, to avoid embarrassment on the part of the forgetful child.
Your guests could exchange:
- Toys (make sure to specify gender-neutral if your party is co-ed-- and specify an upper price limit)
- Books (specify new, used, or either)
- Cookies
- A specific type of toy or goody, like hair accessories, matchbox cars, nail polish, whatever floats your boat

Bring Something For The Party Itself (this will also be an activity for the party!)
Some ideas to ask guests to bring:
- a plain ceramic mug to decorate at the party (via the Sharpie method) & take home
- a T-shirt to decorate at the party (either with tie-dye or fabric paint) & take home
- their favorite cupcake decorations to share, and everyone decorates their own cupcake
- their favorite ice cream topping to share, and everyone has ice cream sundaes
- a small picture frame to decorate (you can take a picture of all the partygoers as a group, print them off, and insert them in the frames before they leave)
- a seedling to plant (host parents can provide small flowerpots which the kids can decorate & take home)
- stickers or other decorations to decorate a Happy Birthday sign for the party
- a bag of their favorite candy to fill the party piƱata
- a cookie cutter (kids then make cookies at the party-- you can either exchange the cutters or they can be small gifts for the birthday child, especially if you have a kid who likes to bake cookies!)
- princess-y decorations (plastic jewels, sequins, feathers, etc) to share, and everyone decorates paper princess crowns
- matchbox cars to race at the party-- this would be especially cool if you set up an elaborate track beforehand! (they can either keep their own cars they brought, or you can exchange the cars, or they can be small gifts for the birthday child)
- a specific craft supply (e.g. bring a paper towel tube to make kaleidoscopes or decorate "telescopes" or whatever, a single sock to make sock puppets, a teacup or small pretty container to make candles-- anything at all!)
- a container of bubbles-- and have lots of bubble-related activities planned!

Bring Something Small and Specific
Each guest brings a gift for the birthday child, but you specifically ask them to bring something you wouldn't mind your kid having 20 of!
Some ideas to ask guests to bring:
- a favorite childhood book (this might be especially nice for a very young child, to start building his/her personal library)
- a seedling to plant in a small plot at your house, as a "friendship garden" for the birthday child
- a small contribution to a collection your child has-- stickers, embroidery floss or beads if you have a crafty child, play dough or accessories, bubbles, matchbox cars, cool pens/pencils, hair accessories, Pokemon cards (do kids still play Pokemon? whatever they're into these days), etc.
- bring an old/homemade/inexpensive hat, scarf, piece of costume jewelry, etc. for your child's dress-up collection

Memory-Making or Intangible Gifts
- a decorated scrapbook page for a "birthday book" for your child
- a picture of the guest holding a "happy birthday" sign-- would make a fun collage!
- if you're crafty: a fabric square the guest decorated beforehand (you can give them a square of the right size once they RSVP, or even included in the invitation)-- and stitch them into a small quilt or pillow afterward
- "bring" their child's favorite joke-- they can be assembled into a joke book at the party, either as a gift for the birthday child, or as favors for the guests to take home
- "bring" a talent to share, and have a talent show at the party!

With any of these options, your intentions should (obviously) be made very clear in the invitation. Some suggestions I saw were:
"No gifts needed, your presence is your present! Instead..."
"_____ has plenty of toys already, but s/he'd love it if..."
"In lieu of gifts, we'll be having a ____ exchange! Please bring a...."
Some even suggested saying, "Any gifts will be donated to _______."

And of course, if anyone does bring a gift, accept it graciously with a "Thank you so much!"

Hope these ideas were helpful! Anyone have any other suggestions?

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