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The Big Birthday Present Question

A decade or so ago, a friend with kids got tired of her son always wanting to buy expensive gifts for his friends' birthdays. So, she gave him a birthday present allotment of about $5. She was thrilled with the results. Her son started to understand just how much the great toys cost and he realized that he didn't need to always buy the coolest, latest toy.

When the inevitable happened, and the boys began to get invited to birthday party after birthday party -- doesn't it just seem like there's one of those every weekend sometimes? -- I kept that minimal spending thought in mind. Over the years, I've developed some family birthday invite/party rules:

1. The kids only attend birthday parties of other children or relatives they are truly friends with. Whole-class birthday party invitations get a "thanks but no thanks" response unless the child is really someone mine talks about and likes to spend time with.

2. For each present, the kids and I talk about the person and what he/she likes. That can be hard at times, as kids tend to focus on what they like versus the other person. But eventually, they'll reveal what the other child likes to do or play with.

3. As much as possible, we spend no more than $10 on presents.

4. The kids make/write cards for the birthday boy or girl.

A recent invitation, though, is throwing a wrench into this general plan. This friend -- or rather this friend's family -- has been extraordinarily generous in birthday presents for one of my sons. And I recently learned that her family rarely holds birthday parties for her. Well, now she's getting one. So, do I stick to our general spending plan or do I return a similar generosity?

How do you handle the onslaught of birthday party invitations? What kind of birthday present guidelines do you follow?

Wanted: "In the Motherhood" watchers: The new TV series "In the Motherhood" premieres March 26. I'm looking for mom watchers to opine about the show after the first episode airs. Please e-mail if you're interested.

By Stacey Garfinkle |  March 20, 2009; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Elementary Schoolers , Preschoolers
Previous: Dads and Downturns | Next: Why Teens Sext


If what present to buy is your big issue these days things are looking pretty good. There are plenty of people who can't spare the $10 for a gift these days. So just do whatever seems right. If your son is close with her and they are always what you can afford. If that means $20 then so be it.

Posted by: happydad3 | March 20, 2009 7:39 AM | Report abuse

Two of the kids in my daughter's preschool class are combining parties - a first! It's low-key, midweek (and the moms say they saved a bundle because of that) and I am SO thankful they're doing that. I'm willing to do a "party party" for my kids every 5 years. I just think it's utterly ridiculous that for some people, every freaking year needs to be celebrated with plastic crap you don't need or want, expense (the woman up the street from us hired a Cinderalla carriage with 2 horses for her daughter's 4th and everyone had to come dressed as their favorite princess) and waste. And don't get me started on the gift bags!

Posted by: WorkingMomX | March 20, 2009 7:48 AM | Report abuse

I agree with happy dad, give what you can afford. I also agreee with not accepting every single invitation - only kids you are friends with or would like to become better friends with. We started having the kids make cards too, cards suddenly got really expensive it seems and end up in the trash anyway. If I happen to have a picture of the kids, we will make a fun card on the computer for my child to sign. More personal anyway.

Posted by: moxiemom1 | March 20, 2009 7:50 AM | Report abuse

It's great that you want to celebrate this girls birthday with her. If your son is close with her, this is the time to show him that money isn't the issue here, and follow your policy. Their closeness will help him choose the right present for her, and a homemade card will show her that her friends love and care for her. There is no need to go overboard. All the birthday girl needs is a reminder that her friends want to celebrate her big days with her.

Posted by: no_reading | March 20, 2009 7:53 AM | Report abuse

FWIW, my kids are in middle school and the other day we were watching some old videos of parties they had in preschool and we honestly could not remember the names of most of the kids in the pictures. (We're military and we've moved twice since the pictures were taken). I guess my point is that in our case, these aren't kids that they're going to have a life-long friendship with and someday invite to their wedding. I wouldn't agonize too much or spend too much on what to give someone when chances are in a year or two you wouldn't recognize these people if you ran into them in the supermarket or on the street.

Posted by: Justsaying4 | March 20, 2009 7:57 AM | Report abuse

Off-topic: today's "sign of the apocalypse" - tickets for the Jonas Brothers concert go on sale today at 4 pm. (Verizon Center, July 13) All of this information comes courtesy of the 12 year old, who does not understand why I won't be at home, on the phone and Internet, right at 4 to get her tickets. (Umm, because she's not going? Because reasonable seats, when you include the in-convenience charge, are over a hundred bucks? Because even if they were cheaper she wouldn't be going?)

Consider yourselves warned. :-)

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | March 20, 2009 8:14 AM | Report abuse

$10 is my limit, and I try to "prebuy" good items in advance of any invites to parties in order to spend even less while not having to do a last minute shopping trip somewhere. Parents seem to send out invites only a few days before parties around here.

Posted by: kctipton | March 20, 2009 8:26 AM | Report abuse

I think that as adults we forget that a present that seems cheap or boring to us can get a kid really excited- my 7 year old son's favorite Xmas gift last year was a $10 gift card for 7-11, because it meant that he could go to the store a few times and buy his own slurpees without begging mom (and when mom does buy them she always makes him get the no-sugar kind- but with his own money he gets to pick!)

Long story short- it's a present for a kid, not a way to impress the parents.

Posted by: bubba777 | March 20, 2009 8:27 AM | Report abuse

Each person/family has their own specific financial circumstance. What seems exceedingly generous to you, as the recipient, may be no more than lunch money to the giver.

I remember, when I was about 10 or 11, a friend gave me a fake "needlepoint" thing, that probably came from the dollar store. My mother was offended, until I told her that my friend's mother was out of work, her dad had never been around, and since we didn't have hot lunch at school (not enough kids qualifying for gov't aid to warrant a full cafeteria) she often didn't even have lunch. I remember my mom's response very clearly - she told me that she was embarassed to have judged the value of the gift, instead of the value of the friendship. And she was proud of me, and glad to know she had done something right, since I had the right perspective.

My point - I don't even remember the girl's name. But I remember that as a teaching moment - for my mom and me both. Give what you can afford, give something you think the child will enjoy, and don't worry about the parents' judging. Kids are usually a lot more honest and less judgemental than adults.

Posted by: JHBVA | March 20, 2009 8:53 AM | Report abuse

Don't overthink it. Buy what feels right. And yeah, sometimes a small present is the best of all -- my daughter and her friends are all VERY into the Littlest Pet Shop; the last party, we spent $6.04 for one that came with its own bag, and it was the hit of the party. We also do the homemade card thing -- less because of the $$ than because I usually forget to pick one up. :-)

I also abhor the big bday party thing. I'm the boring mom who invites only family and a very few close friends, and who does the whole thing at a local state park where the kids can run around, with a homemade cake and some burgers on the grill.

Although, I have to say, this year I caved. My girl is now in public school and has a whole group of kids who she really, really, really wants to play with -- it's really much more of a "group" social scene than it ever was before. So this year, we're going to the same park we always have, but I'm renting the big shelter instead of the little one, and we're inviting the class. Really, I'd rather invite just the kids she's friends with, but that's like 2/3 of the class, and I'm not going to make a few kids feel bad by excluding them. Plus the "friend" list seems to change daily and isn't always accurately conveyed to Mommy. :-)

Everyone thinks I'm nuts and should just go to a party place. But I have yet to see one of those places that doesn't give me a headache, and I hate feeling like I'm wasting money on crappy food, dry cake, and a totally canned experience. It's just not my thing. Not that this is going to end up being much cheaper -- but at least the money will go for real food. And beer. :-)

Posted by: laura33 | March 20, 2009 8:54 AM | Report abuse

i totally agree that kids enjoy the cheap presents as much or more than the expensive ones. but i still feel guilty about a $10 gift for the friend's daughter when they spent $75 on our daughter. the extra $65 isn't the issue, it just goes against our values to waste that much money.

maybe the homemade stuff is the answer - at least then we can feel good that we put forward the effort.

Posted by: interestingidea1234 | March 20, 2009 9:13 AM | Report abuse

For this girls' gift, why don't you set an upper limit (be it $10 or $20 or whatever), then try to find a present that you think the girl will truly love, and not worry about the pricetag? You may find the perfect thing for $10, and that's fine. I'm almost certain she won't care how much it cost if it's something she really enjoys.

At this point, we have a $15 budget for birthday gifts, but we often end up spending around $10, instead. There are actually a ton of very cool toys out there that fit comfortably within budget.

Maybe it's because my kid's only three years old and her social circle is limited to about 10 kids we know and like, but I love birthday party shopping. It's a lot of fun to hunt for a gift that suits each child's personality and likes. That's why I haven't started stockpiling presents yet -- it takes all of the fun out of picking the perfect present.

Posted by: newsahm | March 20, 2009 9:26 AM | Report abuse

On the other side of the issue, we put a note on the invitations saying "no gifts please". In our minds, the party is supossosed to be a celebration --fun time with your friends--not neccesarily a gift exchange.

Posted by: teach1 | March 20, 2009 9:29 AM | Report abuse

"totally agree that kids enjoy the cheap presents as much or more than the expensive ones."

If this were universally true (and I don't think it is), rational consumers would always purchase the less expensive gift, and there would be no such thing as the more expensive gift. Though I suppose since the consumer isn't the user (or more acurately the purchaser isn't the one deriving direct utility from the purchase), there might be some mismatched information about utility (especially when the user is 5 or under and can't accurately communicate how much enjoyment they get from something).

Anyway, the trick is to somehow accurately assess how many "units of happiness" your child experienced from the gift they recieved, and match that to the expected units of happiness the gift receiver will experience from your gift, irrespective of purchase price.

There, I think I sucked as much fun as I could from that.

Posted by: 06902 | March 20, 2009 9:30 AM | Report abuse

JHBVA, I heart that story!

To me, the worst part of the party is the gifts. For instance, my daughter didn't need three different Bratz dolls and two different Hannah Montana dolls. She hasn't even opened the Hannah Montana doll packages. Er, rather, I refuse to open them b/c she already has goo gobs of fashion dolls lying around her room. My son hasn't played with all of his birthday party gifts either (outside area of interest).

Posted by: theoriginalmomof2 | March 20, 2009 9:56 AM | Report abuse

When my son is invited to birthday parties, he now makes a donation to a charity/organization instead of purchasing a present. For example, a child whose family has recently adopted a dog might get a donation in his honor to a local dog rescue organization. A child who plays soccer might get honored with a donation to a local soccer club's scholarship fund. Likewise, when my son has a birthday party, we ask that donations be made to a worthy cause of the giver's choice in lieu of gifts.

Posted by: Arlingtonmom1 | March 20, 2009 10:03 AM | Report abuse

As my kids have gotten older there are fewer birthday parties, but the issue of what to get and how much to spend never gets easier. In fact I think it gets harder. Given time I can find some pretty good presents ( I think ) that fit well within my budget, but time isn't always there.

The one thing I hope I will never do is pick out something to give that would mortify my kids. I still vividly remember my best friend's 12th birthday party. She was opening a bunch of really cool gifts. I didn't know what my mother bought and wrapped, but I was so hoping it would be just as cool. Imagine the reaction when she opened the box to reveal underwear!

Posted by: springforward | March 20, 2009 10:11 AM | Report abuse

So, Does a $10 gift from your child's friend's cheapskate mommy deserve a thankyou note?

I think not.

OT to AB - Why are you refusing to buy your 12 year old tickets to the Jonas Brothers concert? That's like denying her a piece of the American culture at the age where she would appreciate it the most. Sounds like the concert could make a great father/daughter bonding opportunity.

Or did she sign up for another coach's softball team or what? :-)

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | March 20, 2009 10:15 AM | Report abuse

I have two children 2 years apart, both with August birthdays. They will be 5 and 3 this year, so again we will have a joint birthday party (probably won't be able to get away with it when they are teenagers). Last year we had it at our house with free use of a bounce house courtesy of our real estate agent. We put on the invitations "no presents, just bring and uwrapped book for a book exchange". We had many different ages, but I put the books in a big basket and the kids loved being able to pick a "new" book. There were no arguments or fights over the books (I also added quite a few extras). We had great finger foods for adults and children, cupcakes (with a bag to take home if they wanted), a pinata, and a sand box with treasure hunt (coins, sea shells, small toys). And, the adults were able to enjoy "adult beverages". Can't do that at a party place. Now if the weather will cooperate again this year...

Posted by: ctrtle | March 20, 2009 10:19 AM | Report abuse

Why would you change your policy now? This is a chance to model for your children that you don't have to do what other people do. You don't have to buy what they buy and you don't have to have what they have. You will want your own children to be able to make this kind of decision for themselves in a few years.

You can be gracious and generous with your budget. A careful gift chosen and wrapped nicely with a handmade card will be appreciated.

Posted by: priscila | March 20, 2009 10:28 AM | Report abuse

Moxie, 2 days in a row and we agree. Buy what you can afford.

ArmyBrat, The Jonas Brothers thing sounds horrifying. We have never been concert people, or even circus people, as in attending not performing. My 11 year old thinks all the current singers, tv show personalities and pop culture kids are nothing to brag about, watches maybe 15 minutes on TV and is bored. Maybe as she enters Middle School or HS this will change.

On parties, we have done it all, at home parties, bowling alley, park, slumber, local kid's gym, it all depends on money and how much I feel like cleaning up. People with big chips on their shoulders over how other people choose to celebrate their kid's birthdays have always perplexed me, as in whaddya care? Yes, I think the big, over the top parties are a waste of money, but as long as my kid doesn't expect one I don't really care.

Posted by: cheekymonkey | March 20, 2009 10:39 AM | Report abuse

I cannot fathom how selfish and utterly self-focused someone would have to be to withhold their children's friendships from other people in class. My son is casual friends with a boy in his class and his mother rations his time with other kids to the point where he is constantly left out of weekend events. The Black moms think the mom is racist. The working moms think the mom is a class snob. The moms of girls think she is some kind of self-hating misogynist because he doesn't go to girls' parties. People talk about her behind her back only because she wouldn't let her kid go to whole class birthday parties.

In fact, I will state that I am 100% convinced that Stacy Garfinkle is racist and uses race to judge what birthday parties are worth going to. Am I wrong? How would anyone know by the actions described above. Stacy would have to reverse all the above actions in order for me to believe her, until then, she's a racist.

There, now see how utterly preposterous the column is. You would have to be a psycho to ration your children's friendships like that.

Posted by: bbcrock | March 20, 2009 10:41 AM | Report abuse

"When my son is invited to birthday parties, he now makes a donation to a charity/organization instead of purchasing a present."

Let me get this right, Arlingtonmom. Your son buys a bone for some strange dog and thinks it's a gift for his friend?

Wahahahahahaha! That's the funniest thing I've heard all week.

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | March 20, 2009 10:44 AM | Report abuse

When my son is invited to birthday parties, he now makes a donation to a charity/organization instead of purchasing a present.

I can tell you as someone who vividly remembers their childhood that if the above story is true, and it sounds like you're lying, that children who did that when I was a kid got the bejeesus beat out of them on the playground. Like it or not, that's what happens to boys. Ask your husband if that's what happened. Nice way to endanger your kid.

Posted by: bbcrock | March 20, 2009 10:45 AM | Report abuse

oh and to be clear, when my kids were aged 3 and 4 we had a "no gifts rule" because they have too much stuff at that age. I'm not gift-hungry and greedy, but that's my decision. I also open up the party invitations to all, inviting as many as 2 dozen of their friends because I want to create a fun experience for kids and only 12- 15 will show up anyway.

Posted by: bbcrock | March 20, 2009 10:48 AM | Report abuse

Whacky, I knew you would jump on charitable donation gift post! We've had relatives give donations in lieu of Xmas gifts before, which didn't bother me at all, so I don't think a kid giving a donation in lieu of a b-day gift would bother me either. It hasn't happened to our kids yet, and if it did it probably would not be a big deal.

My only concern is there are a lot of "charities" out there that don't use the money they have collected wisely, their overhead is enormous and very little actually goes to the intended recipients. Local charities such as food pantries, etc are my preference.

Posted by: cheekymonkey | March 20, 2009 10:56 AM | Report abuse

Regardless of budget, I think one of the more important teaching elements of b-day parties is taking your child with you to select the gift. My mother rarely did - we gave whatever she bought. I understand that with 3 year olds, but 8 year olds? This is a chance to teach your kid about budget, thoughtfullness, etc. And as many have said - you might be surprised at what the kids pick for each other.

As to thank you notes - it's good practice, everyone should get one. If your kids are older, and you're ok with it, they can be via e-mail. But let your kid learn how to be gracious. Life does not always meet our expectations, and we need to be gracious regardless.

Posted by: JHBVA | March 20, 2009 10:57 AM | Report abuse

bbrock, Interesting observation. I suggest the answer to the "kid getting beat up because he gave a charitable gift" is to teach him self defense.

Posted by: cheekymonkey | March 20, 2009 10:59 AM | Report abuse

I would much rather have my child attend whole-class parties, and get to know a wider range of kids outside the classroom setting, than to only attend parties of her 2 best friends. To each his own, but why would you hurt a kid's feelings by declining an invitation to celebrate a birthday unless you will be out of town or there's a competing obligation? It's not about the parents, or the event, or the supposed value of the friendship. It's about letting kids have fun together. All sorts of kids. Not just the carefully selected most-like-us best friends. It is hurtful to a child when the declined invites come rolling in. Why not teach your kids to expand their social circle from time to time?

Do you only accept dinner party invitations from adults with whom you are super-close?

Post 7-years old, collecting canned food donations at the party for your local food bank is one way to keep the focus on fun and supporting your community. That's alot more real to kids than opening an envelope to find that a donation has been made in their name to some organization they've never heard of.

Posted by: anonfornow | March 20, 2009 11:01 AM | Report abuse

My son just went to a party at a party place I hate...but the invite said to bring a wrapped book as the present. Then at the end it was just a book swap and everyone took one home as the party favor. I definitely hate the goody bag of junk mentality kid's birthdays seem to have sunk to.

I gave my one son a choice this year of inviting 3 kids for a sleepover, 5 kids to a party place, or 8 kids to a party at home. He choose the home party and we had fun making rockets and shooting them off at the school playground.

Posted by: AKD1 | March 20, 2009 11:03 AM | Report abuse

Another suggestion : re-gifting!

Posted by: moxiemom1 | March 20, 2009 11:04 AM | Report abuse

"I cannot fathom how selfish and utterly self-focused someone would have to be to withhold their children's friendships from other people in class"

Posted by: bbcrock | March 20, 2009 10:41 AM | Report abuse

Are you kidding? You seem to be suggesting that kids should go to every party they're invited to. 1. That's an expensive habit even at $10/gift. 2. Most of us are looking for some balance in our lives and taking a child to a birthday party several times a month sometimes cuts into that balance especially when you consider other children you have (who are not invited), other weekend activities (sports, visiting with family, church). 3. Kids don't have to go to every party just to maintain friendships.

Really, selfish? Maybe that is the case of the mother you describe. I don't know. There could be other reasons that you know nothing about. But you seem to be making a ridiculous blanket statement.

Posted by: RandomPerson | March 20, 2009 11:04 AM | Report abuse

"But you seem to be making a ridiculous blanket statement."

My blanket is 10x the blanket yours is!

Posted by: 06902 | March 20, 2009 11:20 AM | Report abuse

I think I might be a minority of one and I will probably get flamed to hades and back for saying this, but I think celebrating birthdays in general is ridiculous. When I think about my birthday it embarrasses me that people would make a big deal over something I had nothing to do with. Ever since I was 15 years old and had spending money of my own, and figured out that I did nothing special to earn being "special" for a day, I have spent my birthday celebrating my mom, who is the one who did all the work to get me here. Every year on my birthday I send her pink flowers in the amount of the year I am (two decades later this starts to get expensive! :) )

It thrills her to pieces and I get a chance to show my appreciation for all she's done for me.

Of course, being that it's likely I'll never have kids of my own, my theory shoots me in the foot that no one will ever celebrate me in a similar way, but that's okay with me. And I don't begrudge other people the right to celebrate their day (or their kids') however they want. My stepkids get wasteful ridiculous parties every year because their mother wants it that way. That's fine by me, for the sake of kids having fun I can fake enthusiasm.

Posted by: auntieW | March 20, 2009 11:29 AM | Report abuse

this kids' birthday party/gift thing has gotten way out of hand. Kudos to those of you who are trying innovate and to put a lid on the extravagance of it all.

Posted by: adrienne_najjar | March 20, 2009 11:37 AM | Report abuse

" but I think celebrating birthdays in general is ridiculous."

I think it's only ridiculous if you think celebrating life is ridiculous. It's not a celebration of accomplishment, but a being, living. Every day you've got is a great one, I see nothing ridiculous in sharing the celebration with others once a year.

Posted by: 06902 | March 20, 2009 11:40 AM | Report abuse

Cheekymonkey, how many square feet of rain forest has your family contributed to save the planet? LOL!

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | March 20, 2009 11:41 AM | Report abuse

I am fortunate enough to be able to spend some money - 20 to 30 dollars - and accept all invites for my preschooler. We are still making friends and I am open to all invites. I try to think of it like a wedding and cover the cost of our attendance (since usually the parents are invited too at this age).

Posted by: StaceyP1 | March 20, 2009 11:43 AM | Report abuse

Whew. This makes me glad to live in the small town I live in.

Most of the kids in my girls' school have "no-gifts" birthday parties. The only one I remember bringing a gift to was a Kindergartner's who had a birthday right before Christmas and said, "no gifts, but feel free to bring a donation to Toys for Tots."

The kids make each other birthday cards and the birthday kids are thrilled with them. The "no-gift" policy takes a lot of tension out of the birthday parties.

Posted by: mlscha | March 20, 2009 11:46 AM | Report abuse

Speaking as someone closer to the children's age than a parent (20 years old), I have to admit that I am surprised nobody has suggested books as gifts for anything other than book swaps.

In elementary school in the late 90s, my friends and I (admittedly with the help of our parents during the first several years of elementary school) would go through the trouble of calling the parent in question after picking out several titles to give each other books we were sure were not duplicates. Yes, many of these books ran over $10, especially as we grew older and outgrew the picture book phase around 3rd grade, but I still have and treasure a couple of them.

Not every gift was a book, of course, but the best gifts seemed to be: a picture book that was illustrated by a classmate's mother, my very first hardbound copy of a classic book (Watership Down, with a scrawled note in the messy cursive of my then eleven year old friend's hand), and a book bought from Olsson's Books back when they had a location near our dance studio.

I know the cost of good books run above $10, and occasionally above $20, but I urge you to bend the rules occasionally for the right gift for a child you think might appreciate curling up with a book. You may pick something they've never heard of, and expand that child's literary horizons.

And yes, I still have some of the handwritten cards in a shoebox somewhere in my parents' house!

Posted by: arbor10 | March 20, 2009 11:49 AM | Report abuse

I bought a square foot of rain forest on behalf of my sister for her b-day one year and she got enough junk mail from environmental groups asking for donations to burn and heat her house for the winter.

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | March 20, 2009 11:50 AM | Report abuse

Regarding whether you reciprocate a friend's extremely generous gift with one of your own: yes, within reason. If the friend tends to give outrageously expensive gifts, then that is their choice but you might confine yourself to the $20 or $25 range and feel just fine about what you've given. If you have very little money period, then I'm sure that will be well understood by the other family and they would never think to be put out by an inexpensive gift.

In regular party going situations wherein the birthday boy or girl is not a close friend, I think a $10 budget is perfect. Buy ahead when you see great gifts on sale and then you'll have them at the ready when another birthday party rolls around.

Posted by: KatieAtl | March 20, 2009 12:05 PM | Report abuse

Cheekymonkey, how many square feet of rain forest has your family contributed to save the planet? LOL!

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | March 20, 2009 11:41 AM

Absolutely ZERO...

Posted by: cheekymonkey | March 20, 2009 12:33 PM | Report abuse

Another suggestion : re-gifting!

Posted by: moxiemom1 | March 20, 2009 11:04 AM

HA! My brother is the king of re-gifting, he discloses that it is a regift and everyone has a good laugh.

Don't know about regifting b-day gifts to to other kids. I know we have given some unopened b-day gifts to toys for tots, usually stuff my kids would never play with (bratz, etc) or duplicate gifts. Sometimes we get receipts or know the gift is from Target, etc so we can return it for something else.

Posted by: cheekymonkey | March 20, 2009 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Maybe I'm being a bit daft here, but what's wrong with giving/receiving birthday presents? When I was a kid my parents didn't have the money to ever buy us any toys, so birthday parties were the ONLY way we got toys. And I distinctly remember how much fun it was to go shopping for my friends' presents, since it was the only time I ever got to step foot in a toy store. If your kids are swimming in toys, maybe you stop buying toys for them and use the approaching birthday as an impetus to give away old toys that aren't being played with anymore. But learning how to give and receive gifts graciously is an important skill, don't diminish it.

Posted by: foreoki12 | March 20, 2009 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Our daughter is adopted so we missed her first 4 birthdays and have had parties each year since. However, we stick to the formula: number of guests = birthday age plus one to grow on. Has worked well.

For her recent 9th birthday we used SkateQuest in Reston for ice skating and I think it was very reasonable ($144 for 8 kids +2 adults, party room, all paper, balloons, 2 pizzas, 2 pitchers soda, skate rental, and dedicated staffing). Great fun was had by all!

Posted by: conchfc | March 20, 2009 12:42 PM | Report abuse

BBrock: As always, on-topic debates are welcome in On Parenting. However, I’m not sure how you pulled racism from a blog about how I choose to limit my children’s birthday party attendance. I do not limit my children’s friendships. I do limit their birthday party attendance as a way to balance these parties with the other things going on in their lives.

Posted by: StaceyGarfinkle | March 20, 2009 12:49 PM | Report abuse

Stacey, one can only deduct that bbcrock bases their argument on this statement:

"The kids only attend birthday parties of other children or relatives they are truly friends with"

and presupposes that your child is only truly friends with children (or has relatives with children) of whatever race you are. The presupposition is unfounded, and makes bbrock's argument flimsy at best, and pretty prejudicial at worst. Either way, it's worth ignoring.

Posted by: 06902 | March 20, 2009 12:58 PM | Report abuse

For those who don't get why people make such a big deal out of birthdays -

My brother does not believe in "hallmark holidays". He and his wife do not exchange gifts for Chanukah (or Christmas, if that's your starting point), Valentine's Day, etc. But your birthday is unique to you. Not that no one else in the world shares the birthday, or even no one else in your family possibly. But it's a chance to celebrate what you've accomplished in the past year, your goals for the next year, etc.

Apply that to kids - their new accomplishments with each year of life are amazing. From walking and talking, to learning to ride a bike, making new friends, learning and applying interesting things from school, etc. Why shouldn't that be celebrated?

Posted by: JHBVA | March 20, 2009 12:58 PM | Report abuse


Jonathan Swift. Reductio Ad Absurdum.

Don't blame me for your lack of classical education or English literacy! I spelled out what I was doing quite clearly- people (and children especially) will extrapolate hidden meanings from your actions.

Posted by: bbcrock | March 20, 2009 1:17 PM | Report abuse

More often than not, when satire fails, it's the writer's fault, not the dear reader's...

Posted by: 06902 | March 20, 2009 1:21 PM | Report abuse

foreoki12, if your parents didn't have to buy other kids presents, they would've had enough money to buy you presents for your birthday. I think it works out about the same.

And the kids do have to learn social niceties when giving and receiving cards. I think, for a small child, drawing a picture is an exercise in giving, while handing over a present selected and wrapped by the parent may not be. (Of course, the child may help with selection, depending on the age).

I'm not saying there's anything wrong with gift-giving. I just have seen parties go more smoothly without it, and it works better for our family.

Posted by: mlscha | March 20, 2009 1:34 PM | Report abuse

JHBVA, While I don't necessarily disagree with you, there are plenty of ways to "celebrate" a birthday, and it doesn't have to be centered around a party. Maybe that is what you are saying, but I don't think anyone is trying to say that birthdays should be ignored, only no hoopla.

We tell our kids about the day they were born on their birthday, every year they get a kick out of hearing the story of "the day". You could call that a celebration and it cost nothing.

I come from a non-birthday family and never felt any slight. We got a present, my mom cooked our favorite meal, she baked a cake. I remember a couple of parties at home, but not every year. As an adult I couldn't care less about my birthday, it is just not that big of a deal.

Posted by: cheekymonkey | March 20, 2009 1:48 PM | Report abuse

The people who write "no gifts" on their kids' party invitations, and who give donations to charity in lieu of gifts to other peoples' kids are joyless liberals who suck all the fun out of life (and I say that as a liberal).

I feel sorry for all the kids involved.

Getting and giving presents is a BIG DEAL for kids. Save the politics for grownup situations and let the kids have their fun. Childhood is short and they'll learn about all the misery and poverty in the world soon enough. Sheesh.

Posted by: Annapolis1 | March 20, 2009 2:15 PM | Report abuse

I think this all boils down to a matter of preference and affordability. To some, birthday parties for kids is a big deal. My five year old LOVES birthday parties. I too tend to only accept invitations to parties that my child actually plays with in school. I buy gifts based on the level of friendship. For example, a friend he occasionally plays with will get a gift of about $10. A good friend will get more and may even get a few gifts. That's a decision that we've made, it might not work for some but that's what's so great about having a personal preference. Everyone can do what they want.

Posted by: Mommyof2boys | March 20, 2009 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Judge much?

this post has actually inspired me to think a little more about these gifting opportunities instead of the knee-jerk trip to the toy store. homemade, handmade, etc sound like great alternatives. so thank you gang.

i think receiving a donation notice mixed in with the random toys is wonderful.

honestly - my daughter gets so many gifts from grandparents, aunts, uncles, and our friends that we put them in the closet and distribute during the year or pick out ones to give to away.

Posted by: interestingidea1234 | March 20, 2009 2:28 PM | Report abuse

My seventh-grade daughter wrapped a scarf she made around a bag of her friend's favorite Pepperidge Farm cookies for a birthday present. We spent more money on the card, which DD carefully picked out for maximum giggles. For my daughter's birthday, this friend gave her a lovely anime drawing she'd made.
I am just lovin' my daughter's friends and customs! They are really thoughtful with each other in terms of gifts.
I've been through the plastic junk phase when they were all younger and am glad to see it go!!

Posted by: annenh | March 20, 2009 2:28 PM | Report abuse

I think homemade gifts and cards are great, too. I'm often surprised by the level of creativity and talent displayed by my daughter's friends, who have made her purses, jewelry, candles, and other things, which I think are far more meaningful to her than a bought gift.

But kids should be allowed to give and receive gifts at parties, and a donation to a charity is not a gift, unless the recipient specifically asked for it.

Posted by: Annapolis1 | March 20, 2009 2:36 PM | Report abuse

Annapolis1 -- I couldn't disagree with you more. There was nothing "joyless" about a recent "no gifts" b'day party my kids attended where they went rock climbing and played games. When did it become about the stuff? I'm sure that moms, dads, and grandparents are happy to choose a few special gifts for their own kids that suit their personalities and interests. I, for one, find that enough of a challenge -- much less choosing such gifts for kids I barely know (which equates to largely wasted time, money, and energy). It's not an easy sell with my four kids but we're doing the "no gifts" or inexpensive book exchange, and would encourage other folks, too. Better to focus the child's energies instead on the joy of gathering with friends and family, being the center of attention for the day, and, yes, the cake -- rather than on how much loot they get.

Posted by: darigoni | March 20, 2009 2:41 PM | Report abuse

We always invite the whole class, presuming 50% won't come (they do!), plus friends from the neighborhood, old schools, and the family. It's just a social grace. Then rent/find a place big enough for all of them, just in case. Of course, we have a boy, so not much cliqueshness here. Get tons of food, noise and running around, and you are guaranteed to hear from your kid and his guests that it was "the bestest party ever". The cost is always around $20 a person, including themed goody bags (we did Harry Potter, Nascar, Science, Rockets, Army, and Lego), the gifts received ranged from $20-$60 a person. The is no competition to get "in", since everybody is invited, including girls, but when the party date and theme is declared, usually 2 weeks in advance, that would be the talk of the town.

Posted by: 1Milena | March 20, 2009 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Darigoni, I wonder what your reaction would have been as a child if you were not allowed presents at your birthday party?

And WHY is it a "waste" of "time, energy and money" to buy a gift? I SAID it doesn't matter if it's homemade or inexpensive, and it's a chance for a child to learn generosity and how to consider someone else's likes and dislikes (ding ding ding! teachable moment!)

There is time enough to teach kids how to save the world. Let at least one of childhood's sacred cows not be sacrified at the altar of being more-altruistic-than-thou.

Posted by: Annapolis1 | March 20, 2009 2:48 PM | Report abuse

It's been easy so far, as my child is young and buying gifts for the young is as easy as buying a coloring book and a pack of crayons.

As they get bigger, they will have the 5 or 10 dollar limit that I had when I was a kid. In fact, I didn't get invited to many parties, just my best friends. In the 70s there was none of this PC, you have to invite the entire class business. My feelings weren't hurt. It's life. I'd rather my folks save their money and spend it on me. And we were allowed to have enough fun parties at school that kids didn't feel they were missing out on a few private things after school.

Posted by: catweasel3 | March 20, 2009 2:49 PM | Report abuse

Well, count me on the pro-gifts side. Personally, I find the whole shopping an annoyance, especially when I don't know the kid that well, and my daughter can't give me many hints. And don't even get me started on the goodie bags. But I also see my daughter come home practically dancing on air, just because one of the girls in her class gave her an eraser. It seems that right now, the girls signal acceptance by giving hair bands, pencils, erasers, etc. -- I'm guessing the way some kids swap trading cards.

Yes, at holidays and birthdays we focus on the non-materialistic lessons ("it's the thought that counts," "isn't it great that X came all that way?" etc). But fundamentally, it is a pretty basic, simple joy to receive a token that says "I like you." (And on the flip side, it's also important for inherently uncivilized and selfish small-fry to learn that giving away something to make someone else happy is a good thing -- even if it's something really really cool that you'd love to keep for yourself if your mean mommy would let you.)

Maybe someday we'll all be mature enough to say we've outgrown the need for material gifts, to realize that others have far less than we do and it's better to devote our resources to them, etc. But I gotta say, even at 43, it still makes me happy when my husband brings home some special chocolate that he found on a trip, or when my mom picks up a $12 necklace that she thought was just right for me, or when my daughter picks me flowers (even "just" clover from the front yard). I see that as a fairly basic joy, and I'm just not going to take it away from my 7-yr-old.

Posted by: laura33 | March 20, 2009 3:30 PM | Report abuse

catweasel3 - I'm not sure where you grew up, but in the 70s in NJ, you invited the entire class, unless it was a sleepover. Then you just invited the girls (or boys). That held till at least 4th or 5th grade.

Overall, it again comes back to the individual, and the circle of friends. If your kid is the only one with a $5 gift limit, it will show when gifts are opened. If gifts are opened after the party, in private, it may not be a big deal. As my own personal experience proves. But if gifts are opened at the party, it is always a chance to practice saying thank you, and to practice not telling your friend that your grandmother already gave you that, or that you don't like purple, or whatever.

Posted by: JHBVA | March 20, 2009 3:30 PM | Report abuse

Annapolis1 -- I can tell you, I don't remember a single gift that I received (or gifts I gave) as a child, but I do remember the sleepovers, the pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey games, etc -- the celebrations themselves. I agree that thoughtful giving is a teachable moment -- "no gifts" doesn't mean no homemade cards, artwork, etc., for the b'day child. Finally waste of time defined = special trip to bookstore or Target for gift, often on short notice (1/2 to 1 hour total); money = $10/gift x 15 parties = $150/year per kid; and energy (don't get me started on the transportation & petroleum impacts...).

Posted by: darigoni | March 20, 2009 3:33 PM | Report abuse

"we're doing the "no gifts" or inexpensive book exchange, and would encourage other folks, too."

Posted by: darigoni | March 20, 2009 2:41

The "we're doing" is great, it the "would encourage other folks" is where you run into trouble...

Posted by: 06902 | March 20, 2009 4:55 PM | Report abuse

Why limit the gift giving ideas to a contribution to a charity?

Why not do something truly meaningful and personal?

1. Hold the b'day party at a food bank. The b'day child and the others can have a competition to see who packs most boxes. Extra credit given to the child that packs the healthiest box. (No salts, sugars or carbs, only whole grains and protein.)

2. Arrange to have the party at a methadone clinic. The child who picks up the greatest number of hypodermic needles can be awarded a NA pamphlet.

3. Go to women's shelter. The child that chnages the most diapers can be awarded that coveted Saturday morning volunteer slot.

With a bit of imagination and ingenuity, you can change any birthday party from that narcissistic celebration to a truly philanthropic one!

Posted by: anonymous_one | March 20, 2009 5:23 PM | Report abuse

I'm a throwback as far as birthday celebrations go too. Being a single-income family whose finances are tight, I keep the gift budget for friends' parties to $5 (believe me, you can still find good gifts for kids with that!). A call to the birthday boy/girl's parents beforehand to find out what they like best also makes a good jumping-off point too. It gives me a baseline to work from, and presents like the big box of crayons or a puzzle work wonders (before you ask, I don't do fads or the currently popular toys-I know that within a year they're just going to wind up ignored or junked anyway.).

For our daughters' parties, we also keep it simple. One friend for each year old they are, and no expensive plans. Even renting a moon bounce or a skating party would kill the budget for us, so it's backyard or park games and a barbecue, or pizza. The only problem I've encountered so far is that my older daughter's birthday is July 5th, so nobody's been around then! However, she loves that we save some sparklers or items like that to shoot off in the backyard on her birthday (yes, we live where they're legal)-it's like extending Independence Day. Our younger daughter's birthday is today, and since the spring equinox is a religious holiday for us, it's a bit of a balancing act there as well. The egg hunt and baskets with flower seed packets in them were big hits, though! Tomorrow's the party, and it's just going to be friends, family, and pizza.

I know that our stance (especially since we don't bow to the invite-the-whole-class "rule") may make us unpopular, but so be it. Not everybody can afford these lavish celebrations, and lately it seems like they've descended into the realm of can-you-top-this. We're trying to keep the days of simple games and backyard celebrations alive as long as we can!

Posted by: dragondancer1814 | March 20, 2009 5:27 PM | Report abuse

Some of the best birthday parties we've had for our kids have been the lowest key. For my daughter's 4th, we invited 4 or 5 of her friends over. We laid out a craft for them to do in the playroom - - glueing gems on a crown - - and they just rarn around and did what they want. The parents ended up doing the craft and drinking wine and everyone had pizza and cake. It was great all around!

Posted by: ElaineatLipstickdaily | March 22, 2009 4:57 PM | Report abuse

DS doesn't have many friends, and his birthday is around Thanksgiving, so we stopped the birthday parties after age 8. Instead, we take him (plus maybe one friend) to a sporting event - which he loves. It's also his gift, and he doesn't miss getting a big pile of stuff. It probably costs more than a party (unless you do the backyard thing) but is much more enjoyable - and realistic - given his situation.

Posted by: lorenw507 | March 23, 2009 1:02 PM | Report abuse

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