Cake, but No Presents, Please

Posted by Kendall Harmon

At Gavin Brown’s 4th birthday party, the usual detritus lined the edges of the backyard: sippy cups, sunscreen, water shoes, stuffed animals. There were 44 guests and as many buns on the grill, in addition to an elaborate ice cream cake adorned with a fire truck. For the adults, there was sangria and savory corn salsa.

Glenn Johnson lifted his daughter Mia, 3, up to drop money into the donation box.

But the only gift in sight was a little red Matchbox hook and ladder rig. All the bounty from Gavin’s birthday — $240 in checks and cash collected in a red box next to a plastic fire helmet — went to the Cranford Fire Department.

“Thanks, buddy,” Lt. Frank Genova said on Sunday when Gavin handed over the loot, after which he took a tour of the pumper truck and tried on a real captain’s helmet. With the party proceeds, the birthday boy suggested, the firefighters “can buy new fire trucks, new equipment, and more food.”

In part to teach philanthropy and altruism, and in part as a defense against swarms of random plastic objects destined to clutter every square foot of their living space, a number of families are experimenting with gift-free birthday parties, suggesting that guests donate money or specified items to the charity of the child’s choice instead.

Read it all.

Filed under: * Culture-WatchChildren

Posted July 27, 2007 at 10:19 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]

1. Ralinda wrote:

We used to give our daughter’s girl friends books in an effort to spare the parents of all that “stuff”.  But little boys (especially ours) want toys, toys, toys.  We didn’t have a party for him this year.  He got to bring a friend to one of those indoor play places and then we went to a movie.

July 27, 11:17 am | [comment link]
2. miserable sinner wrote:

A friend of my mother gave my newborn son a share of a goat gifted to The Heifer Project,  We so appreciated the gesture that for his next birthday rather than toys he didn’t need, donations went to their “Kids for Kids” program.  It’s now a tradition that has spread throughout the neighborhood with various charities having been recipients.  Close family can give gifts, but young friends are asked to make a charitable donation.  I recommend it highly as a teaching tool for all concerned.


July 27, 11:47 am | [comment link]
3. Kate Stirk wrote:

At my last school (private with comfortable families), some mothers started asking birthday party guests to give a donation to the school library instead of buying a gift for the child. The procedure was a donation was made in the birthday childs name. A certificate was given that could be placed in an envelope or box to be given to the birthday child at the party. Later the child picked out books from the birthday box in the library then a bookplate with their name as the honoree was placed in the book. We had one parent who gave a book for each year of the childs age (7 books at 7, 8 books at- etc) The Librarian (me) loved this idea!!!!

July 27, 1:01 pm | [comment link]
4. Irenaeus wrote:

Good for these parents, both in avoiding a surfeit of toys and in starting to teach the joy of giving.

July 27, 3:03 pm | [comment link]
5. Philip Snyder wrote:

We just discussed this idea with our 8 year old son.  He wants to think about it.  He said that God would like it better if he did this, but I still want toys.  He will think about it and, I pray, come to the conclusion that this is a better idea than getting toys that he really doesn’t play with.

Phil Snyder

July 27, 3:25 pm | [comment link]
6. Patty Mueller wrote:

I suppose I’ll have to be the voice of dissent on this issue.  I don’t really like this idea for a couple of reasons.  In reading the whole article, everything about this birthday party spoke of materialism and excess - except for the lack of birthday presents.  It’s really this simple.  If you want to teach your children simplicity, live simply.  If you want to teach your children charity, live charitably.  To have this large party for a 4 year old where you instruct the invitees to give to charity sounds to me like conspicuous one-upsmanship - a very public way of being “more charitable than thou.”

It’s true children need far less than we give them.  So we should give them less.  4 year olds don’t need fancy parties where more than 40 people are invited.  They will be quite content with immediate family, no more than 5 same age friends, cake and ice cream and maybe a pinata if you’re feeling really extravagant.  But if a family lives a highly materialistic, consumer driven, invite all of my 100 closest friends to see how great I am life, then one act of giving away gifts that will soon be forgotten anyway doesn’t teach anything. 

Charity and simplicity are not things that can be taught through flashy, public moments.  Charity and simplicity are values learned over a lifetime of quiet living.  My advice - give our children less all year long.  Model for them charity and simplicity all year long.  Grace them with small, intimate birthday gatherings.  And let them keep the presents.  Birthday presents aren’t the problem.  It’s the rest of our lives that need to be simplified.

July 27, 3:38 pm | [comment link]
7. indie wrote:

I really don’t think that its as simple as you seem to think, Patty. We try to live a simple life, but all four of my kids’ grandparents and all six of their great-grandparents send boxes and boxes of plastic made in China junk for each and every birthday and holiday and randomly in between. Not only do they send tons of cruddy toys, but they also send giant things that we can’t fit into our tiny apartment. I’ve begged them to stop. I’ve asked them to send only one simple gift. I suggested that they donate towards college funds or buy things like a family membership to the zoo. Or save up for a plane ticket to visit. Anything but fill up our home up with stuff that we don’t need while teaching my children to expect this sort of thing. One child from my daughter’s school spent more on my child’s birthday than we did. We didn’t even invite her to the party. We only invited one family. As the parent, I feel that I have the right to decide what is appropriate and what is not. Gift giving is out of control and if parents don’t put their foot down, who will?

July 27, 7:13 pm | [comment link]
8. Patty Mueller wrote:

Hi indie, I agree with you that the types of situations that you are referring to can be difficult.  And in situations like those, I think it’s entirely appropriate to make a choice to limit the number of presents you allow your children to accept and offer them options for what to do with the other things.  We too have had to deal with pressures from family and friends who sometimes have different ideas of what they think our children need.  And it has been at times difficult to know when to insist on our values and when to allow other family members to be more extravagant than we would prefer.

But I think that’s a different situation than what is described in the article above.  I can’t control what people choose to send to my children unasked and uninvited.  But I can control what types of situations I invite into my own home.  And I don’t see how making my children give to charity for their birthday makes them charitable people if I make choices to live excessively in other aspects of my life. 

Children, especially young children, learn more from their parents than from anyone else.  They will learn charity and simplicity from watching the way their parents are, even when other family members behave differently.  But children will not learn charity and simplicity from this type of public birthday act if their parents live ostentatiously and without regard to others on the other 365 days.  I guess that’s the point I was trying to make.

That and for me charity is a state of mind and a way of being that is contradicted by the public display of it.

July 27, 7:45 pm | [comment link]
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