Thursday, January 28, 2010

No Gifts, Please

I am filling out blanks on pre-made invitations for our soon-to-be-four-year-old's birthday party at an Indoor Inflatable Bouncy World. We're inviting twenty-five youngsters, not including various under-two-year-olds and the birthday girl herself, who don't "count." Please come to a boing-boing bash with birthday cake and ice cream, gifts, please.

I add the last request wishing that I could explain myself to our invited guests. I mean, what kind of mom deprives her child (and have you seen my cutie pie?) of that pile of presents? I picture the raised eyebrows at what some might interpret as sanctimonious disdain for our materialistic society. I imagine the questions: Does she really mean it? Will she be mad if I bring a gift anyway? I worry that I'm triggering other parents' internal rationalizations of their acquiescence to the traditional birthday bargain: get presents; give goody bag.

And then I am guilty of over-thinking the whole thing: I wonder if my friends will judge me or themselves because they think I am judging them.

Truth is, I usually try to choose paths that make the most people comfortable. I don't like to make a big deal; I generally go with the parenting flow.

And so it's tempting, once again, to ditch what has become our traditional approach to our children's birthdays, because yes, I kind of do care what other people think. And honestly, it's the passive approach that brings the bounty of booty. You have to make an effort to stem the outpouring. Is it worth stepping out on that limb?

Well, yeah; I think so.

First of all, there are some practical reasons why it doesn't make sense to me for us to accept gifts from our crowd of neighborhood friends. Our house is small, our daughters share a room, and, it's true: they have plenty of toys. It's not that I don't think my kids can use new toys from time to time, but those times do not necessarily fall around their birthdays. Months can go by and I watch my children still intrigued by an old plaything. Then, one day, we've hit a developmental leap or different interest and it's time to introduce new stimuli. But my experience says that if upwards of ten fresh distractions fall into my child's lap at once, many will end up barely explored and some ignored altogether.

Why not, say, a few gifts for our four-year-old? I reassure you we don't believe in completely present-free birthdays; we've got the gift part covered ourselves. So please just come to the party and have fun. And the party, folks, is what it's all about, by the way. I don't know what my daughter wants for birthday; all she's talked about for months is the partay. And the cake, and also the friends.

I've heard people mention that in lieu of giving gifts, one could suggest a donation to a favorite charity or cause. My thought on that is, I prefer you decide how to spend your money. Maybe you really need your $10 for the fine on that library book you found behind the fridge after months of searching. Encouraging friends to consider not buying for my daughter seems incongruent with taking for granted they were going to anyway, and then redirecting that cash, no matter how well meaning the intent. Also, that request would be more sincere coming from our daughter herself.

Perhaps the "no gifts, please" appended to our daughter's birthday invite is just one manifestation of my growing desire to disrupt the social conventions of gift giving. Make no mistake: I love gifts. I cherish gifts. Making and discovering gifts for others is one of my life's true joys. But I'm not good at--nor do I necessarily believe in--giving on demand. In my view, the best gifts are inspired by a true desire to give (versus the annual event of a holiday) and the convergence of thinking of someone and encountering the perfect item or service for him or her.

I have a pair of earrings from Target ($7.99, baby!) which inspire compliments whenever I wear them. Last time I was in the store, I picked up three more pairs, vowing to surprise the next few people who expressed their approval. The satisfaction I gained from executing my plan and giving that simple unsolicited gift far outweighed the eight dollars a pair.

The world would be a better place, I predict, if what we gave one another more often was Love and Attention. So I've become a proponent of what I call the "experience gift": the gift of time or opportunity versus object. I often suggest (on occasion, beg, demand?) my husband give me these gifts: Some hours, please, honey, to clean the house, go running, run errands, read a book, breathe. And I try to reciprocate, especially when I can tell my partner is cracking.

In the same vein, I know my daughters would appreciate a frozen yogurt date with an auntie, uncle, or friend more than another plastic gizmo.

Redefining what constitutes gift-giving is part of this revolution. A generous friend sharing her crockpot of chili on a busy weekday night and saving me the hassle of cooking dinner might as well have served up that stew in a Tiffany's box; it feels that valuable. In our neighborhood we take in one another's rascals and haul carfuls of kids on adventures, relieving other moms and dads when we can. This is the kind of spontaneous karma chain that makes the world go 'round.

As a final disclaimer I will share that we discussed at dinner tonight our "no gifts" approach to birthday parties. Our daughters are still on board, and conversation quickly shifted to pre-planning the First Grader's August birthday.

Here's to presence over presents!

1 comment:

Mama Deb said...

I hear you loud and clear on this one!!
I, too, am a fan of the 'no gifts, please' mentality. For me, it's not only because my children have a ridiculous amount of toys already, but because I have 10 nieces and nephews that I buy birthday and Christmas presents for, and forking out another $15 or so for every child's birthday party really takes a toll on the checkbook. I also HATE goody bags of useless crap. HATE them!!
For Brooks' birthday this year I had every child bring a book for the book exchange. And, of course, asked for no gifts, please.
The kiddos lined up and each selected a book from the pile. They gave and they got...everyone was happy!un