Last April, I opened my email and an invitation floated out of a digital envelope: a parade of giraffes, announcing Hazel’s third birthday party. My son’s first ever birthday party invitation! I was excited. No, I’m not some weirdo who is obsessed with cupcakes arranged to look like a mermaid; I’m a parent who had a baby during a pandemic. Finally, a real birthday party, something in parenting that would look like I’d imagined it would. We’d get Hazel a cute little present and jump on a bouncy castle, or whatever it is you do at 3-year-old birthdays.
But then I noticed the text at the bottom of the invite: No gifts.
What kind of monster shows up at a birthday party for a 3-year-old empty-handed? I decided this line was more of a suggestion, and the next day I took my son to the toy store and we picked out a Playmobil set. It was small, $13. It seemed like a good compromise.
The day of the party came. That’s when I noticed: There were no other gifts. That line on the invite wasn’t just a polite suggestion. I thought about our gift, which had seemed cute 30 seconds ago but now seemed like an assault on Hazel’s parents: little bunnies and tiny carrots that would end up scattered on the floor waiting to stab them in the foot. I’d made a mistake.
Later, I tweeted that I hated “no gifts” parties. I like buying gifts for people! Gift giving is a love language. Plus, the no gifts thing was triggering my already fragile insecurity. You don’t think I can pick out a good gift for your kid? Just watch, I’ll pick out a gift so good your kid will play with it until college. Your kid will take my gift to college. Your kid will be hooking up with their first girlfriend in their dorm room under a Bob Marley poster, and she’ll look over and say, “Why do you have a Lego set of a garbage truck?”
A blogger on the local parenting website Madison Mom summed up how I was feeling, writing: “The ‘no gifts’ request can make guests feel unwelcome before the event even begins. It’s like saying to your guests ‘Look, I know you are going to buy gauche plastic toys that take up too much space in my house, so just forget it.’ Or, ‘My snowflake lives in an abundant land of plenty. They don’t need more things, unlike other gift-grubbing children.’ ”
The first mention of “no gifts” kids’ parties I could find started appearing on mommy blogs around 2013, where blogs like Hint Mama started offering tips for readers going to “no gifts” parties, like to bring “a handmade card with a $5 ice-cream store certificate.” Since then, the idea has become pretty common. And after my tweet took off, I was surprised to find most parents on Twitter (OK, X) disagreed with me: The conventional wisdom, it seems, is that “no gifts” parties are a good thing. Responses ranged from It’s better for the environment, to We don’t have the room for any more stuff, to We’re trying to cut down on expenses for other parents who are sending their kids to up to 40 birthday parties a year. To be sure: Not every family can afford 40 Barbies. Some parents suggested alternatives like asking for books, art supplies, or even donations to an animal shelter or charity, which did all seem like good ideas.
But I still couldn’t shake a feeling I worried made me a Bad Parent. When it came time for my son to turn 3, I wanted him to have gifts—the kind kids actually get excited about, not just books or markers, but a dumb little bus filled with plastic people he can wheel around the room. And while it’s a nice idea, and I’m never against teaching kids about charity, donations they’ll never actually see the effects of don’t really mean much to a person who is turning 3, 4, 5, or 6. And I wanted my son’s birthday to mean something to him, not just me. There is something magical about your birthday. No other day do you get showered with presents from your friends and family. And isn’t there value in teaching kids how to graciously give gifts to others for their day?
I also wondered if “no gifts” parties are just an upper-middle-class white person thing. Is it really about reducing your carbon footprint and teaching your child selflessness—or, as one Twitter user suggested, is “no gifts, please” about white people of the Sad Beige variety, who don’t want gaudy toys to clash with their decor?
It’s hard to say—as far as I can tell, anthropologists have yet to study “no gifts” parties in contemporary American parenting culture. I’m operating with feedback from the hundreds of replies to my tweet. (People really love to debate this topic.) Author L’Oreal Thompson Payton is Black, and she said she put “no gifts” on her own kid’s birthday invites. “We said ‘no gifts’ on ours because we live in a condo and space is at a premium … and I also understand people, for cultural reasons, not wanting to show up empty handed,” Payton wrote. Writer Sharon Sanders, who is also Black, said she had seen “no gifts” on invitations from families of different backgrounds but, “Among our friends from outside the school community, more of whom are Black or other people of color, we were less likely to see a ‘no gifts’ request. My takeaway is that this is less common among people of color.”
While it’s not necessarily just a white person thing, it does seem like “no gifts” is a pretty American thing. A few Brits said they’d seen invites with the stipulation, and some Canadians said “toonie parties” are common there (everyone brings $2 for the kid to save up for a bigger gift). But Twitter users from countries like Vietnam, Germany, and Singapore commented that they’d never heard of a party with no gifts. And it seemed like the further you got from a large metropolitan area, the less common it is to see “no gifts” on a birthday party invite. People in Brooklyn and D.C. said they’d never been invited to a party where “no gifts” wasn’t on the invite, but people in more rural parts of Alabama and Michigan said the stipulation was rare, and when people did put it on the invites, guests often brought gifts anyway.
But can we really change the deeply ingrained cultural tradition of giving gifts to children on birthdays? We all know Jesus got gifts when he was born (what baby doesn’t love myrrh?), so you might think birthday gifts have been around forever, but children only started getting birthday presents around the Industrial Revolution. (According to Joe Pinsker, who wrote about birthdays for the Atlantic in 2021, there were birthday present haters then too, who “thought that the celebrations were self-centered and materialistic, took attention away from God, and turned children into brats.”) If gift giving for children hasn’t even been around that long, and parents are drowning in stuff, and are unable to afford gifts for 40 children a year, and we are creating so much waste as a society that there is probably an island made of LOL Surprises floating around the Atlantic Ocean, maybe shifting the cultural tradition around kid’s birthdays isn’t the worst thing in the world.
I realized my dislike of “no gifts” could be one of those things people with only one kid say as if they are experts, like “all you have to do to get a kid to eat vegetables is simply offer broccoli.” Maybe I only like the idea of friends giving birthday gifts to my kid because I haven’t yet experienced the crushing defeat of sneaking a bag of toys my child hasn’t touched in four years to Goodwill in the middle of the night to avoid a meltdown, or because I haven’t been to LOL Island and seen a sea turtle choking to death on a Bratz doll shoe.
When it came time for my own son’s birthday party, I was unsure what to put on the invitation. No gifts didn’t seem right to me, because in my heart, I wanted him to have gifts. Instead, I wrote, “Bring a gift if you want, but nobody will be mad or notice if you don’t,” and I meant it. In the end, almost everyone brought a gift, and whether it was a set of stomp rockets or just a homemade card, my son loved every single one. Maybe next year we will be converted to “no gifts,” but I’m not ready yet.
But here is one thing we can all agree on: Abolish the party favor bag! Case closed.