Why I banned presents at my kids' birthday parties

Would your kids still have fun without presents?
Would your kids still have fun without presents? Photo: Getty

Three of my four children have birthdays very close together so “birthday week” is usually a fiesta of presents, parties and treats.

This year their birthdays fell in the school holidays and as we were going to be away, I deluded myself into believing I could get away with no parties. The boys had other ideas and were so earnest and enthusiastic in their pleadings that I couldn’t refuse, especially the petitions of the soon-to-be-six year old who hasn’t yet had a party for his whole class. I finally capitulated on the proviso that I would give them a budget and they would have to plan and organise the party themselves. I naively assumed that the burden of organisation would prove a disincentive and they would content themselves instead to celebrating with fish and chips on a beach during our camping trip. I was still delusional. Within an hour of the challenge being set, to their credit, the computer savvy five and nine year olds had found a jumping castle that could be hired for 24 hours, leaving enough money in their budget for food and balloons. They had devised a plan for one party each - three parties at staggered intervals in one day - and each created their own menu, made and printed invitations and even prepared a shopping list. I had been outwitted by my three enterprising sons and had no choice but to acquiesce. 

I made only one tiny adjustment to their plans - a caveat on the invitations; “Strictly no cards or gifts please. Just come along and enjoy the fun.”

Perhaps a little context to my austerity is required: three years ago we took the decision to simplify our lives and divest ourselves of some of the trappings of the developed world. We took a leap of faith and moved to a very impoverished and poorly developed town in the Dominican Republic. The children went to a local Spanish school and my husband and I were volunteer teachers. We rented a tiny apartment with intermittent electricity, no hot water and no drinking water. We had no car, telephone, radio or TV. The children took only a few small toys and books.  

By “developed world” standards our lives in the Dominican Republic were fairly basic. By local standards we lived like kings – we had a roof that didn’t leak, food in our cupboards and our children attended school. Many of our neighbours didn’t even have shoes as we found out to our cost when we left ours out to dry overnight and woke up to find neighbourhood kids wearing them.

It was an amazing experience where we learned some valuable lessons about what is important in life and we were sad to leave. Back in Sydney and we are still adjusting to the contrast between life in the developed world and the incredible poverty we left behind. I don’t want to forget the important lessons we learned – how few things we really need to survive and be happy – and I don’t want the children to forget them either.

Our family motto is “Be a giver, not a taker” and that principle had to underline the parties that the boys were organising. Their initial reaction to my “no gifts rule” was a predictable “Ah, Mum that really sucks!” But they are quite used to my economy and it was soon forgotten in the excitement of the impending parties.

One of the amazing things about being a child is the ability to live in the moment. They don’t dwell on the past or worry about the future and, as an adult who does both, I envy them that capacity. I am not concerned that they will be scarred for life or affected for more than a moment by their mad mother’s refusal to allow their friends’ parents to spend money on gifts they really don’t need.

I want them to remember the laughs and games they shared with their friends and the usually forbidden freedom of unlimited access to lollies and lemonade. Creating memories of a happy childhood with good friends is far more precious and enduring than anything they could unwrap.

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Parents’ reactions to my request were, however, far more varied and less predictable than those of my children. Responses ranged from relief and instant acceptance, to slight discomfort and eventual agreement right through to those parents who were so uncomfortable at the idea that they ignored my genuine impassioned plea and brought gifts regardless. Some creative parents asked if they could help in other ways. One mum brought a platter of fruit for the party and another a home-made voucher inviting our youngest son on a picnic with her family – a gift esteemed by the recipient more highly than a trip to Disneyland. I received some olive oil from a friend’s farm and a couple of bottles of wine to help manage the aftermath of children making three birthday cakes (I didn’t specify no gifts for me!).

Those kind parents will of course all receive a card from the children thanking them for their generosity, saying the gifts were completely unnecessary but most appreciated.

As I continue to help my children differentiate between a life of riches and a life that is enriched and to think of the impacts our choices make on the planet and on others, did they reflect that a birthday party with no presents is the childhood equivalent of the pub with no beer?

The day after their parties the kids were as well-adjusted as ever. When asked about the best bit of their day they said it was playing Empire with their friends. And the worst bit? “No bad bits really Mum, except accidentally eating some watermelon because I thought it was a lolly!”

None of the three boys mentioned the absence of parcels to unwrap.

From a total of three parties with around fifty guests, they have five small gifts and two large ones. They will also receive significant presents from us – a bike for the six year old and a computer for the ten year olds so they certainly aren’t deprived.

Will I do it again next year? In the aftershock of a marathon eight hour party I am not inclined to contemplate repeating the event any time soon. But I have twelve months to recover, and if ever I do it again, I will without hesitation respectfully request your presence not your presents please.

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