When my son turned six, we invited his whole class to a bowling birthday party. At the bottom of the invitation, I wrote: “Gifts optional.” My six-year-old is the second of four kids and our house already looks like a toy store (I blame the grandparents). He wants for nothing. There wasn’t even any special gift he was really hoping for on this particular birthday. All he wanted was to celebrate with his class and eat cake.
I had debated the language heavily, wanting to express I was serious, but not wanting to be rude. Should I write: “The only present we require is the gift of your presence?” What about: “No gifts, please?” I settled on “gifts optional” because I felt a few families we were close to would bring gifts no matter what, and I didn’t want them to get dirty looks from parents who brought nothing.
Before the party, I fielded a few messages from parents asking what kind of toys my son liked. I responded kindly that presents were not necessary, but if they wanted to bring something small he would love a Matchbox car or a $5 Apple gift card to spend on a new Minecraft world.
When the day of the party arrived, my methods somehow backfired. Instead of a $5 Apple gift card, someone gave him a $50 Apple gift card. Instead of Matchbox cars, he got a large Jurassic Park playset and Nerf guns. We could barely fit everything in our car for the drive home.
The gifts were thoughtful (a fuzzy Minecraft blanket he sleeps with every night), they were fun (my kiddo loved a series of magnetic trucks that turned into one huge truck) and they were things I never would have bought my kid myself (who knew they made STEM gumball machines?). We just didn’t need them. I don’t want parents to think they have to spend money or stress themselves out figuring out what to buy just because my kid is turning another year older, especially when his birthday falls less than a month away from Christmas. His grandparents get him gifts; his dad and I get him gifts. We truly just wanted to celebrate with food and fun.
I know I’m not alone. I see Facebook posts over and over again in my moms’ group: “We have too much stuff. How can I get my family members to respect my wishes not to get us too much this year?” Or: “How can I politely ask family members to contribute to a membership to the children’s museum or my kids’ art classes instead of more toys we don’t need?”
One idea for wording I liked was for kids who have birthdays that fall close to major holidays: “We were very blessed and got everything we need for Christmas. No gifts are necessary but we are collecting for charity xyz.” A little more direct, I’ve seen: “Any physical gifts will be donated.”
A few weeks ago, my nine-year-old was invited to a birthday party at Dave & Buster’s. The invitation said: “No gifts.” Period. No embellishment, no suggestion, just an instruction that gifts should not be brought. There wasn’t any room for interpretation, and so I listened.
About half of the parents followed instructions. For me, it felt so good. My son made his friend a handmade card so we didn’t come empty-handed, I didn’t have to stress over a last-minute Target run and the birthday kid’s mom didn’t have to stress over finding places in her home for a bunch of new toys she didn’t need.
Maybe there’s a middle ground because some people are gift-givers and don’t want to show up to a birthday party empty-handed. Whatever happened to the fiver parties that were popular for awhile? I’m all for bringing those back. And if you have any ideas on how to phrase it politely on the invitation so parents will listen, I’m all ears.
Lauren Davidson is a Pittsburgh-based writer and editor focusing on parenting, arts and culture, and weddings. She has worked at newspapers and magazines in New England and western Pennsylvania and is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh with degrees in English and French. She lives with her editor husband, four energetic kids, and one affectionate cat. Follow her on Twitter @laurenmylo.