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let’s discuss: presents at kids’ birthday parties…

Let's Discuss: Presents at Kids' Birthday Parties... / via Oh Joy!

Let's Discuss: Presents at Kids' Birthday Parties... / via Oh Joy!

I'm about to say something you might not agree with. I don't believe in kids getting presents at birthday parties. Eeeek…do you hate me? It's not that I don't LOVE giving presents (I do). And I will give a present to every birthday my kids are invited to unless they tell me not to. And it's not that I don't think kids should get something special for their birthday (I do). But, I have had a really hard time recently with the excess of presents that a kid gets at a birthday party. If you invite 10-30 kids to your birthday party, your child then gets 10-30 gifts. That's more gifts than they probably get for the holidays.

In my almost 7 years of of being a mom and throwing a birthday party every year for my kids, we have only accepted gifts once. Ruby turned 3 and we invited 5 friends to her party. I was 37 weeks pregnant, and I wanted to her to have a little party just for her before her world was about to be turned upside down by a little sister. So, I let her have 5 presents from 5 friends plus the couple presents we gave her as parents. 

I know not everyone has the means to buy birthday presents. My problem with gifts is for kids who already have plenty. They often have no appreciation for each gift when they get so many at one time. ONE gift or even a couple can feel SO special to them. But when they have 30, they go into hyper toy mode, hyperventilating to open them all back-to-back with no time spent appreciating each one.

Let's Discuss: Presents at Kids' Birthday Parties / via Oh Joy!

So what's a better solution? I can't say this is for everyone, but for every other party I have thrown my kids we have asked for "no gifts" OR book donations that we donate to children in need. The book donation has been my favorite because it satisfies a guest's desire to bring something, but the gift is going to other children who need the books more than my kids do. Plus, I get my kids involved in taking the books to the donation center and get them excited about seeing how many we collected to give. Last year, we collected over 100 at their joint birthday party because everyone ended up bringing more than one book!

Maybe you have a better way of handling a mass amount of presents or feel more sane about it then I do! I have some friends who hide some of the birthday gifts and bring them out at different times during the year. Or some friends let their kids keep a few and donate the rest. How do you guys handle gifts at birthdays? Do you accept them or not? 

P.S. I asked this question (before I knew my own feelings on it) six years ago as I was approaching Ruby's first birthday. It's interesting to see how my feelings have solidified since then.

{Photos by Casey Brodley}


  1. yes, yes, and yes! my favorite thing to do for my daughter’s birthday and holidays is to ask people (usually close friends or family) to gift an experience instead. going out to the zoo, a breakfast date, or seeing a movie together is much more meaningful and memorable. we’re lucky enough that we usually get some cash from grandparents and so my daughter isn’t totally deprived and is able to go out and pick something that she wants as a gift.

  2. Completely agree! I only have a one week old, and we’ve had to already ask family and friends to pull back on the gifts for him. Looking forward to implementing a way to give back at his birthday parties!

  3. My friend has a genius solution to this! Every year she helps her kids choose a charity based on their interests. For example, last year her daughter was into animals, so she chose to donate to the local SPCA. They always choose a charity that excepts donations of actual items as opposed to just money, request a of items they need, and then make an Amazon wish list to share with guests. Gifts can either be sent directly to the organization or brought to the party. Her kids always have a great time delivering the gifts to their charity of choice, and guests get to feel like they brought a gift – and did something good in the process!

  4. I love what you do! We try to do something similar but I let it be their choice and I encourage them to do the right thing. My approach is that some years I really encourage them to do this and the next year I let them enjoy the gifts. But on those years where they get gifts, I challenge them to find some other way to “share their birthday”. Last year for my daughter Lily’s 5th birthday, we put letters in our neighbors mailboxes and then walked around with a wagon to collect food for people who needed it. Then we took it to the church food pantry and she filled up the pantry. For my younger daughter Chloe’s birthday this Summer we asked for food donations instead of gifts and did the same. Close family (grandparents and our siblings) still bring gifts so they still get a little spoiled. For Lily’s birthday this weekend, her friends will bring gifts. I will ask her to pick some toys that we can share with kids that are not as lucky as her. And this has reminded me that I need to ask her how else she is going to share her birthday this year! I was thinking we might spend Sunday cooking and packaging up meals for people who are part of the Aid for Friends meal delivery service. We also run a toy drive at Christmas with our family and friends that they help with as well.

  5. I love that you do this. I am expecting our first child and this seems like a great idea to try. How do your kids take it? Do Ruby and Coco notice that other kids get to keep their presents and ever get upset/disappointed? If so, how do you deal with it?

  6. Ruby has only mentioned it recently as she approaches 7 and she asks why other kids get to have lots of presents at their party. And I tell her every family has different rules. And then I’ll give her an example of something else we do or don’t do differently than other families. And then I am just honest with her and tell her that I don’t think she needs more than a few toys for her birthday and there are children who need it more. She never really has anything to say after that because she’s old enough to know about it and she does want to help other kids.

  7. I am firmly on the no gift train. I have twin daughters, who are often both invited to the same party. Do we bring one large gift?, 2 small gifts?, and I hate that at this young age (first graders) they often don’t know their friends well enough to make gift suggestions. So there I am blindly buying some piece of crap from Amazon, praying that the kid doesn’t already have it. ugh. And of all the parties, my children have received exactly ONE thank you note for the gift. It was in fact your earlier post of having a book donation bday party that inspired one for our daughters’ 6th birthday. We asked for humane society donations, had a cat and dog theme, and our gift to the girls was getting a new dog. Everyone had a blast, and multiple parents came up to me thanking me (one even said he later copied it for their son). I’m hoping we can start a trend for all parties under the age of 12!

  8. As someone who is invited to friend’s and family’s kid’s birthday parties A LOT and don’t have any kids of my own, I have to agree. I dread buying presents for them because most of the time, the kids have more fun destroying the wrapping paper and don’t appreciate all the gifts accumulated and don’t even recognize who they’re from and almost feel a sense of entitlement.
    I try now to make a conscious effort to get books for younger kids and have recently been buying tickets for events around town than a toy for the whole family to enjoy. I figure it’s nicer for the family and the kids to enjoy an event around town they may not have known about or just a way to get outside and explore. Exploring – one of the main things I enjoyed growing up.

  9. I feel you re: the too many gifts. It is definitely overwhelming for the kids, and for parents, it’s just too much stuff. BUT, especially for younger kids, it’s not just about the getting of gifts, it’s also about the giving. The friends my son has he likes to be able to celebrate when it’s their birthday. It’s an opportunity for him to say, “you’re really special to me.” And so he always makes a handmade card and (depending on the friend and parent requests) thoughtfully chooses something special just for them based on their friendship and knowledge of each other. Because these gifts have been reciprocated in a similar way, my son has a few treasured mementos including handmade books, framed photos and silly cards that have only helped to strengthen his friendships.

  10. so far we haven’t had large friend birthday parties to deal with this yet. when we are invited, I have been giving a nice pad of paper and these cool tempera paint sticks. it works for boys and girls, is a quality gift yet not expensive.
    however, I have a very large extended family and have included them on baptism parties and first birthday parties. instead of gifts, I ask people to bring diapers or wipes to be donated. it is so heart breaking that so many parents (1 in 3!) have a difficult time providing something so basic for their children.

  11. We have the same problems with too many gifts. Our boys are the only littles in our family and will always be the only littles due to personal choices of our siblings (which is fine). What we always suggest/ask is our family make a gift to their college fund, whether it is $10 or $300 dollars, any contribution will help their future education. This has worked okay, they still receive presents, but we only allow them to open 2 and then store the others to be opened at a later time when they are tired of what they have been playing with. My oldest is 3 and I still have unopened gifts from his second birthday to go through. I also require he donates a toy when he opens a new one.

  12. Joy, I’ve always appreciated your approach to birthdays and took it to heart with my first baby. For my son’s 1st birthday, we collected newborn essentials and gently-used clothes and books to donate to local foster families. Everyone’s “gifts” amounted to an entire car full of items and I could just feel how grateful the organization was when I continued to bring in boxes and boxes of things. Nothing can top that. I look forward to finding new and age-appropriate ways to implement giving back on his birthday. I need to extend this thinking to my own birthday!

  13. I don’t wish to overdose any gifts so I convert friends and family to immaterial gifts : cinema, show, exhibition, pool, rink, match, magazine subscription, library card.
    And everyone is happy, the houses are not overflowing with unnecessary toys or doubles.

  14. I love the ideas for charity donations! If we’ve had a party, I normally take some of the kids’ gifts and hide them away for later days, but going forward we plan to do small outings with a few friends instead of a big party. That way it’s about a shared experience and not tons of gifts. I have seen the greed on their faces when receiving too many gifts…need to do things differently for sure!

  15. I’m with you on this one!! We’ve done “no gifts” before but people still give gifts, so asking for donations has worked better for us because people feel like they’re bringing something.
    We usually ask for diaper donations for a charity we volunteer at that helps babies in the hospital.
    What we’ve been doing the past couple of years too is that our main group of friends (they’re about 10-12 families) get together and get one group gift, that usually replaces the gift we give them and our gift is the party.
    A couple of years ago my son got a playhouse for the backyard, my daughter got the bike she wanted. This year they got a scooter. So our friends only spend $13-$14 per family (less than what I spend when we don’t do a group gift) and the kids get one big thing they’ve been wanting (and that would normally be our gift anyway)

  16. This post is so perfect!!! I work for a non profit called Celebrate!RVA! We throw parties for children in in our community in low income areas, foster homes, and children receiving treatment at the pediatric cancer center! We have a program called Celebrate1 that allows you to donate and sponsor a child’s birthday! It’s a wonderful birthday gesture in lieu of a gift! Our mission is to provide disadvantaged children with a birthday party that with leave a lasting impression. Our goal is to spread joy and celebration like confetti! Please check us out and help us grant endless birthday wishes!

  17. I love this idea! We usually ask for clothes or shoes as gifts since our daughter only 1 and truly doesn’t need anymore toys. Thank you for this wonderful idea to give back! Could you do a post on how to handle family members or friends who don’t agree with you & go against wishes? It’s a constant problem for us. I know they want to give the kids “something fun” but toys aren’t necessary and i hate receiving them.

  18. I’m in the same boat! I’m someone who puts a lot of effort and care into picking gifts, but buying toys for my nieces and nephews is demoralizing. They honestly have no sense of who actually bought it for them (at least up to a certain age) and they forget about it pretty quickly! I do experiences more often than not. We are doing Disney on ice for my nephew’s 4th, and in the past I’ve done the zoo, or a shopping trip. Those things feel so much more special and memorable!

  19. This is so sweet! I’m sure that the care and time you take in the giving process with your son has helped him cherish what he’s received. Thanks for sharing that it’s possible for kids to grasp this!

  20. I really love this idea! I wanted to do it for my daughter’s 4th birthday earlier this year, but I worried about coming across as sanctimonious to other parents? I’m pretty sure most (middle class) parents feel that their children have too much stuff, but it’s hard to be the first to say ‘no presents’ when you’ve been to countless other parties in the year… Good for you for starting the no presents thing early in your kids’ lives, Joy!

  21. I absolutely agree. As a mom of six—it is completely overwhelming to receive that many gifts each year for each kid. And they don’t need a thing. The book donation idea is brilliant. ??

  22. Usually what i do with my daughter when it’s getting close to her birthday we go through her toys and donate ones she hardly plays with that way when she does receive presents it wouldn’t be a clutter. Though I don’t have that many friends to receive 30 presents most of them are family and they gift her clothes and 5 toys max. My daughter doesn’t have much toys and it’s not because we can’t afford them it’s just she’s not entertained by them much? She likes books more and puzzles or hands on stuff. She’s turning 3 in a couple of days by the way and I have decluttered her room of the “old” toys she hardly played with.

  23. Hi Joy!
    My daughter’s birthday is in January and my son’s birthday is February. So, we allow them to have a party every 2nd year. Parties are far too expensive to do every year and next year we’ll be doing a joint disco party.
    Having alternative party years solves the problem with excess gifts.
    I also use the opportunity when they do have loads of gifts to keep some aside to recycle for other parties. They tend to forget what they’ve been given.

  24. From a parent stand-point, I understand the “no presents” idea – the gift opening x10 is total mental-chaos for the birthday kid. However, there’s also only a small window of time where this will happen – when they’re young. This also ties into how I feel about “princess” dress-up clothes. I don’t understand when parents are “against” it. My 4 year old wearing an Elsa dress – fine. My 14 year old wearing an Elsa dress – um, no. But that won’t happen!
    So I let my girls receive way too much crap on their 4th birthday, opening gifts frantically while they’re dressed like Elsa, having consumed only cake and not enough lunch. B/c I know this is fleeting. I also feel, as the parent who has put time and money into the party, that the gifts are my ROI. (Side note, my oldest will be 7 in December, and I already feel the “kid birthday parties” are behind us – so it is a quick time period!)
    Also, don’t discount the learning opportunity when take your child to the store to choose a gift for the birthday kid (none of this Amazon-easy-way-out stuff, get your butt to Target or the toy store!). That alone is a lesson in how to think about giving, and not taking.

  25. I have three kids and since they were very young (they’re teenagers now) we only threw one large bday party a year. So they would rotate – and the kid who didn’t have a big birthday party would get to pick a special family outing and bring a friend. I feel like the largesse you see with kids’ birthdays gets a little crazy. Don’t get me wrong, I love a great theme party with a fun cake and favors and treats. Which is why we only go all out on one kid each year. We also did no gifts when they were young. But as they got older, the invitee list got smaller, so the mountains of gifts took care of themselves. They would invite 6 friends and I didn’t feel right about saying “no gifts” and moms frankly ignored it at that point anyhow. As they age you stop feeling obligated to invite the whole class…. doing it this way made big birthday parties really special when they came around and my kids never felt neglected at all! They loved doing something special with one or two very best friends!

  26. Thanks for the idea of the donation!
    I want to share what we do here in Spain in case it gives ideas. This only applies to birthdays from school friends; family celebrations are prived. To begin with, we celebrate term birthdays so, for example, every child being born in January, February, March, would celebrate in March before Easter holiday. Everyone in the class is invited so you don’t exclude any child and prevent other less popular children from feeling excluded.
    If your child’s birthday was in that term you, together with the other birthday children’s parents, are in charge of looking for a nice place to celebrate the birthday and organising the party. Children invited, instead of buying a present, pay their “entrance” to the celebration ( a ticket for the amusement park, for example, is what they pay for). Birthday children’s parents are also in charge of paying for one good present only (all of them about the same price so other children celebrating at the same time don’t compare their presents).
    I find it quite practical for so many reasons! Inclusion of every child in the class, similar presents, one good thing instead of 30 stupid items. It’s also good for those children whose parents can’t throw a huge birthday celebration because they don’t have so much money. Even more, because you don’t have to attend 30 birthday parties every year but you go to a really good one every 3 months.
    I hope it helps some other people looking for ideas

  27. Toonie parties have been gaining popularity in Canada. instead of bringing a gift, the party going family brings one or two toonies (a two dollar coin) for the birthday child. Usually, the organizing family sets out two cups in which the toonies are collected—one for the birthday child, and one for a local charity. The birthday child then has the option of buying one gift and/or saving the toonies for a rainy day!

  28. I’ve gone back and forth on this one a lot. I have a soon-to-be 4 year old, and we’ve let her friends bring gifts to all of her parties. She gets really excited about giving gifts to her friends on their birthdays–she goes with me to the toy store, picks out something special for them, and is absolutely thrilled to watch her friend open the present. On her birthday, she’s very excited to see what her friends have chosen for her–and she is very appreciative of her gifts.
    The flipside to this is that she almost never receives gifts or new toys etc. anytime except for her birthday, and we only invite a few friends to her party, so things don’t get too out of control.

  29. Leslie,
    I love that! As we get older, we get used to not having parties and presents. But I recently had a friend who turned 50 ask her friends to donate to a specific cause for her bday.
    It was a great way to help raise money for a charity that was close to her heart.

  30. Hi Abigail!
    I don’t think I have enough experience with the family member issue to do a post about it as our family lives far away so they will send the kids something for their birthday but I ask them to limit it to one thing per grandparents set. That’s easier when they are far away, maybe not as much when they are close by. I do think if you can be specific about what you’d prefer they give them instead (whether that’s books, clothes, experiences, or charity donations) that’s better than saying “don’t give anything” because most people don’t love that. Especially family!

  31. I agree. Kids will appreciate 3 gifts much more then 15. In my niece’s 3rd grade they collect money from each family (the same amount), and buy 1 big gift at the request of the bday kid parents. In my kids class it is very usual to buy a gift from 2-3 families together. A sweet memory I have from my childhood is waking up on my birthday to find all the dolls and stuffed animals in a circle, each animal holding a tiny gift wrapped nicely. I remember there were about 10 gifts, my sis and I where born on the same month so it was for both of us. I don’t remember the gifts but I vividly remember the magical experience.

  32. My daughter turned 3 last week! We asked instead of gifts for art supplies for charity should anyone feel inclined. We kept a few special pieces are art supplies and donated the rest to a special children’s hospital here in Atlanta. My children have so much and are healthy, We wanted to give back to children who need a pick me up. And let’s be honest who doesn’t love crayons, glitter and sparkly things?

  33. We usually let everyone know we are accepting books, baby supplies or toys for kids donation. So far it’s worked great for us. I think when we make it to specific it either confuses our guests or annoys. If someone brings a gift for the birthday person we always accept graciously. I was always taught it’s extremely rude to refuse a gift and I don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. I usually end up adding it to the donation pile after anyhow.

  34. I don’t have kids so it’s always just been family children I have bought for, and I usually asked the parents if there was something specific that they needed (something useful and not toys!). This year I took my Goddaughter (turning 9) out for lunch, and to buy a gift, a few weeks before her birthday. She chose a few books and got to choose where we went for lunch. It was a much nicer way of celebrating her birthday, and we’ll be doing this going forward. Wish I had thought of it years ago!

  35. Why give gifts cos a person is another year older! This is a natural event, nothing has been achieved to do this. It’s not a spectacular event,it’s life.

  36. I think a birthday party with up to 30 guests is definitely too large a crowd for a kid at any age. We usually let our kids invite the exact number of guests like years they are old: 4th birthday = 4 guests, 6th birthday = 6 guests etc. That way the kids choose carefully who to invite, the party is small and not overwhelming (for both kids and parents!) and can be held at home. That naturally limits the amount of presents and we’ve been fine with this arrangement.

  37. Hi Sina,
    Yes, I love that! At some schools, there is a rule you have to invite the whole class or all the boys or all the girls so no one feels left out. So it’s hard for us to do only a few kids but I love the idea of that!!


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