Is gift giving going, going gone?

Some parents seek alternatives to traditional birthday party gifts


Jill S. Browning


"I got two sparrows!" declared Jack Benish, 5, doing his best to give his mom highlights from his successful bowling game. (Sparrows…spares…it’s all the same when you’re 5.)

Instead of giving Jack another piece of plastic at his birthday party last March, my 6-year-old triplets wrapped up a certificate entitling him to a special play date with them, which included that magical combination of bowling and a McDonald’s Happy Meal.

"Jack couldn’t wait to redeem his certificate from the kids. He kept asking, ‘When can I turn in my ticket?’" says mom Christie Benish, our next-door neighbor in Downers Grove and mom of four kids, ages 8, 6, 5 and 2. "It gave him something to look forward to after his real party ended."

Taking a small stand against materialism and hoping to instill a broader appreciation of what birthdays are all about, some parents are inventing new ways to honor their birthday boys and girls when they throw a party. Whether you try something new, abandon presents completely or stick with tradition, the key is to remember what the party is all about: making your child feel special.

Experience gifts

Tired of buying plastic and inspired by a magazine tip, I decided to try the certificate idea with Jack. We began with a large sheet of white paper and wrote: This Certificate Entitles Jack to a Special Lunch and Bowling Game with the Browning Triplets (To Be Redeemed at a Mutually Agreed Upon Date) Happy Birthday, Jack!

The children colored the huge certificate, rolled it up and secured it with a big yellow bow.

As Jack tore through his other gifts at his party, I began to worry that the concept of a future play date would elude him or that he might be disappointed with unfurling a piece of paper since he can’t read. Fortunately, he understood completely after his mother read the scroll, and he was anxious to schedule the outing.

On certificate redemption day, the children were ecstatic. They ate fries and nuggets gleefully, and then bowled the longest game ever played. It felt like a bonus birthday party, and Jack felt loved by his friends.

Gifts that give

Heather Isacson is another Downers Grove mom of four, ages 8, 7, 3 and 7 months, who is fed up with the greediness and gift bags that she feels are the hallmarks of birthday celebrations today. She has always banned birthday presents at her kids’ parties. In lieu of gifts, guests invited to an Isacson party are asked to bring items to donate, such as supplies for needy schools or mittens and hats for an organization called the Sharing Connection, which distributes them to needy families.

"Presents are just such a waste," says Isacson, who says she finds returning gifts one of life’s ultimate hassles. "Our kids have everything they could possibly need. It’s nice to be able to honor a birthday by giving to others."

Fortunately, the children share their mom’s sentiment. Her older boys feel good that someone receives something they need, all because of their birthday. (However, the boys are quick to add that they receive presents from their parents after the friend party ends.)

Gift exchanges

Another alternative to traditional gift giving at parties is the gift exchange. Peggy O’Flaherty, Downers Grove mom of four, ages 5, 4, 2 and 11 months, has witnessed her fair share of excessive birthday parties. "I went to a party recently and it was just obscene," she says. "There were 22 kids and there were so many gifts, I was disgusted."

For her own kids’ parties, O’Flaherty has hosted three "gift exchanges" and has no plans to stop since it’s been so successful. Guests have brought wrapped puzzles, board games and Barbie dolls, with no name marked on the package. At the end of the party, the birthday kid and each guest have selected one of the gifts to unwrap. As a result of their new tradition, O’Flaherty says her children haven’t been deluged with gifts they don’t need.

"The frosting on the cake is that I don’t have to buy those junky goodie bags."

O’Flaherty says the exchanges have allowed her kids to focus on the simple pleasures and treasures of birthday parties, such as making the cake together as a family and being around good friends. She adds that her kids have never once commented on the absence of gifts from friends.

Despite the O’Flaherty family’s new party tradition, they do give presents to their children after the friend party is over. "We just keep it very simple and buy one main gift," says O’Flaherty.

The true value

Karen Gouze, director of training in psychology at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, favors the simplicity of the O’Flaherty family’s practice.

"I think birthdays are a wonderful time to give children that big-ticket item like a bicycle, or something that they will remember all their lives," she says. She adds that presents don’t need to be expensive to be appreciated, though.

Gouze is amused by the current gift-free trends happening at some birthday parties and feels that parents are overreacting when they take such measures. She believes that while materialism might be out of control in some circles, it’s a mistake to cut presents out altogether.

"Gift giving is an important part of every culture," she says. "People have given and received gifts for as long as man has existed. It’s an important part of social interaction." She says that parties are a good place for children to learn what gifts are about, and to accept and give gifts graciously.

Gouze believes that the root of the problem isn’t the presents, but the size of the parties: they’re just too big.

"I think you reduce the excess when you don’t have these excessive birthday parties," she says.

She believes that our desire to include everyone on the invitation list, vs. just close friends, pushes the gift-giving process over the top. "For birthday parties for adults, we don’t invite the entire workplace. We invite the people we know and love, the people we really want to celebrate with," she says. "We’ve gotten away from that with children."

In addition to limiting the size of the guest list, Gouze suggests that we approach the birthday party as an opportunity to teach our kids how to be sensitive to other people’s feelings. For example, she says that when everyone’s not invited, you should mail invitations rather than passing them out at school. Also, instructing children to zip their lips about any upcoming soirees will teach them about social grace.

Whether families choose to celebrate their birthday with or without gifts from friends, it’s important to remember that it’s all about making memories—and making the birthday kid feel special and honored (not overwhelmed).

"I think it’s the one day all year that is really a child’s special day," says Gouze. "There’s no other day like it."



Party etiquette One benefit of a party is that it gives kids a chance to hone their social skills. With your coaching, kids can learn how to:

Stay silent about upcoming parties at school when everyone isn’t invited.

Introduce friends to one another.

Open cards before the gift.

After opening the gift, squelch the natural urge to say, "I have five of these already!"

Craft the perfect and prompt thank you note.


It’s their party (But you can cry if you want to)

The purpose of birthday parties is to make kids feel special, but sometimes parents feel pressure to overindulge their offspring.

Amy Werkema, 18, a recent graduate of Hinsdale Central High School, says her most memorable birthday was at age 4. Her parents threw an equestrian-themed party, renting ponies to trot tykes up and down the neighborhood street.

Werkema’s mom, Barb Purcell of Clarendon Hills, is surprised that the pony party 14 years ago made such a lasting impression on her daughter. She usually keeps things simple and never imagined herself the kind of mom to give a pony party. Yet, it happened. "One thing I say to new parents is ‘never say never,’ " she laughs.

Some of us feel compelled to create Martha Stewart miracle moments. The new book, Big Birthdays: The Party Planner Celebrates Life’s Milestones, by David Tutera, reinforces this desire for decadence. Tutera claims that the first, fifth and sixteenth birthdays are important milestones during the childhood years.

For a sample first birthday party, Tutera showcases baby Chloe and her party for 10. He writes of the table, adorned in pink toile, which allows moms to escape for the day while dining alongside their babies, who are seated in hand-painted wooden high chairs and "enchanted by simple patterns and pretty decorations." As for guest gifts, each baby is treated to a personalized, embroidered bib and the moms find silver baby bracelets "nestled in their napkins."

"Should the party be for the parents or the kids?" Tutera writes. "Experience has taught me that the answer is: for both."

My experience as a parent has taught me: Chloe would’ve been fine with a purple cupcake and a Barney balloon.

"When we have parties for 1- and 2-year-olds, we have them for the parents, not the kids," says Karen Gouze, director of training in psychology at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. "I think it’s nice to celebrate your child’s birthday with your family members or maybe a few close friends, but that’s a silly age if we have a birthday party with lots of little kids."

Money can’t (always) buy memories. Kids soon forget the clown or the catered lunch, but they remember the happy feelings surrounding the party and how special they felt. And the pictures are important—something to record the event.

If we focus on this bigger picture, we’ll all be celebrating in style for many years to come.


Birthday parties through the ages

The big 1

Consider throwing a small party with just your immediate family. It’s always a wise choice. (Your friends will agree.)

Time the celebration between naps for optimal guest of honor performance.

Resist buying elaborate toys. Put the money into a savings account instead.

Repeat and remember: It’s all about you.

Age 2 to 4

Start involving your child in the planning process (i.e., let him help choose the theme and sweep the floors before the party).

Keep games simple and non-competitive. Make sure everyone leaves with a prize if you decide to dole them out.

Know that Play-Doh has a calming effect on a crowd of kids.

Be clear on whether parents should stay or go. Put to work any adults who don’t take the opportunity to escape.

Age 5 to 12

Let the friend parties begin; add one to your child’s age for a good idea of the number of guests to invite.

Schedule the party for two hours, tops (especially for younger kids).

Write down a detailed schedule of events in 15 minute increments, including activities such as a craft, games, cake time and opening presents.

Double the number of activities you planned, just in case children finish an activity quicker than expected.

Be flexible. When flexibility fails, put in a video.


Involve your child in the planning. Surprises can be stressful.

Respect your child’s desires (and your budget). Whether it’s a low-key night out with a few friends, a scavenger hunt around the neighborhood or a full-blown dance with a band, the party should reflect her personality.

Provide subtle supervision to prevent possible hanky panky.

Repeat and remember: It’s all about you not being there.


Since Jill S. Browning’s birthday is Aug. 29 (the date Hurricane Katrina hit) and her husband’s birthday is Sept. 11, they invented a new, shared birthday of Sept. 5. Their 6-year-old triplets also share a birthday, on May 25. Send free e-birthday cards to [email protected]


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