How to handle ‘No Gifts’ parties

Leo Greene’s basement is overflowing with toys. Storage bins are packed to brim with cars, trucks and balls, and his mom, Rebecca, is afraid to open the closet in fear of a LEGO avalanche. That’s why she decided to take a different approach to gift giving for his fifth birthday.

She used EchoAge, a paperless invitation service with a charitable twist. After submitting their RSVP, guests could choose a donation amount, with half going towards Leo’s gift, and the other half to their chosen charity, Share our Spare.

“Not only did Leo get the batting helmet and gloves he was asking for, but he also got a valuable lesson about giving back to those in need,” Greene says.

Leo’s toy overload is a common parent predicament. That’s why more and more parents are opting for ‘no gifts please’ birthdays.

Meghan Wilson says that when her children celebrated their first and second birthdays, she explicitly said ‘no gifts please’ on the invitations to make sure that guests knew there was no added pressure to purchase a gift.

“I wanted the early birthdays to be more of a celebration,” Wilson says. “At that age, kids don’t understand gift giving. Plus, I didn’t want to fill up our living room with more toys they didn’t need.”

But many times, this ‘no gifts please’ request puts some parents who like to follow traditional birthday party etiquette in a strange place.

“I know I should comply when they say no gifts, but I always feel bad showing up empty handed,” says Rachel Schmahl. “Especially when they’ve come to my daughter’s parties with a gift.”

Darcy Castellanos says her son Jack looks forward all year to unwrapping birthday presents from family and friends.

“I don’t want to take the experience of opening presents away from him,” she says. “Even if it’s something small, like a slinky, it’s part of the fun of being a kid.”

No matter how you unwrap it, there seems to be a great divide in philosophies in whether to gift or not to gift for birthdays, and how to best respect the wishes of the host. We rounded up some tips for hosts and attendees when it comes to ‘no gifts please.’

Hosts: How to request alternate gifts for your kids:

Book exchange

Ask your guests to bring a wrapped book. At the end of the party, each child gets to take a book home. This also avoids having to buy goody bags!

Charitable donation

Choose a charity that’s meaningful to your family and in lieu of gifts, ask for donations. Make it even more meaningful by bringing your child to the charity to make the donation. Other online services like EchoAge that make charitable giving easy include GiftAround and Kids Can Give Too.

College fund contribution

With the rising costs of college tuition, ask for a gift that will be put to good use down the road. If possible, provide a direct link and clear instructions about how to put a monetary contribution into your child’s college savings account.

Guests: How to give toy-less gifts if you do not want to arrive empty-handed:


Whether it’s a pass to a museum, zoo or aquarium, consider gifting experiences that will create lasting memories.

Homemade cards

Have your child make a card for the birthday child. You could also include something small that fits in the envelope like stickers or temporary tattoos.


There are so many options for children’s magazines (Highlights For Children, National Geographic Kids) and monthly boxes (Kiwi Crate, Little Passports) that encourage fun and learning.

This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Chicago Parent. Read the rest of the issue.

Lori Orlinsky
Lori Orlinsky
Lori Orlinsky is an award-winning journalist and bestselling children's book author. She is the mom of three little ladies who keep her on her toes.
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