Welcome back to Parental Advisory, where I answer all of your social media and IRL parenting etiquette questions. This week, let's talk about birthday parties and gift requests.
Is there any reasonable, sane way to request certain gifts for your kid's birthday? My husband and I are both teachers so we have some notion of the kinds of things we want or don't want our kid to play with (basically anything that will wind him up like a crazy person) and we live in a tiny apartment so we don't want to house a lot of random things after a birthday or holiday. However, we don't want to dictate what people who love our son give him for his birthday. Is getting what you get just part of life? Or is there anything we can say or do to guide gift giving?
Also, is saying "no gifts please" pretentious or a relief for the gift giver? Part of the issue here is that I'm not really sure how to transmit that kind of information in a non-tacky way. If we said no gifts, it would be a simple single line on the invite. If we had more specific requests about gifts, I'm not sure I would ever have the chutzpah to actually detail that anywhere — I'd just hope people reach out and ask. What are your thoughts?
— A reader
Children's gifts are a touchy subject for many parents. Some parents don't want their kids to play with toys made of toxic or disposable materials. Others wish their in-laws understood that a giant bag of crap from Walmart isn't going to be "extra-appreciated" just because there's twice as much stuff. Kids today already have a lot of stuff. And parents, too, are in the regular routine of purchasing new, better, shinier or even just "updated to legal code" items for their kids (such as car seats, strollers, etc.). One minute you're a mom buying her child the latest and greatest toy, crib or travel essential, and the next it's being widely recalled due to some kid getting her pinky stuck in it.
Parents have long felt a societal, commercial pressure to lavish their kids with mountains of distractions. We see this play out on birthdays as well as on holidays like Christmas and Easter, which have become synonymous with "give your kid an entire store's worth of stuff day." Black Friday has turned parents into crazed, bull-stomping maniacs. Everyone is encouraged to own as much stuff as possible, and some parents take pride in showing off their children's semi-annual bounties on social media. They stack up their kids' presents to create gift walls and share photos online to "say thank you" to those who purchased them, but really they're just #humblebragging about how much stuff their kids got. This combines to either make parents feel like they need to keep up with the Joneses and shower their kids with more stuff, or feel like they want to give up all material possessions and go live as monks in the woods for the next 18 years.
Hence, I understand the impulse to try to control what or how much kids get for their birthday, Christmas and so on. It's not that parents don't appreciate their friends' and relatives' efforts or intentions; they just don't want to have to grit their teeth, over and over again, as their kid opens yet another useless toy that makes a bunch of noise and will probably break in a week. The desire to avoid owning too much kid stuff makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, though, my answer to this question is that "getting what you get is just part of life." While it's possible that parents will one day be able to request that friends and family donate to an education fund in lieu of tangible gifts — just as couples do with honeymoon funds when they forgo a traditional registry — that day is not today.
Today, it's impolite to tell people what to buy or avoid for your kids, and it's even impolite to institute a "no gifts" policy because it might hurt someone's feelings and be taken the wrong way. Those in-laws who spend $50 on a haul of cheap toys are not going to understand and sympathize with someone who lives in a tiny apartment and doesn't want their kid to have more annoying gadgets, stuffed animals or plastic garbage. They might even get offended. And honestly, it might make some people feel kind of weird not to bring a gift to a child's birthday party. Sure, guests are there to celebrate the kid, but most children's birthday parties don't feel complete without a modest pile of presents sitting near the cake. As much as it pains me to say it, I don't think parents should formally ask party invitees to consider any special gift-related requests, and no convenient Amazon or Toys "R" Us wish list will change my mind on this subject — for now.
That being said, there are a few upsides to keep in mind. For starters, it's always fine to return or donate unwanted items, just as thousands of parents have done before. This might seem like a pain in the ass, but if you get your kid involved in the donation process and use it as an opportunity to explain that we don't need all the things we think we want, it could become a nice tradition. Maybe your child is too young to learn these lessons today, but soon enough, he will understand and hopefully enjoy the act of giving as much as he does receiving. You can also let friends or family know your thoughts when they do ask you what to buy for him, and inevitably some people will. It's a good idea to prepare a wish list in advance for those people, so you're able to quickly reply when they ask (or just tell them that they don't need to bring a gift at all!). Certain people, like very close friends and family, probably won't be offended if you decide to reach out to them individually, but keep it casual so they don't worry about doing something "wrong."
Lastly, you're welcome to skip my advice altogether, do whatever you want and just see what happens at this birthday party to help inform your decision-making process for future birthday parties. It's entirely possible that people would love to be told not to bring gifts — you could even be starting a new trend! Just be careful when making specific requests like "he hates the color green, please no clothes unless they're hand-sewn, no T-shirts with giraffes or elephants (not his favorite animals), no robots (he hates them) and no trucks (he loves them but we're trying to vary his interests)," because that's the shit people hate. Similarly, try not to outline exactly what you (or you son) would like people to gift because that leaves little room for joy on the side of the gift-giver. If every gift has to be artisanal, organic and eco-friendly, just suggest some stores or Etsy pages that sell what you're seeking. Demands and parties don't tend to pair well together.
Regardless of how you choose to approach the situation, know that you're not alone in feeling this way, and remember to feel lucky that you know so many people who might want to give your son a gift for his birthday. Even if you don't always love watching/helping your kid open a bunch of unnecessary gifts that will take up space and/or drive you crazy and/or wind up in a landfill, they'll make his whole day, and eventually, should you choose to donate them, they'll make some other kid's day too.
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