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Birthday Party Gifting 101

Sometimes the social norms around birthday party gifts are tricky to interpret. They may vary regionally or even within your circle of friends. We spoke with party experts to help us navigate present patrol.

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“No gifts please”

When you see this on an invite, you panic. Does it really mean no gifts? If you show up with nothing, are you going to be greeted by a pile of presents? A great compromise is a card with something small, like a pack of stickers inside. Rachel Huntington, owner of party boutique Bonjour Fête, agrees with a little something small. “I always want to be respectful of that decision (it depends on how close I am with the family) but I usually like to bring a little book or arrange a special playdate at a later time.”

Sue Bell, who plans and hosts children’s parties through her business, Melissa and Sue Inc, says she wishes more parents respected this particular request. “’No gifts please’ translates to, ‘My kid already has everything he/she needs and then some. Please don’t add crap to my ever-growing pile!’ Too often, kids still show up with gifts and then it just makes the ones who honored the request feel bad.” But Bell notes that a handmade or small sentimental gift might be in order, given either before or after the party. “Additionally, a card (a homemade one is always best) is always a way to give and show affection without going against the host’s wishes,” she adds. “If you feel absolutely compelled to buy something, why not a donation in the child’s name, or ‘adopting’ an endangered animal from WWF?”


How much to spend on a birthday gift? When you have birthday parties every weekend, it starts to add up. “Most of my customers usually spend around $30 for a birthday gift, and I usually stick to that as well,” says Huntington. “Family members get a bit more depending on age.”

Bell says generally no more than $25. This is something that’s going to vary regionally. If cost in an issue, perhaps parents in the same social circle can agree to a gift cap.

Go-to gifts

A favorite book is generally a safe bet. Books don’t take up much room, and parents love the educational factor. Bell also loves books as gifts and recommends titles from A Mighty Girl. And don’t forget about handmade site Etsy. “You can just search the child’s age and what they are interested in (e.g. 3-year-old birthday unicorn),” says Bell. “You will be amazed at what you can find that is affordable and even custom created.”

Huntington recommends the cute combo of a fun night-light and book for little ones. “Parents can never have enough books and I carry some adorable night-lights shaped like ice cream cones that are always a winner,” she says. “I also love Magna-Tiles — they are fun for adults and kids alike. Art supplies are also a good go-to.”

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Should the birthday child open gifts at the party?

Bell says don’t even think about it. “Never! You cannot predict your child’s reaction, and with all the other stimulus, distraction and excitement, they may not react the same for every gift. Also, for younger kids, the additional thrill of gift-opening could put them over the edge — I’ve seen many a gift-opening meltdown!” Plus, waiting has its rewards. “How much fun is it to wait to the next day when you have some quiet moments to open the gifts slowly and mindfully?

Huntington seconds skipping hectic gift-opening, but notes that kids should still be mindful. “I do think it is very important that the kid recognize and thank people individually as they receive gifts,” she says.

Thank you notes

When should kids start writing their own? This is one task you may be tempted to bypass. But Huntington says to stick with it. “Definitely don’t skip. It is important that the child knows the importance of a good thank you. For a young kid, I think it is fun to send a picture of the kid with the present and a short little text is fine. First or second grade and on they should send a little note or card — it makes it fun for the gift-giver too to receive something thanking them.”

Bell agrees. “There is nothing as wonderful than getting a thank you note in the mail, “ she says. “Real mail. Snail mail. What a wonderful habit to start at a young age.” No matter their age, kids can get involved with the thank you card process. “If they don’t know their letters yet, they can dictate what the note should say and then color around the card. Just learning their letters? A great activity would be for them to write their friends’ name.” Whatever your process, thank you cards are a post-party must.

Registries: helpful or tacky?

It can be tempting to provide guests with a list of items your child actually wants or needs to avoid getting nine of the same Shopkins sets, for instance. But avoid it. Bell lands in the tacky camp. “A party shouldn’t be a means to get things you need, but instead a celebration of your child’s special day,” she says.

But Huntington notes there can be tasteful exceptions: “When I lived in Canada, a lot of the moms used a company called Echoage that I am obsessed with. Instead of gifts, party-goers would give money, and half goes to a charity that means something to the family and the other half is pooled together into one sum and goes right into your PayPal account. It was genius! For my son’s seventh birthday, we were able to donate $1,000 to the local Children’s Hospital and we were able to get him a new basketball hoop. Win-win for everyone.”

Receipts included: Is it OK to exchange?

Huntington says exchanging is absolutely OK. ”This never bothered me as sometimes there are duplicates and you are just making it easy for the parent, which is a plus,” she notes.

“You can always add a gift receipt,” agrees Bell. “Especially for clothes that may not fit.”

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Is regifting a go or a no-no?

Can you use something you received as a gift for another child’s party? “I think it is totally OK for kids as long as it is not a handmade item,” says Huntington. “That would be just wrong. I have definitely regifted a Lego set or two, but I don’t make it a common practice.” Basically, it’s a judgment call, but it’s probably fine.

Bell adds a caveat: “It is only OK if the person who originally bought the gift will never know.”

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