Care and Feeding

Do We Really Need to Bring Gifts to Every Kid’s Birthday Party?

No one seems to care, except my husband.

Photo illustration of a mom disdainfully holding a wrapped gift.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by miya227/iStock/Getty Images Plus and ONYXprj/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My child is at that age where the entire class is often invited to birthday parties. As the family logistician (aka “Mom”), I usually handle the RSVPs and figure out who’s going to do the driving. We sometimes get invites that specify “no gifts” (and do so when we are hosting) but when there isn’t a clear message about presents and there’s up to 30 kids potentially attending, I typically have my little one make a card for the guest of honor.

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My husband is of the opinion that unless told otherwise, we should bring a gift. I’ve said that he’s welcome to take that upon himself, but that at parties where there’s tons of kids, one more gift doesn’t make much of a difference. For smaller parties, I usually reach out and ask about gift preferences, but for larger ones I don’t. Alas, there have been a few instances where my husband has come home and said, “Lots of other folks brought a gift, and we didn’t.”

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The whole display of opening gifts at a party rubs me the wrong way. My take is that parents aren’t asking why we aren’t providing a gift, our kid doesn’t seem to notice, I haven’t heard/felt any social repercussions for any of us, and again, I’ve offered up that if he feels strongly about it he can take on the task. He hasn’t but continues to make comments. I need some outside perspective about negotiating a path forward.

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—Our Presence Is a Present

Dear OPIP,

I agree with your husband to some extent. Barring financial or logistical difficulties, it’s in poor taste to show up to a kid’s birthday party without a present. However, he’s definitely wrong to complain about your present policy while being unwilling to go through the trouble to actually make a gift purchase himself.

Alas, having good social graces sometimes means sucking it up and doing something you don’t want or should not have to do. And I’d really like for you to reconsider your present approach to gifting.

Childhood is literally the only time in your life where (if you’re privileged enough to have a party) that you can expect loved ones will care so much about your birthday that they’ll gather in your honor with an offering in hand. Furthermore, while receiving presents isn’t the reason that most families go through the trouble of hosting a gathering, it is worth acknowledging that these festivities often involve a significant cost to the parents that went toward feeding your child (and perhaps the person who accompanied them) and showing them a good time. Plus, as there are those like yourself who say “no gifts allowed,” you aren’t on the hook to purchase something for every party, and unless things are vastly different in your neck of the woods, it seems that the ritual of letting kids open their items during the actual party seems to have fallen out of popularity. We typically have, and have experienced, gift tables where guests simply leave their items for the b-day kid to take home.

A suggestion: Purchase a few inexpensive, gender-neutral toys or books that your child’s friends may like and/or a pack of gift cards to Target, Amazon, or a children’s store to keep on hand for when a party comes up. The one-time inconvenience will save you time and the annoyance of your husband’s fruitless complaints.

—Jamilah