Care and Feeding

No Gifts, Please!

Am I a jerk to boycott presents at kid birthday parties?

A kid opening a gift bag.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Our 5-year-old daughter gets invited to so many birthday parties. It started out as just good friends, but now in pre-K, she’s invited to all of her classmates’ parties.

Over the past few years, we’ve gone through some financial struggles and also receive too much stuff from family, so I made a rule to not give (or ask for) gifts. For birthdays, we host big parties because they’re fun, but we always explicitly request no presents. This year, we had some new attendees (classmates) whose parents we had never met and insisted on bringing something. One mom pushed for things my daughter likes, so I suggested art supplies (crayons are cheap! We’ll use them!). Instead she came with what looked like $25-plus worth of gifts!

Recently I attended a friend’s son’s party and, per my rule, didn’t bring a gift. The birthday boy asked, “Where’s the gift you brought?” and I said, “Well, we didn’t bring one.” He asked why not. I felt like such a jerk—I don’t want to have a threshold of how well we know a kid to get them a gift, and I don’t want to give everyone terrible, cheapie gifts (they should be thoughtful if anything!). I don’t have the time or money to be giving gifts to all kids! Am I being a jerk for not bringing gifts at all? Is a handmade card enough?

—We All Have Enough Crap

Dear WAHEC,

Birthday parties are stressing everyone out. Enough is enough! I think you have a sound policy for your family: please no gifts, and we won’t give any in return. I find it irritating when people insist on bringing gifts despite the clear request that they not, but it’s well enough intentioned, and it’s their $25. I don’t think you need to do anything other than accept them graciously and send a thank-you note.

The giving is a little more complicated! I think it’s lame when parents invite the whole class—though that is increasingly the expectation—because there are bound to be families who are basically strangers to you. It’s weird to receive a gift from relative strangers, even if you can think of it as a gesture that acknowledges their hospitality. But a kid’s birthday party isn’t a wedding and shouldn’t cost $250 a head, and if it does, don’t invite strangers!

It’s the role of the parent of the birthday kid to teach them not to demand gifts at their party. Grandparents and close friends can shower them with presents; the attendance of their more casual playmates should be gift enough. I’m sorry that kid made you feel like a jerk, and I wish his parents had explained this all to him.

Anyway, you’re not a jerk for not having the time or money to invest in the special day of children who happen to have been born within the same year and ZIP code as your kid. Make a nice card and don’t waste another second feeling guilty about this.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I can’t stop beating myself up over how little time I spend playing with my 5-year-old.

My job requires an hourlong commute through our city’s terrible traffic. I work in a field where jobs are few and far between, so I’m lucky to be working doing something I love. That said, it’s stressful work, and by the time I pick my son up from his after-school program, get home, cook him dinner, and help with his homework (ugh—I hate that my kindergartener has homework), I’m so exhausted that all I can bring myself to do is sit on the couch while he watches cartoons.

We play for a few minutes while he’s in the bathtub, and we read every night before bed, but I feel like I’m doing him a disservice by playing with him so little. He constantly begs for me to play with him in his playroom, and I just can’t. My husband works even longer hours and usually comes home right as I’m tucking my son into bed. Am I hurting his feelings and making him feel unloved by failing to connect with him through play? I want so badly to be that goofy mom who makes slime and plays hide-and-seek, but I’m so tired that I can barely get through the necessities. How do I make sure he knows I love him and want to spend time with him when I don’t have the emotional resources to show it in a way he understands?

—I’m the Mom, Not the Playmate

Dear ItMNtP,

I am so sorry you feel this way. You’re describing a pernicious trap of contemporary parenthood: the imperative to be both the engaged professional person and the sort of person who has the time to plan elaborate, Pinterest-worthy diversions. You cannot be both of those people in one; you can be only yourself! And you are someone with a demanding job and a tiring commute.

What you describe—dinnertime, bath time, bedtime—is a lot! There are plenty of working parents who have to miss out on those. And this daily commitment to your son’s most pressing needs is an expression of love just as much as lying on the floor and playing with blocks is. I’d leave aside the question of whether you’re hurting his feelings or doing your kid some harm.

Think instead of what you can do. Could you, once a month or so, stop for a fast food date night instead of going home to cook? Could you have a dinner picnic in the playroom? Could you, every so often, skip bath time for an extra-long bedtime story session? Could you bundle your bathed-and-PJ-clad kid into the car to meet Dad for dessert at Denny’s? That would blow your kid’s mind!

These are small things that I know your kid will notice and that I think will make you feel better. Because I’m pretty sure your kid knows you love him—kids understand, in their own brilliant way, that this is part of why parents fold laundry and wipe bottoms and read bedtime stories. I’m not suggesting any of this to assuage your own guilt; indeed, I in no way think you should feel guilty. But when you’re inside of a problem (and overworked to boot) it can be hard to see that there are simple solutions available. There are a million ways to be a great parent, and not all of them entail homemade slime. Go easy on yourself!

• If you missed Monday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My second grader recently told us that her classmate said she was being abused by her parents. I reported this to the school without telling my daughter.

I am confident that I did the right thing in telling the school, but I’m unsure of how to handle this with my daughter. My daughter told us at the time, “If it gets really out of control, I’ll tell the teacher.” But a second grader shouldn’t take on the responsibility of figuring out whether someone’s abuse is out of control.

How do I tell my daughter that she doesn’t need to be responsible for this situation, without making her feel that I betrayed her confidence? I want her to feel that she can come to me with her worries about herself and other people, but when someone’s safety is at stake, I can’t remain silent.

—Mum’s Not the Word

Dear Mum,

What a terrible situation. Obviously you did the right thing, and the best way to ensure your daughter’s continued trust is to discuss it as forthrightly as possible. Tell her what you did, then tell her why. Tell her that some problems require asking for help, and you talking to the school is no different from you talking to the doctor if you were ill or calling the police if you needed help or a mechanic if the minivan was on the fritz.

Remind her that for every problem, there’s an expert, and that for kids, the experts are the adults in their lives: you, of course, but whoever else you care to name—grandparents, teachers, coaches, cousins, etc. Make it clear that asking for help isn’t a weakness or betrayal of trust; it’s a sign of strength and maturity.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a low-stakes question. I am about to become a mom to a second baby who is predicted to have a due date one week from his or her older brother’s (they’ll be two years apart).

We’ve joked a lot about them ending up as “twins” with the same birthday. But how do parents of kids with close birthdays handle them so that each kid feels special (without breaking the bank or one’s sanity?). Or how have kids who shared a close birthday with a sibling felt when they looked back on what their parents did? Is combining celebrations a big no-no that will make kids feel unseen?

—Possible Twins of a Sort

Dear Twins,

Congrats! Since you have a 2-year-old, you know you have some time before this problem comes to a head. My kids are three years and three days apart, and I personally haven’t ever sensed that they’re in any way resentful of the proximity of their special days. They might be—what do I know?—but I would be surprised.

I think it’s all in how you approach feeling special or celebrated more generally. Your kids will only think birthday celebrations are of paramount significance, a way to honor them as individuals, if you teach them to believe that.

Some families throw blowout parties annually, not just for milestone years. But every family gets to make up its own traditions. In my household, festivities are a little muted—each kid chooses a special dinner for their big day, and I make both their own special birthday cake. We give gifts and reminisce over baby pictures, but we don’t hire a DJ and invite dozens of people over. I hope each of my kids enjoys these traditions and doesn’t feel like the coincidence of their close birthdays has anything to do with their own worth.

For me, the strategy of raising two kids, no matter how close or far apart in age, is to emphasize that love is the one thing in infinite supply. Sharing a birthday party out of convenience is no different from sharing a room or the backseat of the car; it’s a practicality, not a ratification of your kids’ worth. You’ll have plenty of opportunities throughout their lives to remind them of how special they are.

—Rumaan

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