Care and Feeding

What’s Proper Gift-Buying Etiquette at Day Care?

Someone gave my 4-year-old $20 cash for her birthday—that seems outrageous!

4 year old girl holding a birthday present.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by SerrNovik/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Today was our daughter Bea’s 4th birthday, and they had a party for her at her small, home-based day care. She is the newest, youngest, and only white kid there; the five others, plus two caregivers, are Latinx or Black. We chose this day care so she can learn Spanish (I speak it but suck at teaching) and enjoy a diverse cross-section of humanity while we’re otherwise on lockdown.

Unexpectedly, Bea got birthday presents from every kid. They were mostly trinkets, but one envelope had $20 in it—that’s a lot of money from a stranger! (Most of my relatives mailed her $4.) It also occurs to me that there must be a group text that we’re not on if all the parents knew to send gifts. I told the main teacher how touched we were and to please let us know about other kids’ birthdays when they happen.

Beyond that, I’m struggling with my response. I know returning the $20 would be rude, but receiving gifts and cash from families we don’t even know is uncomfortable, especially as a white person trying to “do the work” and pay BIPOC for their work. Am I overthinking this? Should I just send Bea with a nice thank you card and make sure to buy gifts for the other kids when it’s their turn? Also, should I ask to join the group text, or should I wait to see if an invite comes once we’ve been here longer? And what to do with the $20? Thanks for any guidance!

—Overthinking in Ontario

Dear OO,

A $20 cash gift is pretty uncommon for a child’s birthday party gift, but it’s a go-to for the parent who didn’t have time to run to the store or order something online, and wouldn’t dare show up empty-handed. Gifts at day care birthday parties aren’t terribly common, but considering how small this group is, and that COVID has canceled the typical birthday celebrations that many kids would have had, it’s not super odd that these parents all presented something to your child.

What to do with the $20? Spend it on your kid! Let her pick out a toy online and order it, or put it in her savings account if you have one. You can donate it to a worthy cause if you think the guilt of taking money from a person of color is too much for you to bear. However, considering that you don’t have any reason to believe that this parent struggled to scrape this money up, I would assume they gave it because they could and wanted to do so. Perhaps that’s the agreed upon B-day gift budget for the group. It would be much more insulting for you to return the money or in any way insinuate that you didn’t think the person who gave it couldn’t afford to do so. Your heart is in the right place, but I assure you, people of color buying gifts for their kids’ white classmates and friends will not harm the fight for economic justice.

As far as the possible group chat goes, there are only five families in the class and I don’t think it would be unfair to ask if there was a way that all of the parents stay connected and that if so, could you be added to the list. It’s not an invasion of their space, because if they want to maintain a second thread without you for some reason, they can easily do that.

—Jamilah