Sondag, 17 Mei 2009

Presence, Not Presents: Why We Throw No Gift Parties (& How)

Like many things in life, our no gift kid parties started with a simple decision, an agreement among friends.

Through a hospital-sponsored lactation group, I became close with 4 families who had infants born within a month of Ranger. A few months before their first birthdays, the older sibling of one of the 6 babies had a birthday party. One mom volunteered to organize a group gift for the birthday girl. At the party, we discussed the impending month of 6 birthdays.

Everyone agreed that 5 separate gifts for babies would be overkill as our kids could all anticipate more than enough presents from grandparents alone. Someone posed the question if we'd mind NOT giving gifts among the group. I was filled with relief. My days were still consumed with post-tornado, post-flood repairs and appeals to our insurance company; our nights, if it rained, were filled with basement leak management. Jim and I were exhausted physically and emotionally. The thought of finding 5 thoughtful, personal gifts with our then cash-poor budget made me queasy. My awesome friends all pledged not to give birthday gifts (because one gift makes everyone feel bad).

And we didn't. Which is impressive as we live in a place slightly above the Mason-Dixon line where gifts are a part of the convivial, generous culture. Instead, we found other ways to support and give to our friends. The question "What can we bring?" shifted into the gap that presents previously occupied. Outdoor parties were met with offers for bringing chairs and kids' picnic tables. One torrential evening I drove by the flooded shelter house where 3 families had scheduled an outdoor party for the following day. Within a few hours, I'd secured a couple offers for free use of indoor facilities. The next day, while parts of town were closed by flash flooding, we were eating an indoor picnic. We've all loaned decorations, brought food, and helped with set-up, tear down, and serving. One incredible mom made cakes for all the kids' first birthdays.

The parties rocked. Our kids got to play, relatives of the birthday child got to meet all the kiddos, and tasks tended to be lighter with plenty of good friends as willing helpers. There were gifts from the birthday child's families, but the non-birthday kids generally ignored the present-opening portion of the day.

More people joined the baby group, and we filled them in on the no gift agreement. Party attendance did not obligate anyone to invitation reciprocation or assistance with the event, so new families were free to conduct their own parties as they saw fit.

For the past 3 years different people have thrown parties. Sometimes we just celebrate with cupcakes at playgroup or doughnuts and carousel rides at the mall. Other times there are parties with activities and lunch.

For Ranger's third birthday, we raised the stakes. We threw our first actual party and broke all the expert recommendations by inviting oodles of attendees (over half of which were under 6). As our house is already bursting at the seams with toe-stubbers, this was our invitation:

No Presents, Just Partying.
There was some kerfuffle. We told everyone that the kids would have more fun without presents.

And we meant it. Before Ranger was born we attended a few kid parties where gift opening was part of the entertainment. The birthday kid unwraps an endless pile of gifts while the other kids fidget, envy, or fight over the new toys. The birthday kid is expected to respond appropriately with excitement and gratitude for each gift before it is snatched away and replaced with another package. Depending upon the party's adult leadership, the gifts are then put in protective custody (which tantalizes and torments other kids) or they are handed out for general use while the birthday kid keeps unwrapping (which tantalizes and torments the honoree).

Too many gifts arrive at one time, so a wonderful gift may get little notice. A lot of gifts may be last minute purchases and not particularly well suited for the recipient. The unwrapping provides lots of opportunity for awkward, uncomfortable moments.

It seemed far easier to omit gifts. Grandparents (who are unstoppable in their generosity) could give gifts at a quieter time when Ranger would be more likely to appreciate them. Other relatives were wonderful in helping prepare the meal and assist with the craft. This gave Jim and I much more time to play with Ranger and the other guests.

A few skeptics showed up with gifts, and those few gifts were discreetly set aside and opened after the party. We were sure to write thank you notes for those gifts when we thanked everyone who helped us with the party logistics.

Our party started at 10 AM, with lunch and cake around 11:30, but most people weren't ready to leave. We went back to dancing and activities until 2 PM. That is a long party, especially for kids around 3 years old.

AND NOBODY CRIED until it was time to go home. No joke. Over a dozen wee attendees and no tears. Lots of laughing, lots of dancing, some crafting, some block-building, and a fair amount of running, but no crying.

Many parents told me that they found the no present situation quite pleasant.

I feel like the party is a gift in itself, and a very special one at that. Friends and family gather to celebrate your existence, special foods are served, and everyone wants to have a good time.

When presents are introduced, a birthday can become judged solely on the gifts received. We want Ranger and the Raptor to grow up seeing the incredible wealth they have in the people who love them. We want them to understand that a caring community outweighs material desires.

For weeks Ranger talked about all the people who danced with him.

Attentive readers of this blog know I make a lot of birthday gifts (crowns and banners in particular), so how does that fit with a no-gift practice? I often give the crowns and banners before the actual event, and I usually give them to the parents. (FYI: There's no problem with spontaneous gift giving in our group.) That way the parents can decide if they want to incorporate the banner in the decorations or hang it over the breakfast table. Birthday crowns are sometimes worn all day (on trips to the grocery store, etc.), but more often become a part of the child's daily play. It's always a sweet feeling to see a crowned head round enter the room when visiting friends.

We do also attend gift parties to which we bring gifts (sometimes handmade, sometimes purchased). Our preferences and values are not those of every family, so we don't consider hosting no-gift birthdays a "free pass" to breech normal etiquette.

Now, I'm sure some readers are sharpening up their pixels to give me a list of reasons why this doesn't work in the real world, but it did. It was an advantage that my some of my friends had a pre-existing agreement, but they only comprised a portion (less than half) of the party invitees.

We'll post more about Ranger's 3rd birthday soon (before he turns 4), but the time seemed right for this topic now. Thanks to Thingamababy and Daddy Types for opening this interesting conversation.

What do you think? (I promise not to weep too copiously at any opposition.)

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