It seemed almost counterintuitive, using a child's birthday as a lesson about giving back, not receiving. Yet this is exactly what my friend Erin did when her son turned one. Since he was her second child, Erin decided that enough toys were enough. Instead of a traditional birthday party, she hosted a donation party for a local food pantry. Not only did the party impart a lesson to all involved, I also recall feeling uplifted and encouraged afterward, not exactly how I feel after every kids' birthday party.
In our culture of more-more-more, there are parents and children who are deciding "enough is enough" and trying a "no gifts please" approach for birthday celebrations. But instead of merely asking for no gifts, families have used creative ideas to promote giving, service and helping others.
Nicholle Gulcur, a stepmom to a young son and also the creator of TurquoisePumpkin.com, a party-planning company that focuses on sustainability and simplicity, says, "If we can foster a culture of gratitude and compassion…gift giving will take on a new and much sweeter meaning. I don't think presents are a problem so much as our culture's pressure on us to live excessively and how it damages our (and our children’s) ability to discern, recognize, and appreciate the true value of a gift, whatever form it may come in."
If you're ready to consider a "no gifts please" party but need some inspiration, consider one of these tried and true ideas.
Giving to Others: A simple twist on birthday gifts can help benefit those in need. Gulcur encourages you to consider wording on an invitation such as, "[Our child] feels so fortunate that he wants to help others feel fortunate too." This can precede a request for gathering outerwear items, diapers for new moms in need, food, school supplies or anything else under the sun.
Gulcur also says that keeping the invitation wording silly can keep things fun, such as, "I'm tired of vacuuming up Lego pieces—shh, don’t tell the kids! In lieu of gifts…" Keep the wording and tone personal to your family and children…the sky is the limit!
Helping Animals: Since children seem to have an innate love of animals, holding a birthday party to benefit your child's favorite animal charity may be a good match. Miami-area mom Jane Watkins was proud when her six-year-old daughter Scout suggested holding a fundraiser for the Center for Great Apes instead of a traditional birthday party.
Watkins believes the best present Scout received that year was the lesson that "doing good things makes you feel good, and when Scout saw the reaction of people, and had such a great party (and some kids said it was the best party ever)—she was proud. Proud to throw a great party and proud to be different. I think that is why she wanted to do it again this year." Scout adds that she learned "that raising money for animals is much more important than getting gifts."
Fundraising for Disease Research: If a certain health cause is close to your family’s or child's heart, consider using a birthday as a special way to contribute to disease research. Melody Holthouser of Roanoke, Virginia, was proud when her four-year-old daughter, Macy, decided to host an "Alex's Lemonade Stand" in honor of a family member who had lost a battle with cancer at an early age.
Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation was founded by a four-year-old cancer patient, hoping to raise funds to help find a cure for all children with cancer. Because of its history, being founded by a child, it seemed a natural fit for the Holthouser family. Holthouser remarks, "Macy learned that she had much more fun running the lemonade stand than she did at crazy birthday parties with too many things to do." Holthouser also contends, "Macy loved that she was giving money to kids with cancer. This brings kids back to reality when they are so busy with technology and overpacked schedules."
Reaching Out Beyond Our Borders: Broadening a young child's perspective can also help him or her appreciate how truly fortunate most in this country are, especially when compared to many children in third world countries. For a child that is always asking for the latest and greatest toy, a tender, compassionate and patient explanation of how much he or she has already can help encourage a broader perspective.
Organizations such as Heifer International, that provide the ability to buy a goat, sheep or cow for families in third world countries, can provide a very tangible, concrete way to help others across the world.
With so many creative approaches available to a "less is more" birthday, an honest discussion with your child about whether this may be the right choice for his or her next birthday can include many ideas. Whatever your child decides, just having a discussion about helping others can be a good first step toward helping them be thankful for the many gifts he or she already has.