I vividly remember my third-grade best friend Ashley asking me if she needed to bring a gift to my birthday party. “Um, well it’s a birthday… so yeah,” I told her, caught off-guard by what I thought was a rhetorical question. I’m horrified now of my 8-year-old manners, but I also remember that bringing a gift to a birthday party was, in those days, the status quo. But times have changed.
When my daughter was old enough to enter the birthday party circuit, most of the invitations she received explicitly stated, “No gifts, please” (with the exception of one that charmingly noted, “Your presence is the only present Annie requests.”) On one hand, I understood that the parents were trying to be considerate of budgetary constraints and, truthfully, reduce the amount of clutter entering their homes. On the other, I do like helping my kids pick out the perfect present for their friends, and I was a little worried we might be the only ones arriving empty-handed… Were all of the guests truly going to abide by that request? The answer, as it turns out, has consistently been no.
For the past five years, I’ve planned my kids’ birthday parties and have struggled with whether to include a “No gifts, please” line on each invitation. (Trust me, my children have plenty of toys so I would be 110% ok with no gifts. My kids, of course, feel otherwise.) This year, I researched what etiquette experts recommend and was surprised that most advised leaving any mention of a gift off the invitation altogether. To include any mention, they argue, creates a presumption that gifts were expected in the first place. I’m not sure I follow that logic, but I do agree with their second argument, which is that it almost never works anyway. Half of your guests will still bring something no matter what you say on your invitation, and the other half won’t bring anything — which can create an awkward dynamic.
So what is the modern etiquette-conscious parent supposed to do??? I have no idea if this follows the rules of modern manners, but I omit any mention of gifts on my kids’ birthday invitations. When guests text to ask for gift ideas, I routinely tell them that they absolutely don’t need to bring a thing (and that their “presence is the only present my child would love” — I still love that line). If they insist, then I usually mention something very general such as books or art supplies so that it: a) is cheap and easy to find (or Amazon), b) doesn’t take up much space, and c) is something my kid will enjoy. And then, of course, I try to remind the birthday boy or girl that not everyone will bring presents and that it’s no big deal at all since the point of the party is to hang out with our friends, have fun, and eat cake.
And when it comes to those birthdays with the accompanying “no gifts” invitation, I tend to bring a pre-wrapped present that I leave in the car, in case we are the only gift-bearers. That way, we can cover our bases (and make a hasty run back to the car) if, in fact, we are the only ones arriving sans gift; otherwise, if nearly everyone came empty-handed, we look like we followed the host’s no-present request. Yes, it’s a passive way to address the “no-gift” line, but that strategy alleviates my worry that I’ll look like a Scrooge.
So for now, I’ll omit the “no gifts” line from my own kids’ invitations — not because they need one single more toy in their lives, but because I think it avoids creating a potentially awkward situation for guests. Instead, I’ll just let any inquirers know that their presence truly is the best gift. And, of course, I’ll do my best to make sure my own children appreciate and understand that simply coming to celebrate a birthday, with or without a gift, really is the most meaningful gesture.