A few months ago my son got an invitation to go to a birthday party for a boy in his school class. I didn't have a lot of notice, so we weren't able to make a gift or go shopping anywhere special, let alone find something on sale. Neither of us knew the boy well enough to know what his favorite things were, so we could not choose something very personalized. I also didn't have a lot of cash on hand at the time. We ended up going down to a local store and picking out an inexpensive, generic toy.
Over the years, I have observed that that is common for birthday parties--the gifts may be numerous, but they are often cheap , impersonal, or even things that our family doesn't want (for example toys or games that we consider too violent, things the child isn't really interested in, or even exact duplicates of things we already have). In short, it can be hard to give a good birthday party gift, but it's also frustrating (and wasteful) to receive those gifts that aren't so good.
So a simple solution? Skip the presents, just have a party!
This is not to say that our kids don't get birthday presents--they get presents from both sets of grandparents and from us parents too (we who have their wish list!). Occasionally someone else gives a gift too, but for the most part the party is about playing with friends, not about getting stuff. We still have cake and those other traditional birthday things, just no presents (we open the family gifts at a separate time).
I had suggested this idea to Wolf a couple of years ago, but gave him the choice. I thought it was a great idea, but didn't want to force him into it. He liked the idea though, and two of the last three years he has done variations on it, and has enjoyed the parties very much. One year we gathered at the park and had cupcakes and enjoyed the playground. This year we had a movie party. Last year we didn't go giftless, but we went to a skating rink and asked people to please keep gifts small (since we were staying with family for the summer and had limited space).
In a culture where most people are used to giving SOMEthing at a birthday party, you might find that guests will insist on bringing gifts anyway. One thing that helps avoid this is if you invite them to bring something else. Here are a few ideas we've heard (have you seen/done any others?)
- Have a movie party, and invite each guest to bring a snack to share (that's what we did this year)
- For a slumber party, invite each person to bring a snack or a game
- Have an animal-themed party--invite each guest to bring a package of dog or cat food, then donate the packages to a local shelter
- Have a book exchange--invite each guest to bring a favorite book, then everyone trades books at the party and each person goes home with a new book
- Choose a cause and invite people to make donations to it rather than bringing material gifts (for example, one mother I know invited $1 donations to the save the tigers fund because her toddler loved tigers).
- Have a water party outdoors, and invite each guest to bring water balloons, water bombs, water guns, etc
- Invite each person to bring some art supplies, and make a big collaborative piece of art
- Invite each guest to bring food or clothing items that can be donated to a food bank, women's shelter, homeless shelter, or secondhand store.