By Sonia Sweet Kumar
Incessant talk of birthdays and aging is standard in our household, where conversations are dominated by our three kids. My two older children love to discuss what they will do as they get even older (“Mama, when I’m nine …!”) and how they will mark their birthdays each year. Lately, six year old Rajkumar has been talking about melding his current dinosaur obsession into his seventh birthday celebration in September. And Simran, who is turning five this weekend, is excited about all things involved with her birthday – receiving the first slice of cake, a new outfit to wear that day, having a say in what to buy her two brothers as favors, and, of course, the gifts.
However, beginning with Rajkumar’s first birthday, I have almost always requested “no gifts” when I send out invitations. Our friends who attend our birthday parties do one of three things: 1) ignore our request and bring a gift, 2) bring something homemade, or 3) bring nothing.
Is my request noble? Am I trying to teach my children about selflessness and the value of giving rather than receiving? Does it stem from my Indian hospitality gene? Is it because I am incapable of being a gracious recipient?
None of the above. I attribute it entirely to my endless pursuit of eliminating clutter. There are three adults in our home – me, my husband, and my mother – and three kids. Our space can get crowded, primarily with kid stuff: impulse buys when I was a new parent, hand-me-downs that I am incapable of declining, and…gifts. It can be overwhelming.
The reasons behind my “no gifts” policy beg the questions, “Am I selfish? Shouldn’t I just allow my children to receive?”
At times, I think that my request for no gifts is selfish, trumping my kids’ desire to receive a large bounty. I like to think, though, that my intention is based in the overall interest of the household and the longer term well being of my kids. More toys around means more haphazard playing and more clean-up, which in turn, means a cranky Mama. Fewer toys means searching for more ways to play creatively, more outdoor play, and more interactive play with each other. It means more time spent reading, a more serene environment, and a tidier house.
Moreover, we are in the stage, along with most of our friends, where it is a chore to shop. I am typically bewildered about what to choose for a birthday party one of my kids is attending: How do I choose something unique that enhances creativity, boosts IQ, and makes parents happy? And as an anxiety-topper when shopping, two-year-old Avinash will remind me what he is capable of if I indicate that I am not willing to let him out of the cart to examine every toy in every aisle.
It is hard to keep expectations tempered. Children attend so many birthday parties and witness other children receiving gifts and naturally covet the same. As adults, we have the same inclination – we enjoy the anticipation involved with a beautifully wrapped gift and the attention that accompanies receiving it. So, while I write “no gifts” on our invitations, I still give gifts – although not many – to our birthday boy or girl when it is just family members around. Dozens of presents from classmates, neighbors, and our whole friend circle are unnecessary. The value of each present is diluted. Full disclosure – I do not highlight to my kids that I’ve requested no gifts. A casual mention, coupled with a reminder that we have more than what we need and each other is sufficient. Oh, the distress and visions of a completely gift-less birthday if I try to discuss it with either Rajkumar or Simran.
Miss Manners, Judith Martin, says that requesting no gifts deprives children of the chance to learn to give something that they may rather keep for themselves and teaching children to express their gratitude for something that they may not appreciate or like. However, after watching too many frenzied kids tearing through their presents and seeing the gift I gave as indistinguishable from all the others, I wonder what the point was anyways. My husband says – cake, a party, presents from parents and grandparents, the kids know they’re loved … what more do they need?
Picture by Shorts and Longs courtesy Creative Commons.