I’m just going to say it – we have too much stuff, we don’t need any more things, we are lucky beyond belief, and my kids want for nothing. I’m thankful for that, don’t get me wrong. But my kids don’t need anything, especially not toys. Not only do we have plenty, but I can’t help but think of the kids who don’t even have enough – it seems so unfair. And I also don’t want birthdays to just be about “things”, I want to celebrate how awesome the birthday kid is with their friends and family and food and laughter. Presents are nice, yes, but they are just extra.
So for my kids’ birthdays, we try to “keep it simple” – mom and dad give a book and one thing (toy), their two siblings each pick out something for them (they are all too young to really understand money, but we guide them towards smaller things), and then of course there are grandparents and aunts and uncles. We have encouraged family to give things like magazine subscriptions, memberships, or experiences. My mother-in-law has been taking them to the children’s theater for birthdays, which has been a huge hit…they get to do something special and one-on-one with her, and it makes for some really great memories. But still, even with those efforts to have less stuff, they get plenty of presents and things on their birthdays!
Now, I am a person who likes, ok loves, to plan and throw kids parties. So not having a birthday party isn’t really an option. At first I tried to politely suggest no gifts when speaking to friends. That generally was ignored. So then I said, right on the invitations, “please no gifts” which mostly resulted in half the guests bringing gifts and then the other half feeling bad and dropping off gifts the next day or apologizing profusely despite my insistence that “no gifts” was exactly what we wanted! Then I gave up for one or two birthdays which resulted in a lot of very nice presents that made me feel terribly guilty (see above) and made my kids focus on the wrong things. (Although it is a good opportunity for them to chose a few items, old or new, to donate.)
So needless to say, I’ve struggled with the whole gift part of birthday parties. But folks, I think we have found the solution! Drumroll please….charitable donations! Right on the invitations, we have asked that, in lieu of gifts, guests please bring donations. We have specified what to bring and for which organization. The kids and I have talked about it ahead of time, they fully understand the whys, and they have been allowed to pick the charity they want to support. Of course we give them ideas, but sometimes they’ve surprised us. For example, my son collected donations for a wildlife rehabilitation center in our area. While he is a big animal lover, this particular nonprofit focuses on birds and he hadn’t previously shown an interest in birds. But upon researching the place, he fell in love, asked a million questions, and had to look up every bird species on their website for more info! So it was a great learning opportunity as well. The wildlife center was very clear that they needed paper towels, bleach, dawn dish soap, and birdseed, so that’s exactly what we asked for right on our invitations. The result – an entire trunk full of donations, a very excited birthday boy, parents who were happy to have less stuff, and parent guests who were thrilled at not having to guess what to buy and that their kids got to be part of something bigger. In fact, the birthday boy picked this particular nonprofit because a friend had done the same at her party (because my friend, Melissa, is awesome like that), so it truly is the gift that keeps on giving! The very best part of the entire thing was when we contacted them about dropping off, they invited us on a tour of the facility – he had a blast and learned so much!
My daughter recently had a birthday and she choose to ask for donations to out local food pantry, which is actually located in our area high school. We collected three boxes full of nonperishables and also had a great time delivering! She’s only four, so all of the counselors and teachers made a big deal about her help and you could see just how proud she was of her actions. She promptly announced that she couldn’t wait to do it again next year! It also, of course, spurred a discussion at home about why food pantries are needed and I think it was an invaluable learning experience for everyone.
My kids have already brainstormed ways we can use our birthdays to help in the future and asked that I share our list: dog or cat food for shelters and rescues; old towels and blankets for animal rescues (I like this one because it’s free for your guests); blankets and socks for the homeless; school supplies for teachers or students; coats, hats, and gloves for homeless or students in need; and waters and gatorades for police and/or firemen.
I also like the idea of tying in the donations to the theme of the party. For example, if you’re having a fireman party, ask for donations of bottled waters and gatorades for your local firestation. Or if you’re having a kitty cat themed party, check with a local cat rescue to see what they need (likely food, old towels, cat toys, paper towels, laundry detergent). Think outside the box too and check around for smaller organizations that may get overlooked. We’ve had great luck with local organizations in that the kids have gotten to hand-deliver and see where exactly their donations are going.
I hope our little tradition continues for years to come and inspires others. I’m so very thankful that this is something we can do, I realize that is a luxury and just how lucky we are as a family. And I hope it helps my children realize how lucky they are as well.