The Gift of No-Gift Birthday Parties

Teaching selflessness and generosity from an early age

We’ve never had a typical birthday party for any of my three sons.

Our parties have no presents. There are no store-bought matching invitations, tablecloths, paper plates, napkins or piñatas; no magicians or animal wranglers; no rented “bounce house” in the backyard; and no fancy toy- or candy-filled goodie bags.

We’re not ogres. Don’t get me wrong. The children receive birthday gifts, just not from party guests. Their parents, grandparents, and uncle all send presents to celebrate each child’s birthday. I decided a long time ago that was more than enough and came up with the idea of throwing donation parties instead.

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My youngest turned 8 last week and this was our email to the six children he invited:

“Our little guy is turning 8 and we’re having a very small, low-key party to celebrate. It’s really just a big playdate. Expect LEGOs, board games, video games, NERF skirmishes and dancing to Minecraft parody songs.  :)

“In past years we’ve donated books to the library, food to the local food bank, and toiletries for the homeless of Philadelphia. Please, no gifts for the birthday boy. This year we’re collecting donations for the maternity shelter and we’re asking guests to consider bringing one of the following: a package of diapers (size 1 or size 2), formula, new bed pillow (for the momma!) or infant receiving blankets. 

“It is also our tradition to ask that each child bring a handmade birthday card in the party’s theme (if possible?) and he has chosen Arcade Video Games this year. We have a string hung up in the dining room to hang all of the cards. Hope to see you!”

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The idea for this kind of party first came to me to decrease the amount of junk that came into our house. I wanted to teach the kids the importance of generosity, too, of course. It was a win-win (and still is).

I was pleasantly surprised how quickly and easily our children accepted that this is how birthday parties are held in our family. They attend friends’ traditional parties but have never asked for a “presents” party of their own.

The best part for them has always been delivering the donations to the recipient organizations. (It’s fun to watch the donation basket at the party get filled up, too.) For a few years in a row, we chose to donate books to our local library. I got the wishlist of books the children’s section of the library needed so we could make useful donations. (No library needs 10 copies of “Goodnight Moon,” even though it’s a wonderful book.) Once parents would RSVP, I’d send them two titles to choose from, and also requested they choose hardcover or library binding, and that the books be new and unwrapped.

After my son’s party, we made an appointment to meet with the children’s librarian who helped us make a big deal out of the boys coming in to donate a stack of books. The children’s section is on the lower level of the original wing of our 115-year-old stone library. The children’s librarian is a blond woman in her 40s who is always smiling.

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She gestured to seats at a very low round table intended for toddlers and expressed delight at the stack of books in front of my boys. They read the books before donating them, to give them a “test drive.” One by one, she took each book from the stack and asked what was the most exciting part of the story, which illustrations were the best and which book was their favorite. The scene was great for photos, so I snapped pictures of the exchange and turned them into our “thank you” email to the party guests.

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There’s always that one kid who brings a donation and a small ( less than $10) gift for the birthday boy, and this elicits a pleasant surprise. This year my little guy even suggested we donate this gift, too!

My children are not completely selfless, altruistic angels — but I love how generosity has become a habit, one that I hope lasts a lifetime.

Jewels Green is a mother, writer, public speaker and advocate for the right to life from conception to natural death. She is featured in the new book We Choose Life: Authentic Stories, Movements of Hope.

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