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  • Writer's pictureIsabel Mack

How to ask for no gifts when hosting a kid’s birthday party

As a child, when I went to a party I took a gift. At my own birthday parties I expected guests to return the favour. For a kid of the1980s this was pretty common. However you don’t have to look back too far to find a time when all the expectation, all the ‘stuff’, associated with kids' birthday parties just wasn’t a thing.

As businesses looked for more ways to sell to us, events like kids parties received a makeover. Suddenly we were wondering if our party was really up to scratch if our invitations didn’t match our tableware.


Not only had the expectations around the actual party changed, but so had the gifts. Looking back now 30+ years later, I can’t tell you a single present I received at one of my birthday parties. I can remember the cakes (yep, both Care Bears and My Little Pony featured) and dancing to Black Lace’s Superman in my old bridesmaid dress. I remember the games of pass-the-parcel and then Sleeping Lions when it all got a bit too much for my parents, but I can’t remember any of the gifts beyond the excitement of the unwrapping.


The challenges and considerations of gifting


While gifting is often rewarding for both the recipient and the gifter, children’s parties are an area where it can be stressful and wasteful.


As the grownup of a party guest we don’t always know the birthday child well enough to know what might be appreciated. The worry of getting it wrong can lead to overspending.


Not everyone can afford to buy a gift for every party they are invited to. This may mean that the child simply doesn’t go to the party or they end up feeling awkward that they haven’t been able to bring a gift.


There’s also the environmental impact to consider, especially if a gift then goes unused. Everything we buy has a carbon footprint. How it’s made, packaged and transported all has an impact on our planet.


I believe that kids' birthday parties are due for another makeover. I think the expectation and pressure around gifting needs to change, both for our children and the planet. Here is my journey to hosting a no-gifts birthday party.


My first experience hosting a kids birthday party


When my son turned five we hosted a birthday party with lots of his friends. Previously at both my Baby Shower and later his Naming Day I’d requested no gifts, but this time I simply didn’t feel brave enough to say “no gifts please”.


Partly I feared it was mean. He would still be receiving gifts from family and close friends, but was I denying him a perk of childhood? Rationally I knew that I wasn’t, but I think the emotion of finally being able to have a party after the COVID-19 lockdowns played a big part. Added to the mix was a lot of new school friends whose parents I didn’t know very well, a new baby, and a VERY excited soon-to-be 5-year-old. It just seemed like too much of a challenge to do anything different from the norm.


When it came to the party he had an amazing time and hardly paused to eat cake let alone open any presents. He was gifted so much we were opening presents for days after. So this year I tackled the idea of a no-gifts party early and I’m so glad I did.


Getting the agreement of the birthday child


I sat down with my now almost 6-year-old and explained why we would ask for no gifts this year. I described how this fitted with our family’s low waste values (of which he was already very aware) and how this included considering everything we buy. To soften the blow I suggested that instead of receiving a gift from each guest we could ask for a small contribution towards a bigger gift - something he really wanted which this year was a Hot Wheels track.


I was worried that he would need a bit of persuasion, but as ever, he surprised me by getting on board with the idea straightaway.


To reduce the chance of any upset on the actual day, I did continue to remind him in the lead up to the party. I also booked his party for the weekend after his actual birthday, so he would have already received gifts from our family.


How to requests no gifts


With that sorted, now I needed to tackle the invitations. I procrastinated over the invite wording for a long time. I didn’t want to offend the grownup of guests thinking I was rejecting their generosity or pushing my eco agenda onto my child. I also wanted to recognise that for some bringing a gift to a party is culturally important and I hoped that by offering an alternative I could make people comfortable with the idea and not bring a present anyway.

I tried to make it clear that my son was very much on board with the idea and really wasn’t expecting gifts from his friends. I stressed that while we were suggesting a contribution towards a Hot Wheels set, it absolutely wasn’t necessary. I did set a limit as I didn’t want people to feel awkward about the amount they could contribute and as we were going to be buying a secondhand set a little goes a LONG way!


What happened at the birthday party


At the party everyone respected our request in the invitation and didn't bring a gift. Many did give him some money. I’m glad that not everyone did as I hope it shows that I’d tried to remove the expectation of having to give something.


I was very relieved when several parents said what a great idea they thought it was and wished they’d thought of the same for their own children’s parties.


I know many school classes have already taken the lead with similar ideas, but no one in our group had. Hopefully by taking the first step others will feel they too can request what’s best for their child.


What I learnt at our first 'no-gift' birthday party


Following our first ‘no-gifts’ birthday party, these were the main benefits:


💚 It made the party a bit less overwhelming for the birthday child and more about the actual celebration.


💚 It enabled the birthday child to choose what he really wanted and he had a lovely time after the party looking through the Facebook Marketplace with his dad.

💚 In addition to reducing waste by using our party kit, we had no waste from toy packaging or gift wrap.


💚 Hopefully it made it easier for the grownups of guests and saved them some money.


Although perhaps it wasn’t all a win, as I do now have a massive Hot Wheels track to trip over!


Alternative ways to tackle party gifting


My example above is just one way of tackling gifts at children’s birthday parties. Here’s some alternatives to make birthday gifting a little more eco-friendly:


  • Simply ask for no gifts. If you do go for this option make it very clear as otherwise you are likely to end up with gifts anyway.

  • Instead of gifts, ask for a donation to a cause the birthday child is passionate about - such as adopting one of their favourite animals.

  • Ask for preloved gifts only. This could be something the guest has already and regifts to your child or a treasure found in a charity / op shop.

  • Ask for homemade gifts. Perhaps include some suggestions in the invitation such as baking a gift, painting a picture or writing a short story

  • Ask for the guests to make a promise instead. Guests could pledge to do something together with the birthday child in the future such as have a playdate, a sleepover or a trip to the park.

  • Ask guests to bring a contribution to the party feast. Much like a Potluck party each guest could bring a snack or bake something to share with others.


And my last tip - however you choose to tackle gifts at the party you are hosting, if you’re giving out paper invitations don't hide your request on the back of the invite where it might be missed!


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