June 16, 2011

Appreciating the Giver, More than the Gift

This weekend, we're celebrating my oldest daughter's fifth birthday party and we're trying something new. In an effort to make the party about celebrating my daughter and teaching her to enjoy her friends, we won't be opening any gifts at the party. Before you get up in arms about my poor daughter not having a real birthday, read the previous sentence again. I didn't say she won't be getting gifts (Sheesh! I'm not a monster!), just that we won't be opening them at the party.
The idea not to open gifts at a kid's birthday party comes from experience. Prior to having my own children, I went to several of my friends' children's parties as a guest. Having grown up in a large, very noisy family who loved to have huge parties, I was used to the noise and chaos of 25+ children running around in a bouncy toy hall. But, the "present" ritual attracted my attention. I noticed that at present time, the guest of honor was often too high on sugar and adrenaline to even know what they were opening, let alone appreciate it.

Possibly more importantly that the celebrant's reaction, I noticed the reactions of the kids in attendance. Different social backgrounds determined what they were able to give and their reaction to gifts given by others. Some kids seemed oblivious to the whole process, usually those from higher income families for whom many presents are a given.  Others seemed more sensitive to the response of the birthday child to their gift (was it loved as much as another child's?), exhibiting embarrassment over the gift they gave or jealousy over others' gifts.

Apparently I'm not the only one who feels this way. Here's Miss Manner's opinion,  available at

Gentle Reader,
As it happens, this is a matter on which Miss Manners has recently issued A Pronouncement. And she has sided against the traditionalists.

Whoever thought it was a good idea to have a group of children sit around watching one child getting lots of stuff? The strain on the young host to exclaim over everything, including duplicates and disappointments, is equaled by the strain on the guests to conceal envy, as well as fear that their contributions don't match up.

Parents who have decided that it is more effective to teach gratitude in private, through forced writing of letters of thanks (let us hope that they are not sparing the children that), have done a favor for themselves and for their young guests.

I continued to feel uncomfortable with this ritual after having kids but caved to pressure from family members who felt it would be rude not to open presents at a party. I didn't know how exactly to communicate what I felt and I didn't want to commit a social faux pas. But I couldn't help but wondering what would happen if instead of opening presents as a major part of a party, we just saved those for a more private time when the birthday girl could enjoy them more?

Something has changed in me this year. I'm more gutsy. Maybe it's my age, maybe it's having faced one too many life altering experiences to care what other people think of my choices. My decision is to do things a little differently this year.

So, we're not opening presents at my daughter's party this year. Instead, we'll focus on having a great time with the neighbors, family and friends who are coming to celebrate with us. Rather than presents, we'll focus on good food, laughter and swimming. After every dreg of pink tea is enjoyed, every last ice cream cone cupcake is eaten and every guest has been sent home feeling special and loved, we will head indoors to open some presents. Then, we'll work on thank you cards that our daughter can decorate and hand deliver - so the givers feel well-thanked.

We've talked about this with our daughter and she is ok with it right now though it will be interesting to see how she feels on Saturday. After all, she is five. But, parenting is a bit of an experiment most of the time isn't it?

In the end, what I really want my daughter to learn is to love and to see the value of all her friends - regardless of the kind of gift they can afford to buy her. And, if it means she is "different" from her friends, she'll learn to feel comfortable with standing up for how our family does yet another thing differently, like eating organic, not drinking juice and believing in a God who loves every person in our world. Just another character building experience. And, who knows, maybe it will be a new party tradition that will make everyone more comfortable in the end?

What do you think?

Have a great weekend, everyone!

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