Yuen: Navigating a ‘no gifts’ kids’ birthday party should be a no-brainer

No gifts, please.

Seriously, no gifts.

The kids don’t need more stuff, and their parents don’t need more clutter.

So why do some of us moms and dads insist on schlepping presents to other children’s birthday parties when the invitations clearly tell us not to bring them?

“Embarrassment insurance,” fellow parent Nick Lansing of Duluth told me. “We’ve gone to enough ‘don’t bring anything’ events where most/all other guests brought something.”

In Lansing’s case, the lesson came more than a decade ago when he escorted his younger son to a kid’s “no gifts” party. Lansing quickly realized his son was among the few guests who honored the request. Other parents pooh-poohed the gaffe, politely assuring Lansing it was OK that they showed up empty-handed.

“Which I perceived as, they’re chalking up a win for their superior parenting skills,” he said. “I didn’t want to get pissy at a kid’s birthday party.”

But after that, Lansing went stealth. He made a point to keep on hand a modest stash of presents, such as Lego sets or puzzles, so that he always could be prepared for the next birthday party. If the event called for no gifts, Lansing and his child would roll up to the party — with the gift still tucked away in the car — and read the situation.

“We’d sort of eye up the other guests,” he recalled. And if we’d see — ‘OK, she’s coming with a little gift bag’ — we’d pop ours out of the trunk.”

Having also experienced the humiliation of being the only one to honor the no-gifts request, I could see how Lansing arrived at this absurd compromise. I’ve done it, too. Bringing a present to a gift-free party is like refusing to comply with the zipper merge in Minnesota. We know we ought to, but it only takes being burned once to be conditioned for the rest of our lives.

Forgoing gifts for kids isn’t new, even though opening presents is as much of a tradition as blowing out the candles. The New York Times wrote about the giftless trend way back in 2007 as parents tried to instill in their children the values of altruism and sustainability — while protecting their hallways and basements from another onslaught of plastic. (“I guarantee no child was ever consulted about it,” Lansing said about the movement.)

The pandemic put a kibosh on many celebrations, but now kids’ parties have returned in full force. And the no-gifts predicament is perplexing guests who want to do the right thing but feel the pressure to not be caught flat-footed.

“You think it would be a no-brainer. It says ‘no gifts.’ Read the invitation,” said Twin Cities etiquette expert Juliet Mitchell. “It’s a matter of respecting what the host has asked you to do.”

Mitchell, who has 18 grandchildren, loves the concept of giftless birthday parties. Maybe the kid is fortunate to have plenty of toys already. Maybe the parents want their child to value experiences with family and friends over material things. Maybe some guests aren’t in a financial position to buy a gift, so a no-presents rule ensures that every child can join the party without embarrassment.

We need to trust that parents have good reasons for going gift-free — and that they’ve talked to their kids about it, Mitchell said.

If you still feel compelled to bring a present, Mitchell advises first calling the parent who is throwing the party. The host might thank you for your thoughtfulness but kindly steer you to a favorite charity where donations would be welcome, while assuring you that your presence is truly the most important thing.

Be aware that if you defy the host’s wishes and still bring a gift, “it really throws everything off for the person who does comply,” Mitchell warned. “You may make someone else feel out of place. You may make the host say to themselves, ‘Did they not hear me?’ “

I recently requested no gifts for my two boys at their joint birthday party. It turned out to be a beautiful experiment.

Most of the guests showered my sons with delightful homemade cards. One little boy decorated a bookmark with two stick figures holding hands — a sweet picture of his budding friendship with my 5-year-old. My 9-year-old received a handful of seashells that his friend collected from a recent trip to Florida. Another friend taped a Pokémon card to a piece of colorful paper, hilariously inked with an arrow and the words, “This is your present.”

The few purchased presents my boys did receive were small toys or thoughtful gift cards covertly sealed away in envelopes.

As parents, we try to achieve that sweet spot of having just what we need. After the gift-free party, it felt like we hit it on the nose. My children remarked how fun it was to gather with their buds after missing out on so many things the past couple of years. And I was relieved not to haul piles of stuff into my house that would soon be forgotten and discarded.

If you show up empty-handed at a present-free party, don’t you dare feel guilty about it. Honoring this wish can be a gift to the parents, as well as the kids.

“Bring a happy face and a good time,” Mitchell said. “When the host says ‘no gifts,’ believe them.”

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