When parties were getting over-the-top in our town, I took a risk and told my preschooler that we were going to focus on giving, not getting. Our "no presents" party turned out to be an unforgettable experience.

By J.A. Kohl
June 17, 2020
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With a 2 year-old-son and another baby on the way, my husband and I were excited to move from New York City to the suburbs 25 miles away. We chose the town in Westchester because it was tranquil and seemed like a great place to raise a family—but I was so accustomed to the sounds of fire engines and street noise that the complete quiet, peppered with chirping birds, made it difficult to fall asleep at first.

Although the first few months were certainly a transition, I had the most trouble adjusting to the kid birthday party scene. Our son Dylan was in preschool and each of his friends who were turning 3 had a party that seemed more elaborate than the next. There were bouncy castles, magicians, face painting, trips to the zoo, and karaoke. And the amount of gifts being exchanged was completely overwhelming!

By the time Dylan was 5, we were in the midst of full-on birthday mania. I was buying a gift every week for another party, and I wanted to hop off the birthday train but couldn't make it stop. There were parties at ice skating rinks, golf courses, and even Yankee Stadium. We were feeling the "keep up with the Jones" pressure—the "I don't want to have the lame, cheap, lousy party" pressure. And as I struggled night after night about what to do for Dylan's fifth birthday, I finally decided that simple was OK.

We found a small family-owned karate studio for the party and limited the guest list to 15 children. We'd just order pizza and I would bake a cake. After designing the invitations on our home computer, I still wanted to scale back even more. So I took a breath and typed, "In lieu of gifts, please bring one unwrapped book which we will donate to the Irvington Public Library."

I told Dylan about the plan and assured him that he would get many presents from Mama and Dada and of course his grandparents, but he cried. He didn't believe that this was going to be good for him at all—especially since all the parties he attended boasted a huge table filled with gifts.

He cried every day for at least a week, and my heart sank. Had I done the wrong thing? Was he too young for this? Perhaps this was really my issue that I was pushing on him. We didn't need any more toys in our house, and I really wanted my kids to be givers, not just takers. I wanted them to understand that giving is a wonderful feeling, and is actually a gift, too. Even though darling Dylan didn't buy much of my philosophy, I decided to hold my ground and listen to my inner compass.

The party turned out to be a huge success. The kids had a grand time, learning to kick and break planks of wood and eating a Spiderman cake. We collected a big pile of books and put them in the dining room. Dylan began to ask all the right questions: "Mama, when can we go and bring these to Ms. Ilene at the library?" "Do you think the library will be happy with these new books?" "Do you think the kids will like to read the firetruck and snake books?" My heart wasn't sinking any longer—it was beaming because I could see a spark in Dylan that showed he understood the fun and purpose of our "no presents" party after all.

The author's son with his local librarian.
Courtesy of J.A.Kohl

The next day, we visited the local library that had been so good to us when we joined this community. The library not only had programs and books but had helped us meet other children and families. Dylan swaggered in dragging two big bags filled with brand new books, and he couldn't have been more proud. He told Ms. Ilene, the children's librarian, that he was donating all the books and that instead of birthday presents, he'd asked for books so he could give them to the library because the children really need books. She was so gracious and presented him with a certificate that declared he had "The Best Birthday Idea Ever."

My son proudly told this story for weeks to come, and it also gave other parents the opportunity to discuss the idea of giving with their kids. Now that Dylan is older, he's often the first one to think about others, whether it's a new boy who moved here from Japan or the victims of a hurricane. I can't help but think that his fifth birthday lesson might have helped encourage those instincts. With the arrival of COVID-19, birthdays have become socially distant celebrations, virtual Zoom parties, or drive-by parades. However, regardless of how we are now celebrating the need to give back to those less fortunate due to the pandemic has become even more critical. I'm glad my son can see that; my inner compass had guided me well, and I hope I have the courage to follow it more often.

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