Down With Birthday Gift Lists

Down With Birthday Gift Lists

By Rachel Pieh Jones

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I want my own kids to know that not everything they desire will show up in a pretty package on their birthdays.


I recently read that some parents are encouraging their children to fill out birthday gift registries. Even elementary school graduation gift registries. I’ve been in Africa now for over a decade. We don’t have registries in Djibouti for anything. And we don’t have elementary school graduations. At my afartanbax, essentially a baby shower for my youngest child, guests brought: nothing, sandals for me, fluffy dresses for my baby, packaged cookies, a black sequined coin purse, and a baby blanket. It was fabulous. I was thankful for each person who came. As a foreigner here, every single guest felt like a gift, the handful of wrapped gifts were simply a bonus.

I think this is the biggest mistake in using birthday gift registries. The gifts become the focus instead of the guests.

When my daughter is invited to a birthday party we go to the store or the market and find something she would like to give her friend. I don’t call the parents to ask for birthday gift ideas.

One reason is that toys are exorbitantly overpriced in Djibouti and we probably can’t afford what some kids want. I am sorry, your daughter might be my daughter’s best friend, but I will not pay eighteen dollars for a single Littlest Pet Shop dog. Your son and my son may have been friends since they were three years old but I will not pay twenty dollars for a Happy Meal-sized set of Legos. We have been known to give ping pong paddles, foam pool noodles, picture frames, glass kittens, battery operated fans, and simply bags of candy as birthday gifts. Sometimes all we can find in the store under thirty dollars is a ping pong paddle.

Another reason I don’t ask for ideas is that I don’t believe kids need to get every single thing they want or that they need to have previously wanted every single thing they get. Birthday gifts should have an element of surprise and unpredictability.

Birthday gifts should not satisfy a desire in the way of an obligation. By that, I mean that for some kids (or parents even?), writing a gift idea list is tantamount to receiving those items. They fully expect to get what is on the list. But gift ideas aren’t like grocery shopping lists. With a grocery shopping list the aim is to cross off each item, to get what one expected to get. Birthday gifts shouldn’t be required to meet that same level of expectation.

Birthday gifts should also have an element of personalized creativity. I prefer my daughter go the store, think thoughtfully about her options in reference to this specific friend and the amount of money available for this purchase, and make her own decision. Two weeks ago this resulted in bubble swords, a gift no child in Djibouti would think to ask for but now every kid at that birthday party wants.

I want my own kids to know that not everything they desire will show up in a pretty package on their birthdays. Truth be told, I do ask my kids for ideas, though usually I already know, and I do send ideas to their grandparents who ask me for a list. Since we live overseas and have limited packing and shipping options, I think this is helpful and can relieve the stress of worrying over weight and sizing and shipping and no option for returns. Even for families not living abroad, there are times and relationships in which it is of course appropriate to ask for ideas. But I don’t want the list to give my kids the impression that by writing something down they will automatically receive it.

I get it, that people want to give someone a gift that they really want. But I also want my kids to be authentically grateful that someone simply came to their party. They might have a friend who can’t afford a gift. No problem, please come and have a nice party. They might get two of the exact same item and here there are no returns. No problem, they can give the extra away.

To me, it all comes down to gratitude. If a gift feels, to giver or receiver, like an obligation, how sincere is the ‘thank you’ and ‘your welcome’? Gratitude shrivels if a child is disappointed because they didn’t receive what they expected or because they couldn’t find or afford to give what their friend asked for.

Some parents who love the birthday gift registry idea say they need it because it saves them so much time in their hectic lifestyles. Dare I suggest that eliminating the stuff might also save them time? That it might de-clutter their lives that are so hectic they have time to go and make a list for themselves but no time to go on a hunt for a thoughtful gift for their friend? Maybe we should all just live like Tolkien’s hobbits and give everyone else gifts on our own birthdays.

Not every desire in life will be fulfilled, not every good or even reasonable expectation will be met. Maintaining a thankful heart in all things is an incredibly valuable skill.

Perhaps, it is even a gift.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at:Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.