Skip to content
Apr 2 / Julie

Room to Grow the Birthday Presents

Having two preschool-aged children and living in the Jewish community on the Upper West Side of Manhattan has raised many questions for me related to money and tzedakah:  How can I teach my daughters some of the values that are important to me – humility, gratitude, a sense of wonder?  How can I help them to feel responsible for those who do not have many of the privileges that we do, to feel both the joy and obligation of giving, and to not feel entitled?

As my older daughter’s 5th birthday approached, and for the first time, we planned a party for her with more than a few family friends, these questions were front and center for me.  Twelve friends would come to her party, and each of them would want to bring a gift – which would be in addition to the many gifts she would have already received from family and caregivers and family friends.

Could her birthday party be a moment for us to talk about the joys of giving, “having enough,” and the importance of helping others?

I spoke with my daughter, T, suggesting that perhaps she could ask her friends to bring tzedakah for Room To Grow, a non-profit that focuses on helping children ages 0-3 and their parents, rather than bringing her a gift.  I reminded her of how hard it had been to choose toys to give away to make room for those we had received for Chanukah.  And I reminded her of how good she had felt the one night of Chanukah when we had counted the money from her tzedakah box and she had decided to give it to Room to Grow – how she had drawn a picture for Room to Grow that we had sent with the money, noting how she chose Room to Grow because they help grown-ups and children.  I suggested that perhaps instead of tzedakah money, we could ask her friends to bring a gift appropriate for children ages 0-3 – and perhaps she and I could together then take those gifts to Room to Grow and deliver them ourselves.

When I finished speaking, T paused for a moment and said, “But I want presents.”

“Of course you do!” I said.  “How many would you like?”

She hesitated.

“Four,” she replied, thoughtfully.

I said, “Perfect.  How about if I make sure that between Daddy and me and your grandparents and some others, you receive at least four gifts?  Then should we ask your friends to bring gifts for the children at Room to Grow?”

“Yes!” she said, enthusiastically.

So we included the following with the birthday party invitation:

T decided that, based on space in our apartment, she would prefer to not receive any gifts, but rather to collect toys/books to donate to Room to Grow.  So in lieu of a gift for T, we would be grateful for an unwrapped, small, gently used or new gift – appropriate for a newborn to three year old.  You can learn more about the organization at


I received a few interesting reactions.  One mom told me that it was a topic of conversation in her house for a full day, talking about gifts and birthdays and giving.  Another parent thought it was a wonderful idea and hoped others would do similarly.

Another parent said that he thinks it’s important that children receive presents on their birthdays – asking for no presents seemed “un-childhood-like” to him – and that the value of gratitude can be taught from the child spending time on each individual thank-you note as the gifts are opened slowly during the weeks following the party.

A couple of parents couldn’t hold themselves back and brought gifts for T, which led to interesting conversations because T was very excited to receive a gift (of course!), but also confused as to why this friend had brought her something when she had asked him not to.   And led me to wonder to myself – why couldn’t these parents respect our wishes for T’s birthday party?  Or should I instead push myself to view this as a form of generosity that also conveys important values?

What creative methods have you used to teach the values of the joy of giving, generosity, responsibility and tzedakah to your children?  What do you think about birthday parties and gifts?  Is there something to the idea that asking people not to bring gifts denies kids a “right of childhood”?  Or is it a great opportunity for teaching about tzedakah?


Leave a comment
  1. Jeff / Apr 2 2012

    Thanks for sharing, Julie. I am fascinated–and inspired–by this story. It called to mind a memorable essay by Emily Bazelon several years ago, which recounted how she instituted a book swap for her son’s birthday party because she was uncomfortable with the idea of a pile of unneeded gifts. I am having trouble finding the original essay, but she wrote a follow-up a couple of years back, which is available here ( Between your story and hers, there is much to think about–in terms of tzedakah and gratitude and invitation lists and values and social norms and setting precedent and where all those come together–as we start thinking about upcoming birthdays.

    • Julie S / Apr 3 2012

      Thanks for pointing us to Emily’s article, Jeff. The book swap idea is a good one. I wonder what they’ve done in the years since 2006. I’m curious to see how what we did plays out over time. Most of T’s friends started having b’day parties w/ all of their school friends at a “kids’ party place” starting at age 3, but I wasn’t eager to do one and T didn’t ask for one until age 5, so this was her first one. I’m also curious to see how the kid’s personality plays in. I was pretty sure that T was going to go for this idea. Based on my younger child’s personality, I could well see her saying “No way” at age 5. We’ll see! Either which way, I think the question of social norms and being counter cultural is a really interesting and complicated one.

  2. rebecca / Apr 3 2012

    Thanks for sharing! I, too, am inspired by this story — particularly by your ability to find balance between presents and tzedakah. I do think that gift-giving can be a positive value, and think you found a great way to make sure that T did receive a few presents without it becoming excessive. I find it fascinating that T only requested four gifts…a great lesson in just how excessive our gift giving culture has become, that the number of presents a five year old wants is actually way fewer than she would have received if you hadn’t stepped in!

    • Julie S / Apr 3 2012

      Thanks for commenting, Rebecca! I agree – I thought it was fascinating that she came up with wanting 4 gifts. And the truth is – if I got 4 gifts at one time, I would think that was a lot! But one clarification – T, of course, received way more than 4 gifts. She received probably 3 from her dad and me, one from each set of grandparents, one from an aunt/uncle, 3 from different babysitters, one from a family friend, and then 2 from her friends at her party. Which is why I am not, at this point, persuaded by the argument that asking friends to bring gifts for children in need is creating some big “lack” for my daughter. I’d love to hear from others.

  3. Aliza / Apr 3 2012

    I love your post, Julie (and Emily’s article — thanks for sharing, Jeff). It is interesting to hear the range of reactions from the other parents. In general I think asking for a donation to an organization in lieu of a gift is fantastic (especially for bat/bar mitzvahs and weddings)… nice to see the idea applied at younger ages, too!

    • Christine / Apr 10 2012

      Great post, Julie — this is a really important issue. I’ve seen one precedent for what you describe. At a neighbor’s (large) baptism party, the parents asked guests not to bring gifts but rather to consider bringing a toy or book for a local toy-distribution organization — and they arranged to have a donation bin at the event, so people could give anonymously.

      Approaches to gift-giving are so revealing in our materialistic culture, especially when kids are involved. About the parents who defied your wishes and brought gifts, I wonder if they were somehow thumbing their noses at the request “from” T, thinking it reflected your wishes rather than hers. (“What five-year-old doesn’t want presents on her birthday?! Poor kid!”) But I’m with you on this. My own view is that parents and grandparents should be the big spenders, if any, in a child’s life, and everyone else should keep it simple. Add the fact that most toys are hit-or-miss propositions, and I think steering party guests toward donations is a wonderful way to teach kids what’s important *and* avoid a houseful of superfluous stuff.

  4. Angelique / Apr 4 2012

    Great story – thanks for sharing! I also struggle with this at Christmas time with my in-laws. We ask them to make donations in our name instead of giving presents (and want to do the same for them). But they love showering us (we are now in our 40s) with gifts and insist that we purchase (big) gifts for our niece and nephew (and smaller gifts for everyone else). We’ve finally gotten to an equilibrium where we purchase small gifts from local businesses (food, wine). I think it’s hard for them to respect our wishes because this is one way that they show love for us (perhaps even more meaningful because they grew up with very little themselves) and also because it’s a holiday tradition – and deviating from that makes the holiday seem less special to them.

    • Julie S / Apr 9 2012

      Thanks for reading/commenting, Angelique! It’s great that you’ve found a “happy medium” of shopping local.

      The idea of presents being a show of love is an interesting one and maybe part of why I haven’t extended to family a request to not give gifts. These birthday parties, where every child in the class is invited, feel less in that category (and there are so many kids/gifts), so it feels different to me.

  5. Miriam S. / Apr 4 2012

    When it comes to birthday parties and gifts, I think every adult brings his or her own baggage! I like the idea of asking for things to donate, but I wonder if it may be imposing something on the party goer? Some then feel compelled (due to their baggage) to bring a gift for the birthday girl AND a donation.

    Just a thought: do not describe your tzedekah motives to the party goers – leaving the gift giving up to the giver. Then, the child can choose from all the gifts what to donate and what to keep. Maybe there could be a good lesson for the birthday girl in actually choosing things another child would really enjoy. It then becomes the child who is doing the donating, not the party goer.

    This could be a “best of both worlds” solution. No one needs to worry that your child doesn’t get a gift, and your child makes choices about giving something to other, less fortunate children. (This would mean selecting a place to donate that would accept the kind of things T would receive at her party.)

    It would be nice if people just went with the flow and respected the parent’s wishes, but I’m guessing the baggage makes that tough.

  6. Julie S / Apr 9 2012

    Miriam, thanks for your ideas! The “grown-up baggage” point is a good one – I’m sure that’s what’s driving my behavior, also! 🙂

    And I like the idea of T donating after she received gifts. I wonder how she would choose and how hard/easy it would be to keep some and give some away.

    Has anyone else tried something like this?

    The one benefit that the way we did it has is that we started a conversation in the community. And I liked that part of it.

  7. Emily Satt / Apr 11 2012

    Julie, thanks for this great post, and Jeff THANKS for posting about the book swap! As another variant, we recently got a birthday party invitation through the website ECHOage, which invites parents to pay online an amount that will be split between a “group gift” for the child (parents can choose what it is, I think) and a donation to one of the partner charities (after a 15 percent commission). We’re going to the party this Shabbat and I’ve been wondering how it will play out – will some people just bring their own gift, having not contributed online? I am realizing my own baggage as I email with another parent to ask whether she’s bringing a card or something very small….apparently I have an issue showing up empty-handed! But I resolve to push myself… 🙂

    • Julie S / Apr 16 2012

      Thanks for sharing, Emily! How was the party? Did you manage to “just show up” – empty-handed? How about other people? I hope you’ll give us an update.

      I’ve also struggled with the desire to show up with something in-hand. My daughter was invited to a b’day party last year with “no gifts” included in the invitation. So as to not arrive empty-handed, she drew a “card” (picture) for the birthday girl. It helped assuage my desire to bring something.

      • Julie S / Apr 23 2012

        A friend of mine talked about this last night – a kid’s birthday party asking for no gifts – and how she just couldn’t bring herself to show up without something in hand – but that it made her “dial-down” her gift. Interesting psychology…

Leave a comment