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?”
“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 roomtogrow.org
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?