Friday, November 8, 2013

Why asking for NO GIFTS is not the answer

I've noticed an interesting holiday-related trend among families in recent years.  Namely, parents are filled with dread.  They complain to each other in solidarity.  Why?  Because their family (or more often, a certain family member in particular) is about to go bonkers buying their kids gifts.  Recognizing their children already have plenty of toys, books, clothes, and "stuff," the parents hatch a brilliant plan: Let's tell the family the kids don't need any gifts this year.  Or, better yet, let's ask them to give only "experience" gifts, such as an outing, tickets for an event, a trip, a class, or an offer to do something with no monetary value, or just the gift of time spent together.

A related trend is the no-gifts birthday party.  Overwhelmed by the thought of an onslaught of more cheap plastic junk toys, the parents are compelled to request on the invitation: "No gifts, please! Your presence is gift enough!"  Other variations include asking for donations to a charity in lieu of gifts, or requesting a specific type of gift only (i.e. books).

It sounds sane, noble, and resourceful.  Good for the environment too--less waste in the landfill!  It sounds exactly like something a minimalist like myself would wholeheartedly endorse.

So as a minimalist and a parent of two children still young enough to play with toys, why am I not a proponent of no-present parties and holidays?

After attempting and/or experiencing numerous variations of these clutter-curbing strategies with my own friends and family over the years, here are a couple reasons why:

1.  Giving gifts is a primary love language for many of our friends and family.  Whether or not you think Gary Chapman's best-selling book on love languages is a bit hokey, there's no denying that people give and receive love in different ways.  "Gifts" is one of them.  Since I'm a minimalist, you might guess that "Gifts" is not high on my own love language list, and you'd be correct.  It's actually so far down my list (perhaps it's dead last) that even though I understand it's near the top of other people's lists, it still seems quite ridiculous to me most of the time.  If gift-giving was somehow eradicated from our culture, I might not even notice.

Yet, in all likelihood, we each have at least one family member or close friend whose primary love language is giving and receiving gifts.  I'll call these people Givers, with a capital G. Based on the laments I most often hear from my friends, I'd venture a guess that it's probably your own mom, your mother-in-law, or a grandparent.  But the point is, we've all got a Giver.

When this person reads "no gifts, please" on an invitation, or is told your kids don't need any Christmas presents this year, or even that they shouldn't give anything unless it's an experience gift, I guarantee this Giver's heart will sink.  An extremely generous woman and Giver I know, who is familiar with my minimalism soapbox, once confided in me: "Look, I make donations and give to charity all year long.  Christmas and birthdays are the times I like to spoil my grandkids.  Is that really so bad?"

Giving, presents and otherwise, is what she does.  It's part of her identity.  It makes her happy, and to give in her own way is how she expresses love.  Should we stand in her way?  How would I feel if someone did that to me?  Or if someone tried to micromanage the way I was showing love?  If you attempt this strategy with a Giver, it will always be unpleasant and awkward for both of you, and you'll feel as if you're constantly fighting a losing battle.

And even when you clearly state "no gifts, please" on a party invite, guess what?  Givers will always find a way to get around it!  They will feel compelled, and they will get sneaky.  Maybe the birthday card will have a fancy hair bow on top instead of a traditional wrapping bow.  Trust me, they'll come up with some kind of ingenious present-card attachment.  Sometimes they'll just ignore the instruction altogether and give a standard present anyway, making everyone else feel awkward.  Or, they'll try to drop something by a few days before or after the party.  A few years ago, my daughter was inspired to work on a handmade birthday gift for a friend weeks before we even received the party invitation, which read, "no gifts, please."  We figured out a way to drop it off separately, since there was no way she wasn't going to give it to her.  I encourage efforts to simplify and appreciated why the no-gift request was made, but even my minimalist, non-Giver's heart sank when we opened that invite.  It definitely killed the moment.

2.  I want my children to learn how to give and receive gifts.  I've witnessed enough kid birthday parties to know that this is a rare skill.  You know the scene: rapid-fire unwrapping, paper flying in all directions, an occasional forced-by-parent "thank you" amidst the carnage.  You know this kid is not mentally processing the connection between the giver and the shiny new item in front of them in any meaningful way, if at all.  I would like my children to learn to gracefully and graciously accept gifts from their friends and family.   It doesn't have to be gifts of "stuff" and it doesn't have to be a lot, but receiving gifts graciously is good practice in "being a person" in this world.

On the other hand, selecting (or making) a gift for someone involves thinking about the thoughts, feelings, and preferences of others, and recognizing these may be different than one's own (and excuse me, but how many adults do we know who still stink at this?!).  Likewise, watching other kids open gifts when it's not your birthday or your turn is a lesson in how to behave outwardly when you might feel jealous or impatient inwardly.  And let's face it: for really small kids, you're just working on the concept that grabbing another kid's birthday present, unwrapping it, yelling "mine!" and throwing a fit when the gift is returned to its rightful recipient is just not okay.  Life it not all about you; other people are just as special and loved as you are.  Happiness for others is not always a spontaneous emotion;  it is also learned by experience.

I want my children to discover and appreciate the joy of giving and receiving, and birthdays and holidays happen to be a time in our culture when this is done.  So be it.

And even I'll admit, it's a fun part of the celebration and everyone looks forward to it (even parents not so keen on the aftermath).

So my question is this:  Why squelch or micromanage the gift-giving inclination?  There is so much treating others horribly in this world that we needn't spend time and energy discouraging the rare positive inclinations people have toward one another.

But does all this mean we are destined to be buried in unwanted clutter at the whims of our well-meaning friends and family?

Not at all.  As a minimalist, here's what I propose as an alternative solution to the no-gifts trend.

1.  Focus on what you can control: yourself.

Meaning, the current level of "stuff" in your home and your own buying habits.  If a holiday season or a birthday is going to push your stuff-level "over the edge," it's likely the time in between these events that's the real problem.  As consumerism and overconsumption crept up on us, we finally reached a breaking point and recognized things weren't quite right with the state of our stuff.  This is good.  We knew we had do so something about it, but we mistakenly looked first to control other people's actions.  Please, please know that I am all about donating to charity, giving experience gifts and handmade gifts, curbing clutter, drastically decreasing the number of toys and "stuff" we own - the right spirit is there and it's wonderful to see the simplicity trend catching on.  But I think somewhere along the way, we got the "how" a bit backward.

Here's what I think we can do help flip it back around:
  • At Christmas or a birthday, YOU give your kids an experience gift or one very small tangible gift if you're absolutely compelled.  Resist the urge to buy more, or to feel guilty for not buying more/bigger/better.   
  • Keep purchases for your kids to a minimum during the rest of the year, knowing that your gift-crazy family will stock them up a couple times a year.  Focus on meeting basic needs.
  • Purge your home regularly, ruthlessly, all year long.
  • In short, own less stuff in the first place.  If you are willing to dig in and make some real changes, I promise the holiday or birthday onslaught won't seem as daunting anymore.
And finally, this debate is really for another day, but you can also control the size of your kids' birthday parties.  Somewhere between my childhood and my kids' generation, it became normal to invite your entire school class to your birthday party.  It's a vicious cycle because if a couple kids do it, suddenly you feel the pressure to do it too, for fear of leaving kids out.  Of course, the larger the party, the more likely the parents will feel the need to request no gifts.  I find that very small parties with just a couple friends are even better than moderately-sized parties, because other kids are less likely to feel left out of what's basically a glorified playdate (that's arguably more meaningful and memorable than a giant party anyway).  If you really want to invite the whole class, consider it a challenge for your child to ditch a whole lot of his stuff beforehand.

Anyway, all I'm saying is the invite list is another thing you control.  You just need to man-up and make choices.  If you love hosting huge gatherings and parties, you have 300+ other days of the year to choose from.  Go nuts.  (I mean that.  Hospitality, family, and community are so important!  More parties for no other reason than togetherness, please!)

2.  Keep your mouth shut and lead by example.

Let Great Aunt Henrietta do what she's going to do, but meanwhile, give experience gifts to your family and friends, adults and kids alike.  Be patient, but I guarantee if you do this for your family at enough birthdays and holidays, at least some of them will catch on.  They'll be having so much fun with experiences they receive that they'll want to get in on the action.  You may even win over some of the Givers, at least in part.  They'll no doubt still sneak something material in.  But you're much more relaxed about that now, and the Giver is happy and free to love.

And, don't forget, the presentation can still be nice and gift-y.  There's no reason to just announce: "Guess what, your present is we're going to the movies together!"  You can wrap experience gifts--decorate an envelope, have kids draw a picture of the activity, wrap something they will use at the experience or will remind them of it.  Be creative.  It takes bravery at first, as you may worry that the recipient (or others at the gathering) will see it as some sort of cop-out or not a "real" gift.  The gifted experience will most often take place at a later date, so the sense of immediate gratification that comes with opening a traditional present may be missing.  But try to let that go.  Chances are they will have a lot of fun and the gift will be memorable when it happens.

If you sense certain family members are up for it, there's no harm in bringing up the idea of drawing names to reduce the total number of gifts, or skipping gift exchanges altogether.  If you can manage holidays with less consumerism and clutter in any way you can, while still respecting your loved ones and how they love, I say more power to you.  But if you know you have a Giver-with-a-capital-G in the family, there's just no point in pushing the issue.  You end up with hurt feelings, bitterness, and other family-ickiness that you probably already have enough of anyway.  I watch my parent-friends bang their heads against this year after year.  It's not worth it.

Anyway, I wanted to consolidate and share my thoughts on this topic.  No solution is perfect, but I hope we can at least look deeper into the nuances of relationship dynamics, giving, and receiving, as well as thoroughly examine our own choices, before we try to put a bandaid on the problem.

Happier Holidays.


  1. gosh, Rosie, I agree with so much of this. No one needs more cheap plastic junk, they just don't. But there is so much joy to be had both from selecting and giving a gift, and opening and receiving a gift, for many of us in different amounts on different ends of that experience. I think we feel that way because it is indeed a tangible way to express our very inherently human need to give of ourselves to another, and I think it is an echo of the sacred within us. Plus, it just makes my mom so darned happy to give "stuff"! And accepting it is MY gift to her. Yay, presents, and YAY for less of them! :) Thanks for thinking this all out, and sharing it with the rest of us.

  2. Thanks for writing this. My cousin forwarded it to me and really helped open my eyes. I think I've put some people off by saying I don't want to give or receive any gifts this year. I am making gifts, and trying hard not to buy things for people that thy'll open and never think about again. Your advice makes sense, control what I can and let other people do what they want, I don't want to take away their joy.

  3. I just love your post! I do talks on the love languages so I understand the giver mentality, but I also don't like presents just for presents' sake, and your post addressses both so beautifully, and so is just perfect :)

  4. I love this well thought out and well articulated response to a current trend. I am a Giver (capital G) and couldn't agree more with your points. Thank you so much. We have a delightful mix of all the above gift giving philosophies at our family Christmas celebrations. A mix works wonderfully well. And that is the greatest gift we share with each other. :)

  5. I love this well thought out and well articulated response to a current trend. I am a Giver (capital G) and couldn't agree more with your points. Thank you so much. We have a delightful mix of all the above gift giving philosophies at our family Christmas celebrations. A mix works wonderfully well. And that is the greatest gift we share with each other. :)

  6. I appreciate your post and it is interesting to me. But no!! I have to disagree. We have a family of five and 550 square feet of house. We do not have room for cheap plastic gifts, and that is what people give us (even loving grandparents) if we let them. A gift should be for the benefit of the receiver. If you give ONLY for the warm happy feeling that you get as a result, you're missing the point: