Why We Don’t Do Traditional Birthday Presents (For Now) & What We Do Instead

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In our family we’ve chosen to go a slightly different route when it comes to birthdays… for now.


Let me start by saying, I have nothing against birthday presents. I’m thankful for all the birthday presents I received growing up. But at this point in our family life the toy situation is on the brink of “out-of-control” as it stands. Keeping our things down to a reasonable quantity is hard enough without us adding to the madness.

“More stuff” in and of itself is not bad, but the love of it can seep into our hearts oh-so easily.

There are few things more unpleasant in a child than an “entitled or ungrateful attitude.” This is something I work to prevent as much as possible as a parent.

“More stuff” can take our eyes off the things that really matter. This has certainly been true for me at times. Instead of making us more content, it can actually make us less content. It’s not always the answer.

And then there’s the mess of it.

But there’s something else. Something that does satisfy, refresh, delight and nourish the soul. Relationship– presence.

So, instead of adding to the clutter when birthdays roll around, we’ve decided to do something that we believe will be even more meaningful. We spend time with our children. We make memories. We give them an experience, time together as a family. We have an adventure.

Here’s how it works:

  • Our kids know ahead of time that, for their birthday, they will get to pick something fun to do as a family. We clarify and set the expectation so they won’t be expecting a physical present. We want them to be excited, not disappointed!
  • They get to plan and dream and research and decide what they want to do.
  • When their birthdays come, we make the day all about them, as much as possible. We say yes. We give them extra attention. We listen to them and talk to them. We delight in them, and they know it. We tell them how special they are. We do what they want to do within reason. I pushed my little daughter in the swing for an hour this year on her 3rd birthday. For her that’s about as good as it gets.
  • We have a fun day out together as a family.
  • We make a special birthday dinner (honoree’s choice) served up on a special birthday plate. We sing and have cake. We celebrate, and we spend more time together as a family.

Now, just to clarify, our kids do still get some birthday presents from friends and family members who love them and want to show it. We’re okay with that. It’s fun for them and those giving to them.

However, as far as our part goes, we resolved to give them ourselves and skip the stuff. (At least for now… I may feel differently in a year or two, who knows?)

At this point, I would rather buy them something unexpectedly “just because” than to train them to expect or feel entitled to presents.

I actually do love gift giving. I want to do it in freedom rather than obligation.

At the park on Clara's birthday

**Update** We tried it again for birthday #4! Read about that here.

What’s your reaction to this approach? How do nurture a non-materialistic and non-entitled attitude in your children?


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  1. Sally says:

    Six years ago my husband and I lost our jobs and since this time we haven’t given birthday or Christmas presents. Our children were in their teens and so they understood the situation well. We are now employed and doing well but our children have decided to continue the tradition and are pleased to save money on presents. My son sometimes meets me in town and buys me an ice-cream, my daughter often buys cheap items online and will get them sent to my address as a surprise. We also help the children out with money when needed. We all prefer to buy items when they are needed instead of waiting for birthdays and Christmas. My daughter’s boyfriend’s family give eachother 50€ at birthdays and Christmas and it is really adding up now that they have children.

  2. Julie says:

    As my kids have gotten older, they have all switched to wanting an experience rather than a gift. It helps that they are expected to work for things they “want” and don’t “need”. We make it clear we will provide what they need within reason. They are 17,16,14 & 12. Birthdays are so much better!!!

  3. This is wonderful Katie! I totally agree with this philosophy as we have been decluttering toys and the house this year. I’ve encouraged the grandparents to give experiences or contribute to memberships as well – I love that memberships give gifts all year round.

  4. Cathleen says:

    We decided years ago to do the same. Since we have a large family (6 kids), it’s hard to keep things simple. We try to keep toys down to a minimum and clothing as well. Plus we group birthdays together so it’s easier for out of town era to come. For the summer birthdays we have an obstacle course, sack races, 3-legged races and finish with a water balloon/squirt gun fight. For the fall birthdays we stick more towards piñata and scavenger hunts. Only one of my older ones remembers getting presents and has trouble with it, while the others like having the company over and people to play with.

  5. Ashley says:

    I LOVED reading this! At a MOPS meeting at church one of our speakers told us that when their kids turn 6 (i think) they start to get a special get away with either mom or dad (rotating who goes with them each year) So the child gets to choose the destination (within reasonable driving distance) and they get to just go have one on one time with that parent for their birthday. For years 1-5 of my first daughters birthdays I had parties with family and friends and always came away feeling like I was too caught up in the party that I missed all the special moments so This year we gave her an experience! We gave her a week at horse riding camp and will also be taking her away for a weekend to a horse ranch to take a trail ride this fall (which is just a bonus because I won the tickets at a school fundraiser). We had to celebrate her birthday early because camp happened before her birthday and to my surprise when her actual birthday came around she wasn’t at all disappointed that she didn’t get “gifts” or a party with all her friends. The memories she got from horse camp will last a lifetime. We we definitely be continuing with the “time” gift instead of the “toy” gift!! 🙂

    • That is amazing Ashley!! Thank you so much for sharing! I LOVE these ideas and extensions. I will have them in mind as we progress through our years of birthdays. All our kids birthdays are within 6 weeks on the calendar, so individual parties are just out. I’m not passionate about it as some are. I think we’re going to turn inward and really make this a family & quality time affair, even more than before.

  6. Hilary says:

    I love this idea, Katie! After my daughter was disappointed about her birthday party last year (too much time on party prep and clean-up, not enough time just enjoying her), I vowed my children could start choosing what they’d like to do on their special day. She’s been planning her fun birthday for the past year! (We get to try it out in December.) I think it has to be so much more enjoyable and memorable than birthday parties and gifts.

  7. kristen koehler says:

    I absolutely love this idea!!!!! I don’t remember toys I received when I was younger, I remember al the memories. so this makes sense, give the children countless memories with their parents and siblings instead of a toy that will break or clutter the house!!! I recently did the ” I took my kids toys away!” and I am pleasantly surprised how they have reacted…..ex: they play with each other more, and also my son had a birthday party this past weekend, not a lot of people but he still had doubles of toys !!!lol…… including a log cabin play house the whole family pitched in for…and I look over and my 2 year old son is playing with 2 car from a wendys kids meal=)

  8. Ai says:

    I’m dealing with the same thing … not just the toy clutter but the heart clutter, as I notice all these material desires growing in my children’s hearts. They start announcing their wish lists all the time, and it just grows the closer it gets to their birthdays. I like the suggestions you made. Toys get forgotten so quickly, but memories of times spent together last longer.

  9. Michelle says:

    Great post! I think a gift of memories is a great idea! We have done similar as well. Last fall we took a family vacation and for Christmas I made a photo book of the vacation for our kids as part of their gift. They loved it! (I will add the photo book, one new pair of pjs and stockings with almost all consumable items is all they received from us and they WERE TRILLED). And requested a photo book every year! My hope is that the books will help them remember the special vacations and every day memories we make. Those books have been out many, many times and they enjoy looking at them and we enjoy recounting the memories together 🙂

    • I love photo books. That is a neat idea because it helps with the actual “remembering of the memories” and they have something tangible, which I think is nice too.

  10. I love this idea. It is so hard to not become really materialistic even as adults about presents. Especially as often there is very little we really want or need. What a lovely way to show your children how special they are too! I am really enjoying reading your blog, thank you 🙂

    • It is truly something that I am constantly battling against. And the funny thing is I often want to get my kids presents more than they do. I’m materialistic on their behalf, thinking they need all the latest stuff. But I’m learning, slowly. 🙂
      Thank you for your encouragement! I appreciate you stopping by. I look forward to following along with your blog as well!

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