“No Gifts” on an Invitation Is Rude: Unpopular Opinion

birthday gifts

I think the “no gifts, please” trend on kiddie birthday party invitations is rude. There, I said it, and it’s a relief to get this unpopular opinion off my chest. Judging from the amount of gift-less parties we have attended in the last few years, I am clearly in the minority on this one, but let me explain.

  1. Invitations are not the place to say anything about gifts. This is an ironclad etiquette rule from back in the day.  Unless it’s a shower (and even then some etiquette experts cringe), an invitation to an event shouldn’t say a word about gifts because events are about people, not presents. Mentioning gifts turns them into obligations.  The best thing to do is to say nothing about presents on an event invitation. The same goes for using birthday parties as a reason to raise money for an event. Even if you are telling guests to bring donations, you are still telling them to bring something, and that’s not appropriate on an invitation. This even applies to asking for books for a book exchange—great idea; not invitation-appropriate.
  2. Gifts at birthday parties are a cultural expectation, and violating expectations makes people feel uncomfortable, which is the exact opposite of good manners. Think about it: manners are supposed to make us feel at ease. We have all been to a “no gifts” party where someone brought a gift anyway. This makes all of the non-gift bringers feel bad, and sometimes it makes the host act in an ungracious way. Discomfort all around! And, going back to the first item on the list, the party is, for a moment at least, all about gifts, which is just yucky.
  3. A “no gifts message” has a rude subtext that makes the host sound ungrateful. People appreciate the work and expense that goes into a birthday party, and it’s fun to show the host or at least the host’s child how much they appreciate the party and want to celebrate the birthday child. Sure, you can always have your kiddo make a card and maybe bring a small treat to the birthday kid, but the “no gifts” request can make guests feel unwelcome before the event even begins. It’s like saying to your guests Look, I know you are going to buy gauche plastic toys that take up too much space in my house, so just forget it. Or, My snowflake lives in an abundant land of plenty. They don’t need more things, unlike other gift-grubbing children. Or even Ugh, look, we’re just going to take it back, so save us the trip.

So what do you do instead of requesting no gifts?

  1. If parents of guests ask you what to get, you can tell them about the fundraiser for the local animal shelter your kid wants to support. You can mention that your kid loves homemade crafts from friends. You can suggest a book or two. You can even tell them a gift is not necessary. If asked what to buy the birthday child, think about things your kid can use, and think about the feelings of your guests.
  2. Purge before the party, so you don’t feel overwhelmed by all the toys in your house.
  3. Talk with your child before the party and suggest that they donate some toys to a nearby charity so they can share the birthday wealth.
  4. Scale down the birthday party to make gifts manageable. Want fewer presents? Invite fewer friends.
  5. Squelch any greed monsters living in your house. Remind your kids that presents are treats, not requirements.  That way, they will be delighted to receive anything, and you can use the party as a gratitude exercise. Your birthday child can practice good manners by thanking guests in person and again via thank you note, and they can make or help you buy a tiny present for each party guest as well.

Listen, I get it. Nobody wants to drown in plastic clutter, and lots of people privilege experiences over material possessions. But, really, it’s rude to talk about gifts on invitations in any context. So, you need to be a gracious host to your guests and think about their feelings, not your own. To be honest, the biggest reason I think this trend is rude is that is just smacks of elitism and makes guests feel like their offerings could never be good enough, which might be the opposite of the intended message but still has the potential to hurt some feelings.

One more thing: If you have a “no gifts” party and someone is gauche enough to bring a gift anyway, you have to be nice about it. This should go without saying, but this past year, I didn’t notice the “no gifts” request on an evite, and my kid showed up with a tissue-paper-stuffed, super-hero gift bag. The host mom? Almost didn’t take the present, which was so uncomfortable for me, for her, and for my child. I ended up apologizing for bringing a present, and we both felt stupid.

Next time you host a party, make a choice to be grateful for your guests and whatever they bring—or don’t bring—to the party. Remember, their presence is the real present.

Sarah Jedd has a Ph.D. in communication arts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she teaches and studies the rhetoric of Planned Parenthood. Sarah has 5 (F I V E) children: teens Harry and Jack, elementary schoolers Cooper and Dorothy, and sweet baby Minnie, born in August 2020. Sarah blogs about being a mom of many at harrytimes.com and overshares on IG as @sarahjedd. Sarah, her husband, and their kids live in Verona with the world's laziest dog.

43 COMMENTS

  1. I am totally confused how it it “elitist” to ask for no gifts. I have done the same thing for my son for all his parties, he is 9. And we have asked specifically for books to share instead with a great response. All of our parties have been great fun and we make it a point to do fun games and music. However, we also always have a family dinner and gift giving on his actual bday.
    Some of his friends legit do not have the money and I would not want to strap their parents out for a gift. I know what it feels like to show up with no gift bc I had no money. Calm down and eat come bday cake ya’all. gift or no gift. its all good people!

    • This is how I feel, too. We always host a class party for my children at their school and I know some families are not well-off, especially now with the pandemic. Their class sizes are small- between 8 and 10 kids- and each year there was always at least 1-2 children that didn’t attend. Sure, maybe those kids were just sick but the fact that they have small class sizes and it happens year after year I suspect it’s more likely that families that are unable to afford gifts so feel that their child cannot attend. I hate the idea that anyone’s financial situation would make them feel like they can’t come because honestly, the kids always have a blast and with everything these kiddos have been through over the past 2 years, they deserve a day of fun and games, don’t you think? So this year I want to put a note on the invitations to let families know that really, their children only need bring themselves.

  2. I have triplets whose birthday is in December. Most of their friends don’t come from families with extra money lying around. I am concerned that the fact that there are three of them, and such close proximity to Christmas, some guests may choose not to come because they feel like they just can’t afford to buy 3 gifts that society makes you feel obligated to do.

  3. This is the most self centering article I’ve come across. It is 100% acceptable for a parent to request no gifts at a birthday party, and to do so directly and up front. You failing the read the details caused the discomfort… that is your fault. Who cares about etiquette or ancient “rules” … if a parent decides their child doesn’t need more toys or doesn’t want to burden guests with having to buy a gift, respect it. That should be all there is to it.

  4. I appreciate this argument Sarah but I also have to challenge at what point our society starts to challenge ancient cultural norms of etiquette. The world is a much different place today. I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with being upfront about the details of the party in an invitation, because if you can’t do it in the invite then where? At the end of the day it is not about what you say but how you say it. I would never just write “No gifts.” at the end of an invite because translated into spoken word, that just sounds abrupt and rude. I’m always a fan of, “We appreciate your presence, over presents!” I see this article was published pre-pandemic but I think we can all agree now on how much that statement truly resonates.

  5. This doesn’t add up. You start by saying that a party shouldn’t be about gifts, it should be about people (yes, agree!), but then you suggest inviting FEWER PEOPLE in order to make GIFTS more manageable? Hard pass. The day I let inanimate items rule how many people I invite for their company is the day I know I’m doing something wrong.

    You say you want to show gratitude for the hosts effort and expense, but all of your suggestions (like purging beforehand) require MORE effort on the hosts behalf, so who exactly is your gift showing gratitude for? I mean, if the only value you can attribute to your own presence at a party is what you are bringing as a gift offering, maybe it’s time that you actually do the re-evaluating. And as for squelching greed monsters, I don’t have any of those in my house.. Do you?

    Lastly: You not reading an invite is your problem, not theirs.

  6. I do not agree with this at all but my wife does not want to risk breaking some out-dated etiquette rule. Therefore, we are going to get over 50 gifts that we don’t have the space for and that the kids will play with for 2 minutes. Luckily most of the gifts will be at Goodwill in a few months. What a waste of money, time and energy!

  7. This article is silly and out of touch. We are hosting a wedding this summer, second marriage for both of us, and of course we are requesting no gifts. The ONLY way to communicate that to each invitee is to print Please No Gifts on the invitation. Simple as that.

  8. Respectfully disagree with you! I think there are tactful ways to say “your presence is all that is needed”. I think not opening gifts at a party is a great place to start. Often times the gift giver doesn’t think about why an invitation might say “presence only.” Maybe they are moving, maybe they can’t have small items because of younger children, maybe they are concerned about their environmental impact, perhaps they place the highest value on the time and friendships their child has with their friends… whatever the reason the host’s wishes should be respected. Or society has placed this expectation that we must give gifts, I think we should challenge it for the greater good and old “etiquette” should be challenged when it no longer makes sense. Sorry that it makes you feel uncomfortable.

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