No-gifts policy: Not a “trend”, but a lifestyle choice

Last year, The Globe and Mail published this article about parents jumping on the bandwagon of the no-gifts policy. “Cool,” I thought. More parents are getting it. Oh, but wait—the article ended on a bit of a sour note for me, giving the impression that A) this was to be treated as yet another trend in parenting, and B) as lovely an idea as it was, parents can deliver that life lesson another time; birthdays are for indulging and spoiling! So I was disappointed that it seems that the whole point is lost on some (if not during a gift-giving occasion like a birthday, then when is it a good time to teach this lesson?). Unfortunately, whenever we’ve stated our no-gifts policy to friends and acquaintances, we’ve sometimes got the impression that as they’re nodding their head, they’re thinking the same thing: “Uh huh. You’re following a trend” and “Come on! It’s a special occasion! Lighten up!”

For the record, we’ve had a no-gifts policy in our household before we even had kids. It started one Christmas, when there was just too much emphasis on gift-giving. I think it must have been a significant Christmas for us—first one in a shared home, or first one as an engaged couple?—or maybe my husband-then-boyfriend was just rolling in dough that year. Whatever the case, he worried and fretted ever so much, in a Gift-of-the-Magi way, over an appropriate gift for me. (I, not earning as much money as he did, didn’t worry in the same way. Besides, in my household, we’d never been used to an abundance of gifts, or expensive gifts.) But my husband, coming from a different kind of gift-giving background than me, wanted there to be a significance in the occasion, via the gifts. In the end, once the expensive packages were opened, and the revelation came to the surface that certain gift-buyers were “staying up nights and getting stressed out over the process”, we looked at each other and said, “That was kind of crazy, huh? No more.” Christmas and birthdays after that were much, much more enjoyable. And our wedding, with its polite, “Your presence is a gift in itself” line at the bottom of the invitation, was very pleasant for us, even if it did throw some guests into a tizzy.

So when our daughter came into the world, we told friends, “No baby shower gifts, no birthday gifts, no Christmas gifts. Please.” A very few people got the concept right away. Others didn’t, and still brought over presents, saying, “Well, I love buying baby stuff, and you’re getting this anyway.” Some of our friends teased us, saying, “What kind of memories are you going to give this kid, when she grows up and doesn’t remember Christmas?” Still others were greatly saddened, saying that it was their pleasure, and even right, to offer presents to this child. In the end, we relented to a certain degree, and while we still smiled and said “No gifts, please”, we dropped the rule for immediate family, and if a gift from a friend did find its way into our hands, we accepted it graciously.

So birthdays for the Girl, from day one, were always no-gift. The one year we relented was when she turned three, and we had just moved into a new home, a new province, and were making new friends. We felt a bit shy about seeming all high-and-mighty about our rule, so we kind of whispered-hinted-alluded to it, and the rule became, well, more of a suggestion. So the people who understood right away, came with homemade cards and presents, while the ones who pshawed the whole idea came with bright pink and plastic toys. We smiled politely and tried to put the gifts in a corner, but we had a sick feeling in our stomach when one of the gift-giving children asked loudly, “When is she going to open the presents?” That was when we knew that we should have stuck to our guns and been more forceful about our rule. Because what was the result? A couple of the non-gift-giving children began to cry, saying to their parents, “But I wanted to bring a gift too! How come they could and I couldn’t?” And no amount of soothing words from either us or their parents could convince them that their handmade gift was more desirable. And in the end, our daughter didn’t even remember those pink, plastic toys (unless one of the children reminded her later), so we ended up giving them away rather quickly.

Sigh. So what was the point of this long speech? Just to say that we’ve since then held firm to our no-gifts policy, and we’re pretty happy about it. Well, the Boy is taking time to get used to it; for some reason, he’s more materialistic than his sister or us, but he’s slowly coming over to our side. We sure don’t miss all the gifts of things that we wouldn’t have bought anyway, and we love the idea that no one is worrying about searching and spending for our sake. Yes, we do splurge on some big-ticket items for ourselves or each other, so we figured that if we were going to buy the PS3 or the camera or the laptop computer anyway, might as well present it under the guise of a “gift”. That way, no one can say that our kids never had the memories throughout childhood of opening up a present.