birthday gifts

In cultures around the world, celebrations of special occasions are opportunities for gift giving.  For those of us who want to encourage our children to live simply, these occasions often invite feelings of frustration when well-meaning family and friends bombard our children with gifts that are either excessive in quantity or questionable in quality.

Families who are committed to living thoughtfully must walk a fine line between protecting our personal convictions on how many and what kind of toys are allowable for our children, while not offending those who do not hold the same convictions that we do.

It is important to remember that gift-giving almost always happens within the parameters of relationship, and so with this in mind, we can set ourselves up for successful and positive outcomes when this delicate issue is discussed.

Here are some thoughts to consider as you approach this topic with friends and family.

1.  Establish the boundaries for your family.

wooden blocks
Photo by Tiffany Washko

This will look different for every family.  Some parents may not want battery-operated toys in their home.  Other parents may not want licensed characters at all, while others may reject specific licensed characters as playthings for their children.  For other families, it’s not a matter of which toys are given, but rather a matter of how many toys their children receive.

When your children are little, it is very easy to construct a concrete boundary regarding their toys.  As your children get older, find ways to make the boundary a collaborative effort where all opinions and preferences are taken into the decision-making process.

A boundary may sound restricting, but in the end it actually provides freedom - freedom from guilt and laborious decision-making about what comes into your house.

2. Keep proper perspective on the boundary you have established.

It is essential to remember that you have zero control over what other people give to you or your children as gifts. You can gently inform and provide guidance (more on that in a moment), but ultimately it is the gift-giver who is spending the money/time/energy on the gift, and decisions about what and how many will be made by the person giving the gift.

It is also essential to remember that you have complete control over what happens to the gifts you and your children receive. This is where you will find such wonderful freedom in having established a boundary about what gifts are acceptable for your family.  With guiding principles in place, it is so much easier to allow your family’s convictions to determine which gifts will be kept and which will find new homes.

3. Provide helpful guidance.


Photo by Alex Barth

Your friends and family cannot read your mind.  It isn’t fair to expect them to respect your boundary about gifts if you haven’t made an attempt to express your thoughts on the matter.

Be sensitive to the dynamics of each relationship as you consider how to approach this conversation. In some relationships, open and direct conversation is welcome and encouraged.  Other relationships, however, may call for a more indirect and delicate approach.

Really take the time to examine the relationship and construct ways to strengthen and build up the relationship in this discussion, rather than alienating or distancing.

When it comes to the logistics of providing helpful guidance, there are two schools of thought:

• Have a preemptive conversation.

In relationships where direct and honest conversation is the norm, you may feel comfortable sitting down to talk with (or sending an email to) friends or family members and saying something along the line of: “We’ve been noticing the toys that the kids tend to play with most are the ones that really challenge them to use their imaginations.  In the future, we are hoping to really focus on not having toys in the house that run on batteries and basically do all of the playing for them.  With Jack’s birthday coming up, I have some great ideas about what I know he would truly enjoy as birthday gifts!”

• Provide gift suggestions only when suggestions are requested.

For some, having a preemptive conversation about gifts feels like a violation of etiquette or social norms.  In this case, simply have a list of ideas prepared to share if and when suggestions are asked for by someone preparing to give your child a gift.  You can create a general list of broad categories, suggest specific items, or even provide links to stores or catalogs that support your family’s ideas about what will be enjoyed and appreciated in your home.

Regardless of the approach you take, avoid stipulations and focus on helpful guidance. Even the most gracious of gift-givers may bristle when met with instructions like, “NO cheap, plastic-y junk, please!”

Focus the discussion on what you know your children will enjoy — “Jane is so into drawing, painting, and creating right now.  I know she would be absolutely thrilled to have new art supplies to work with!”

4.  Practice gratitude (even when you are disappointed).

mom and child happy
Photo by John Morgan

In the message given during our wedding the ceremony, the pastor who married my husband and I repeated this to us three times:  “People are more important than things.”

It’s such a simple but powerful truth.  Yes, it is good to be careful and mindful of what comes into our home.  Yes, it can be difficult to quietly remove toys that don’t meet our family’s standards.  Yes, it is hurtful when our boundaries are not respected by those we love.

Ultimately, however, we can act lovingly in relationship with others by providing them the opportunity to learn about what we value as a family.  Then we can choose to respond with grace and gratitude, regardless of what they bestow on our children in the form of gifts.

It is possible to honor the relationship by being thankful for the thoughtfulness, even while knowing that the gift may not find a permanent place in your home.

Special occasions invite celebration.  Confident and healthy boundaries allow us to celebrate the people in our lives, complete with a wonderful freedom from worrying about the stuff!

Do you have experience in maintaining relationships, even when opinions differ on gift giving? How do you use boundaries to protect relationships?

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