Present Tense: Birthday Gifts Without The Stress

For something that’s supposed to be fun—a birthday party—lots of people can get pretty bent out of shape about them, especially when it comes to presents. If you’re the guest, questions as to what to spend or whether a parent is going to welcome something into the house are paramount. If you’re throwing the party, questions as to when to open presents and how to teach kids to be gracious are paramount.

It’s not easy. Every parent has a horror story, such as the parents I know in California who spent about $25 (higher than the national average) on a gift, only to find that most of the other guests brought very expensive presents. You have to ask who is trying to impress whom at that point, quite frankly.

Here are some tips that will help you minimize the stress, and, hopefully, create a lot of fun for kids celebrating their special days.

  1. What to spend? This is always the big question. It depends on your area of the country, and what’s standard practice among your child’s peer group. However $15-$20 seems to be about the top, according to our survey of parents across the country. You can get a very good toy for that amount of money, even some of the hot promotional toys. Remember, last year’s super-hot item the Zhu Zhu Pets were under $10, and anyone who scored one of those would have been a hero at a party. It’s good to remember, particularly for children under 8, play value is far more important than the actual dollar value. If you’re part of a group, school or class, it’s a good idea to come to an agreement among all the parents as to what to spend. With young kids, if you’ve got 20 parties to buy for each year, and you spend $15 per kids, you’re committing to $350 overall, which is a lot of money.
  2. What to buy? Again, this varies by ages. For preschoolers and toddlers, stuffed animals, age-appropriate games and books are always a good idea. As kids get older, they have very specific likes and dislikes. Talk to your kids about what they’re into, and take them shopping with you. For example for boys from 4-7, action figures are great, particularly if it’s a character all the kids are into. That will be $10 or less.
  3. What about gift cards? After a kid is 9 or 10, gift cards can be a good idea. However, we find that kids would rather get a present—and a gift receipt so something can be exchanged—than a gift card. Cards are okay if you know a child is hoping to get something big, but it’s always nice to have something to open.
  4. Any ways to save money? We know one parent who has an ingenious idea: She knows approximately how many parties her kids will go to, and at the beginning of the season they go shopping and buy versions of the same thing. These gifts are stored in the “present closet,” and the child gets to pick when he or she has a party to go to. This allows you to take advantage of special sales when you see them, or buy-one-get-one offers and it means you almost never have to run to the store on an emergency present run.
  5. If your child is giving. Remember, kids get very proud of the presents they give. It often means a lot to them. So involving them in the selection process is great. Remind him or her that the birthday boy or girl may not open the presents at the party, so it’s not a great idea to yell, “Open it!” when the gift is presented. (Of course, sometimes the kids are all so excited they can’t wait.)
  6. If your child is receiving. Talk to them before the party about being a good host. Decide in advance if you’re going to open presents while the guests are there, or later. If you decide later, make sure you have a way for the child to thank each present giver personally. It doesn’t have to be a formal thank you note, but kids like to receive acknowledgement. (Parents too.) Also, teach them to be gracious recipients. If the toy is a duplicate, teach them not to say, “I already have this,” or some version of that. With so many parties and so many presents, it’s inevitable that one or two may be disappointing, but don’t let the giver know. That’s what the gift receipt is for.
  7. Don’t sweat it. Parents tend to make a much bigger deal of this than kids do. It’s not a competition; it’s a birthday party. Keep it simple, keep it fun and keep the focus on good play.

Think about it: Do you remember the toys you got at birthday parties? Of all the parties I had as a kid, I remember one gift: large die-cast car. My classmate Ricky gave it to me for my 7th birthday, and I think I still have it. That’s one in who knows how many. Relax, do your best; don’t bust your budget. Focus on the fun and the pleasure you’ll be giving, and that’s the best gift of all to you.

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