The Birthday Party Invite Says 'No Gifts.' Should You Really Bring Nothing?

Here's what etiquette experts recommend when the host requests no presents.
Here's how etiquette experts handle this common conundrum.
RUSS ROHDE via Getty Images
Here's how etiquette experts handle this common conundrum.

Last year, I received an invitation to a kid’s birthday party that said, “please, no gifts.” As an aspiring minimalist and the parent of a toddler who has way too many toys, I wanted to respect the family’s wishes — but I also didn’t want to show up empty-handed. So I brought a card for the birthday boy and put a small gift certificate for a local bakery inside.

When my family arrived at the party, a dozen huge colourful gift bags were already sitting on a table. I felt silly for bringing something little and wondered if I had made the wrong call.

So I asked etiquette experts their thoughts: What do you do if the invitation says ‘no gifts’? Is it really OK to not bring anything — and on the flip side, would it be rude to bring one anyway?

First, you may consider why the parents hosting the party ask guests to skip the presents. There is a “great allure” in going the no-gifts route, said etiquette expert Jodi RR Smith, president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting.

“It eliminates the need for the opening of gifts at the party,” she told HuffPost. “It reduces the materialism and potential clutter. And drastically reduces the need to write thank you notes to every child at the event.” (However, she also believes gift-giving can be a good exercise for kids. She said it allows them to “learn empathy and caring for others” because they must consider the birthday child’s interests when picking out a present.)

Parents who decide to forgo gifts for their kid may do so to be considerate of guests who are struggling financially, said etiquette expert Diane Gottsman, founder of The Protocol School of Texas, before adding, “Or they simply may feel as if their child does not need one more thing to crowd the closet.”

If the invitation says no gifts, “it’s most polite to follow their request,” Gottsman said. This applies to any celebration, not just kids’ parties.

“Bringing a gift will make others feel uncomfortable. If some people showed up with a gift, while others followed the instructions of the host, the host should put the gifts discreetly away until the party is over,” she said.

However, many of us grew up in families where it was considered bad form to show up to a gathering empty-handed, and not bringing anything might feel quite uncomfortable. So to both respect the parents’ request while also celebrating the birthday kiddo, Smith said you could bring a little something to the party — even if it’s just a birthday card with a fun bonus (like stickers).

You could also have your child write a letter or draw a picture for the birthday child, donate to a charitable organisation in the child’s honour (you can include the donation letter in the card if you have one), or choose a small or inexpensive item, Smith said. Another option is an “ephemeral gift” — in other words, something that can be used or recycled: a comic book, seeds to plant or a gift certificate to an ice cream shop or pizza place, she said.

Gottsman emphasized that “the most appropriate gesture would be not to bring a gift since the host requested it specifically on the invitation.” However, if the guest is determined to gift something, they should either send the present in advance or hand it to the host parents inconspicuously, she said.

“If you want to honor the child, you can also make a donation to a nonprofit in their name. However, it’s probably not going to be as meaningful to the child as it will be to the parent,” Gottsman said. “Some grandparents will put money in a special account that continues to grow for a college fund or a particular item. There’s no right or wrong answer to giving a gift when it comes from the heart. Just don’t do it in front of guests who are doing what was requested of them.”

To that end, Gottsman also said that if you are hosting a no-presents party, you should not have a gift table on display, nor should your child open anything in front of friends and family.

“Do it privately in another room,” she said, “or after the party is over out of the eyesight of the guests who followed the rules.”