Giving Presents To Kids- Smart or Foolish?

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Presents bought and waiting for my
kids' birthday in the next few days
Tomorrow my older son, Lee, turns 7, and 4 days later, my second son, Ike, turns 5. I just went birthday present shopping for them, and then called up an extremely frugal person I know, to discuss the logistics about gift giving with them (being as I found a large amount of homeschooling books for the kids at the used book store, in addition to the birthday presents I got them, and wasn't sure how and when I should give the books...

The person I had called to discuss it with (who I know who reads my blog- if he/she wants to out him/herself, he/she can) was saying they don't give birthday gifts in their families-"What's the point," he/she says? "If someone needs something, we buy it for them, if we don't need it, we don't buy it."
"What about toys for the kids, where do you get them stuff?"
"I get them things from swaps and go to as many as I can."
"So you swap gifts for birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, etc... between spouses, but not for your kids?"
"Nope, we don't swap gifts between spouses either. Again, if we need something, we buy it, but don't buy things 'just because'."
"So you do nothing to celebrate your kids' birthdays?"
"We have the required party in pre-school, and then last year, since my kids' birthday and their friend's birthday are around the same time, we made a party- invited a few more kids over to our house, and made pita pizzas together."
"Don't you want to make your kids feel special on their birthday?"
"The pita pizza party makes them feel special."

I was a bit mind blown.

We definitely do gifts in our family. Quality gifts that won't break after a second, but will be useful for a long time (our favorite gifts are knock off Lego sets). This is in addition to the birthday bashes I make for them- very cheap, everything homemade, but still fun.
We usually don't do second hand as gifts, because my kids aren't as excited by second hand things (part of the fun is their opening the package); we do second hand things or made from scratch when they need things, but not as gifts. And we do gifts for birthdays, holidays, etc... in addition to using them for rewards for when my kids do things that are hard for them.

When our kids start asking for something, bugging us that they want something, we may say no, or we may say "maybe we'll get that for your birthday" and if they ask for more than one thing, we ask them "do you prefer this or this, since you can't have both"- we use it as a lesson to teach them the concept of waiting for things you want, prioritizing what's more important to them- since they cant have everything- about the concept of finite amounts of money and using money smartly ("we're not getting that since that costs x dollars, which is a lot of money, but maybe we can get this which costs y dollars since it is x-y cheaper"), but honestly, its also to show our kids that they're important to us, that we take their feelings seriously and don't brush off their desires, etc... So no, I don't think birthday gifts are a waste.
I will give my kids things they need for their birthday as well, as additional presents, if it will make them happy. Like homeschooling books that they like, I will give them for a birthday present, for example. But I do try to have some thing "fun" as a birthday present, and not just needs.

But probably one of the other reasons why I think birthday gifts are important is because we live a very frugal life style, and I don't want my children to resent it. I want my children to grow up and feel that they had everything they needed and some of what they wanted- that they weren't raised feeling deprived. And if that means spending 100 dollars a year on them in presents (altogether from birthdays, holidays, etc...), then it is worth it.

For the record, here's a list of things we've given our kids as presents in the past:
1) Bikes
2) A riding toy
3) A scooter
4) A jumping ball
5) Numerous knock off lego sets
6) A zoo pass (requested as a joint gift from grandparents, actually)

All very much appreciated. All worthwhile investments.

P.S. This person's kids are still young- I wonder what his/her method will be when their kids are older.

What about you? Do you do birthday gifts? For your kids? For yourself and your spouse? Why or why not? What types of gifts do you generally do?

Penniless Parenting

Mommy, wife, writer, baker, chef, crafter, sewer, teacher, babysitter, cleaning lady, penny pincher, frugal gal


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  1. Part of the reason to give gifts is to learn how to receive joy from the act of giving. How is this person teaching his/her children this? How will these children behave when they grow up, get married, and don't know how to choose appropriate gifts for people? Gifts are about way more than simply giving someone something they want or need.

    1. You're quite right. Gifts and gift-giving traditions are about WAY more than giving someone what they want or need or teaching proper selection of appropriate gifts for intended recipients. Gifts and gift-giving traditions can also be about guilt, obligation, control, a cultural sense of duty, a sense of entitlement, fear of disapproval, buying affection, resentment, passive-aggressive insults, manipulation, expectations, and encouraging materialism in children and adults.

      If you're someone who comes from a family or cultural group that has warped gift-giving into a manipulative tradition, you too might think there's no real benefit in gifts.

      All kind of circumstances = all kinds of perspectives.

  2. I LOVE giving gifts! But, I refuse to be obligated! I buy, acquire, and make gifts when the idea presents itself :). I'm a grandmother, now, and it works even better! All my gifts are out of the blue and the recipient always feels special. I never buy new, and more often then not, it's homemade. I don't go to b-day parties, but sometimes can't get out of it. I baked a bag of cookies for my grandson one year and it was a hit. The next year he tried to make a tradition out of it, and requested his flavor, lol. My gifts are remembered.

  3. That is kinda extreme :'( If I am very low on cash and/or don't want to add any clutter into our home, then I would at least cook a whole meal of favourites for my lover, or write him a letter telling him how much I love being with him :)
    (hum... I don't have any kids yet)

    I can't imagine not doing anything special. I actually ENJOY the process of doing special for him. I would be deprived from the joy of doing him something for him ! :S Actually when I feel depressed, the one thing that helps me getting better is making gifts to others :P

    I think the limit between want & needs is really hard to establish... I just gifted a new bathrobe / towels set to my partner for his birthday. His old bathrobe was... really really old (altough he could have still use it for at least a few months). And I also gifted him a whole "set" when he could have keep on using non matching towels when he needs a towel in addition to the bathrobe. So... was it really a need ? But on the other hand, towels dont last a life time, so we would have ended up buying more at some point for sure... Probably non matching stuff that would have felt special. So in the end, I really don't know if it is a want or a need :S and if I "wasted" money on this or not :S

  4. See, I'm the exact opposite. I think buying presents for specific occasions is exhausting--you're always fighting with the crowds, wondering if you're getting the right thing, etc etc. I far prefer buying something "just because" because it's more likely to be something that's wanted and appreciated. But I freely admit that I keep track of things that we want/need in a weird way.

  5. I used to buy gifts for my son for his birthday and Christmas. I never gave much credit to Santa Claus as I wanted him to know that the cool gifts came from ME -- or more typically my sister who always got 1 really cool gift for him. My parents insisted on gifts the whole time they were alive but they had more then they needed. My husband and I stopped giving gifts to eachother years ago. Now we will do a dinner out or some special event instead. Our son is grown but we still do presents but they are now mostly based on his needs (Last year for his birthday we gave him a shirt-- 2 ties -- to books he needed -- and a bunch of FOOD/groceries that could be shipped) We do still buy Christmas gifts but as we stopped celebrating that day we give him the gifts when he is in town not actually on Dec. 25th. Again they are based on needs and a few wants if we can afford. He grew up on second hand clothes, garage sale toys etc. so even now getting something new is special.

  6. We do give gifts, but looking back I wish we had placed far less emphasis on it or not done it at all, even for children. I wish we had given experiences and lifelong or practical gifts only, because most everything else ends up being clutter. How many of the toys that our children wanted at age 5 are things they still play with? At age 10? Not many at all, which makes a strong argument for giving these things used, even for gifts. But they do remember the trips we took (after about age 8 or so), and amusement park visits, and they each have always had a bicycle that fit them from age 4 on (not always new). One has a nice guitar.

    However, my children are far from impoverished, so we can purchase things as needed/wanted throughout the year. Just yesterday we bought them boogie boards for the beach, as we went on a beach trip with a group last week and they really enjoyed using borrowed boogie boards. We spotted boards at Costco and grabbed them as we knew that they are a seasonal item and will soon be gone. Waiting for a holiday or birthday would makes no sense - but then the water would be too cold to swim in.

    1. The funny thing is... the gift my dad received when he was a kid are actually a big part of his current life (at 62 years old !). His main passion is model trains. And he is retired so he has time for this. I think my dad kept almost all the toys he received when he was a kid (we also have his rocking horse in the house etc.). Maybe that is why gift giving for christmas was so important for him... (which is not for me, and I declutted most of childhood possessions as I actually need space for the things I NEED).

    2. We do model trains over here as well, a legacy from my grandfather. I think of model trains as a lifetime gift (as long as they aren't cheap trains that get broken).

  7. My family does do gift giving. We always have. As I am the only child, and the first grandchild to three separate sets of grandparents, I received a lot of gifts throughout my childhood. My mom grew up in poverty and as such, made me feel the value in the items I had. I was never sad or disheartened to get rid of an item I no longer used. I simply hoped not to hurt the feelings of whomever gave me the item. I did pass down items in the family, and to friends of the family, and to various organizations (Salvation Army, etc.) in the area.

    I am not a big fan of gifts for adults. My larger family is doing a one gift policy-everyone's names in a hat, purchase for one person only. I received my aunt and I am making her a quilt. For the kids, I downright refuse to give them "television toys" (Barbies, Transformers, Spiderman, etc.). I get each of my cousins (7, 5, 5, 3, and 2) a new book, specially picked out for them and a small toy. Last year the small toy was a large slinky each (regular $6.99, on sale for $1.00). I feel that it is important to share with others but that we do not need to work ourselves out of house and home for special days!

  8. Frugal parents need to remember that kids' self-worth is closely attached to their parent's investment in them, whether it is time, education, affection, and yes even money. I was horrified to read the above exchange you had and wanted to warn the lady you were talking to that someday she'll see the damage she was doing to her children. :( I say, celebrate life. We are frugal so we can give our kids the best this life has to offer.

    1. Absolutely! One reason we have returned to the frugality of our early years is the desire to support our children in competitive cycling. We are certainly pouring in the time, education (homeschool), affection, and yes money, but we are also teaching the kids that choices must be made as to how to spend money because we can't do and have everything we want.

    2. I am having trouble understanding what was so horrifying about this exchange. The person stated that they buy things for their children, just throughout the year instead of for birthdays. The person also threw a party for their children. It might not have been an expensive party, but any party for a preschool age child is quite an exciting and memorable event and makes a kid feel really special. As far as not giving gifts specifically for a birthday, I see that as a reasonable family choice. If the kids don't expect it, then they won't be disappointed by not receiving a glut of presents. In fact, I think that not receiving birthday presents may be preferable to the tradition of huge birthday parties for young kids where they get so many presents that they stop appreciating them and that other kids at the birthday party have to sadly watch as the gift they helped pick out is quickly tossed aside by the birthday child in order to see what the next box holds.
      As the children in this family get older, the parents may find that birthday gifts make sense. Or maybe they never will. Every family is different and, as long as the parents meet the children's needs and provide them with plenty of attention and love, the children will probably be none the worse for wear for it.

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