🎡What Do You Mean🎡

An Etiquette Expert Unpacks What "No Gifts" Really Means On A Kid's Birthday Party Invitation

Can you actually send your kid empty-handed?

Written by Elizabeth Narins
A child unwraps a gift at a birthday celebration.
Ippei Naoi/Getty Images

It's been on the last two birthday party invitations I've sent (and the past five I've received): "No gifts, please!" Nevertheless, I β€” very gratefully β€” went home from my kid's last celebration with more presents than I could carry. And you bet I buy a gift for every other birthday boy and girl, regardless of invitation instructions. (How can I not?!)

Why do we bother going through the motions of telling birthday party guests to arrive giftless when the majority of us don't seem to listen? I asked etiquette expert Dr. Sarah Davis, EED, co-author of Modern Manners for Moms and Dads: Practical Parenting Advice for Sticky Social Situations, about this peculiar trend.

While some families want to be more intentional about the kinds of toys they bring into their homes, Davis tells me, others favor minimalism (yep), despise plastic (deeply), or identify with all of the above (YES).

And then, of course, there are the issues of space and toy duplicates. "I just did this for my 4-year-old's birthday," Dr. Davis says of dictating "no gifts" herself. "He's a fourth child; he doesn't need anything."

Other parents request no gifts to be considerate of families who might not have the budget to buy presents for every one of their kid's classmates: "They'd rather everyone show up at the party and feel comfortable," she says.

The thing is, doling out a directive to skip birthday gifts can set the stage for even more discomfort should certain parents β€” ahem β€” go rogue and purchase presents anyway.

And speaking of discomfort: I've got it, regardless. It's not that my toddler wouldn't love a slew of new toys for his birthday or that I want his big day to be joyless. I just don't want my friends β€” let alone other parents I don't know super well β€” to feel they have to, like, pay cover for attending my kid's low-key park party.

Why can't we just... follow directions?

When I was a kid, my mom sent me to casual sleepovers with wrapped presents for the host. Now, the thought of showing up to a kid's birthday party with nothing makes my skin absolutely crawl.

Dr. Davis says this is because I'm the type of parent who puts societal norms above all else, sorry-not-sorry. (She's developed a whole parenting personality test, FWIW.) So, how do I fight the urge?

Turns out, I don't really have to. "No gifts please" doesn't mean you have to show up empty-handed, after all. No matter what an invitation says, Davis tells me, you should always bring a card. And you'll get extra points if your kids hand-make it. If you want to slip a gift card in, go for it, she says. Sure beats a box that's bigger than the birthday boy.

If a measly card doesn't feel like enough to warrant your kid eating a host out of house and home and maybe even blowing out the birthday girl's candles (just my kid?), Davis says you can also bring a little something for the host, such as flowers β€” but only if they're hosting at home. Alternatively, at drop-off parties, you can offer to stick around to provide extra eyes on the kids. That's it. That's the gift.

If babysitting doesn't suit you and the party is held elsewhere, she says it's best to heed the host's wishes.

That said, Davis wouldn't go so far as to call a guest "rude" if they decided to bring a box or a bag anyhow. If you must, bring "something thoughtful but not too extravagant," she says. If it's your kid's best friend or your best friend's kid, and you want to get them something bigger, just run it by their parents first. Also, consider dropping it off before or after the party so other guests won't feel stupid for following the host's directions.

Other FAQs

What's the difference between "no gifts necessary" vs. "no gifts please"?

No matter how it's worded, when a host asks guests to forgo gifts, you're off the hook! You don't have to bring one. When you're the one writing the mandate, Davis likes a friendly tone rather than an order. (Try: "Your presence is present enough.”)

Should I bring a gift for a kid who didn't bring one to my kid's "no gifts please" party?

Davis considers your child's birthday party and their friend's celebration two separate events. "Unless the invitation says 'no gift please,' bring a gift," she says, regardless of their gift-giving record.

Should I bring a gift to a "no gifts please" party when the birthday kid brought one to my kid's "no gifts please" party?

Dr. Davis takes a sec to do the math here. "That's up to you," she determines. "Do what you feel is right and makes you comfortable."

The Bottom Line

If an invitation says not to bring a gift, you genuinely don't have to bring one β€” but you can. If you feel the undying urge to wrap and deliver a thing, go for it, but keep it reasonable and consider running the gift by the hosts first.