Thinking Outside the Gift Box

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We all know the typical kids birthday party drill: balloons, cake, unbridled enthusiasm (aka “the crazy”) and, of course, presents. Lots of them.

I’m not sure why present-opening is such an entrenched American tradition. You’d think the forefathers wrote in the Declaration of Independence: “And on each birthday, each child shall receive more toys than he or she could ever use in the span of a lifetime, let alone one year.” My friend Angela is from England and said the grand present-opening ceremony is not part of the birthday tradition over there. (Like I needed another reason to envy the Brits… their Downton Abbey, their accents, and now this.)

In recent years, I’ve tried to modify the birthday present tradition by asking party-goers to bring no presents or homemade/recycled presents… I’d love to say that this solved the too-much-toys problem, but it never really works.  The bottom line is: people want to give kids birthday gifts.  And if I’m being honest, so do I. It feels strange to go to a kid’s birthday party without a gift, and the times I’ve adhered to a “No Gifts” request, I inevitably feel guilty because others don’t. It’s a lose-lose.

So this year, I took a different tack. Partially because my triplets’ birthday was sandwiched between two vacation weeks but mostly because I’m always trying to combat the birthday toy glut, I decided to pursue the “birthday experience” route. I told them we were going on a “Birthday Adventure” and they wouldn’t know the destination until their birthday.

I’m a big fan of experience presents. My favorite Christmas gift from my husband (which I request every year) is a series of date nights. He plans a monthly date for the few months following Christmas and all I have to do is show up. We’ve gone to the ballet, philharmonic, stand-up comedy. It doesn’t matter what we do. It’s quality couple time away from the kids and I don’t have to do any leg work!

So on July 15th, my brand-spankin’-new 6-year-olds woke up, eager to start the adventure. I revealed the big surprise: a day at King’s Island with one of their favorite friends. They were thrilled!

Who wouldn’t be thrilled? They were almost eaten by a dinosaur on their birthday!
Ready for more thrills with their best bud, Charlotte. (And Charlotte’s mom, who thankfully rode this spintastic ride with them so I wouldn’t commemorate my kids’ birthday by vomiting.)

It was everything a day at a midwestern amusement park should be: fun, long, hot, exhausting, filled with interminable lines and fellow park-goers in questionable attire. When we got home, we had cake, a few gifts (yes, including some toys – each kid received about two small toys in addition to a new backpack for school and a fishing pole) and the birthday was a wrap. Simple. No mountains of new toys for which to find homes, no guilty or anxious feelings about getting too much stuff.

The next day, while they played with their new loot (and truly, it was amazing how long they each played with only two new toys each!), I asked them: “Since you got some new toys yesterday, why don’t you pick out some old toys you don’t play with anymore to give to kids who don’t have any toys?”  Without a single question or protest, they each found a few items to give away. I didn’t question their choices. I didn’t make sure the number of donations matched the number of new items. I just put their offerings in our donation box and left it at that. I think this is key: donating unused and unloved items must become a normal, everyday experience if kids are going to continue this habit throughout life. 

I think this is why so many of us have a hard time letting go of things as adults. We were never taught to donate on a regular basis. It was a special occasion type lesson, reserved for moving days, new school years, and heading off to college. If we integrate a regular donating lesson into our kids’ lives, they will learn that letting go of things is natural, normal, and nothing to get anxious about.

This is why keeping a constant donation box in the home is my #1 tip for keeping your home uncluttered. In fact, it was the first thing I did when I started minimizing and I’m eternally grateful for it. I used to make large trips to the Goodwill maybe once per year or when I could no longer stand the mess. Now I stop by the Goodwill every month or two, taking a box here or there. Large once-in-a-lifetime donation sessions are the crash diets of organizing – sure, they’ll work for the short-term, but if you really want to keep an uncluttered, minimized, peaceful home, you need to declutter regularly. For example, just last night, as I was unpacking my suitcase from our recent beach vacation, I put two shirts into the donation box. I had even worn one on the vacation, but realized while wearing it that I no longer loved it. Goodbye!

I hope I’ve inspired you to think outside the gift box when it comes to presents for yourself and your loved ones. I would love to hear some of your best ideas for non-clutter gifts!

I also hope you have a donation box somewhere in your house. If you don’t, get up and start one right now! It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t even have to be a box.  A simple trash bag will do!

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