I throw gift-free birthday parties for my kids – and no, they don’t hate me (yet)

My kids give me gifts every single day (and I’m not being sentimental here). Yes their very existence is a gift, but they also give me literal gifts every day.

Whether it’s a piece of paper scrawled with the word LOVE, an unidentifiable hunk of playdough or a Lego/magnetic tile/block creation, they’re gifts, and their subtext is clear: I made this for you Mummy: Because I love you, because I think you are wonderful.

They’ve obviously picked up, from a very young age, that gift giving is part of our culture. A way to say all the things we might not be able to say with words: I love you, I miss you, I hope this helps you heal, you matter to me.

And while this sentiment, at its core, is lovely: It’s time to rethink what and how we buy things, because our planet cannot sustain the waste created by gift giving.

In Canada, 545,000 tonnes of waste is generated from giftwrapping and shopping bags each year. Canadians use six million rolls of tape to wrap Christmas presents every year.

And that’s just the wrapping.

The biggest offender? Plastic. Canada recycles just nine per cent of its plastics with the rest dumped in landfill and incinerators or tossed away as litter. The majority of plastic waste comes from packaging for products (including children’s toys).

And what is the most likely $10 or $15 gift kids will receive as a birthday party gift? A plastic toy, packaged in plastic and festooned with brightly-coloured wrapping paper (which is often not recyclable either).

So, yes, I throw gift-free birthday parties. And I don’t feel bad about it. In the past, we’ve used Echoage, an online invite which includes an option to gift money to split between the recipient and their chosen charity (we chose Environmental Defence). We’ve also done a vegetarian potluck in the park, and asked each family to bring a kid-friendly snack instead of gifts. People are generally on board, and my kids don’t even notice partly because they’re young, and partly because they still get (thrifted) gifts from us.

Yes, my kids are only three of the humans on this Earth. But I like to believe that it makes a difference to opt out of the gift part of parties. Here’s what I want them to know: Parties aren’t about the gifts. They’re about being together with friends, enjoying each other’s company, playing together (OK and also a little about the cake).

I also want this message to be super clear: It is OK to not have everything we want. It’s even more OK to not have all the things we didn’t even know we wanted.

Especially when those things are ending up in the landfill at an alarming rate.

What about birthday party giving? With three kids, we’re on track to be at a birthday party every other weekend once they’re all in school. It’s possible to give a budget-friendly gift that kids will love and is also eco-friendly. Some things we’ve gifted in the past are homemade playdough with secondhand cookie cutters, an eco-friendly journal with soy or beeswax crayons, a book, or seeds with a thrifted plant pot and shovel.

But my favourite thing to gift is experiences. Studies show that experiences result in longer-lasting happiness than material goods. Over time, people’s satisfaction with the things they buy decreases, whereas their satisfaction with experiences over time increases. We’ve gifted snow tubing passes, movie tickets, passes to Treetop Trekking, Science Centre memberships, TIFF Kids tickets and Centreville coupons.

In a world where we seem to gift trinkets on every occasion, let’s collectively choose to value experiences instead. Let’s all agree that kids don’t actually need, want or ultimately respond well to having that much excess piled on them.

We don’t need another superhero figure or doll or insert-name-of-random-crappy-fad-toy-here.

It won’t make us happy. It’s not what’s important.

What we do need: Connection to nature and community and a shared hope and vision for a world that does not turn into a dumpster fire before our eyes.

I know what you’re thinking: She must be SUPER fun at parties.

Well, I’m fun at gift-free, vegetarian potluck birthday parties with vegan cake, at least.

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