Instead of Birthday Presents

Instead of Birthday Presents- how (and why) our family has started a tradition of celebrating without giftsInstead of birthday presents for my kids, I asked my Mom if she would consider an alternative. This was the start of a fun family tradition that we call the “birthday experience”.

By the time my first two kids were toddlers it occurred to me that we needed to rethink the amount of toys that were coming into the house. Between birthdays, holidays, goody bags from parties, and the occasional kids meal prize, we were drowning in stuff. I was donating bags to the thrift store, and we were having conflicts over keeping their spaces picked up. But the worst is that they were just getting bored. The toys were not appreciated or cared for.

I remembered the stories my Mom told about her Grandmother taking her downtown to a tea room, teaching her manners, passing on special little pieces of jewelry, and speaking purpose into her life when she was a child. So I asked my Mom if she would consider an alternative instead of birthday presents: the gift of time.

with Mippi and Poppi

We came up with the idea of a “birthday experience” with each grandchild. At the time, my sister and I had only two young ones each. Even then, getting one on one with each child allowed her to experience a different side of them than the busy and loud family get togethers with all of the kids.instead of birthday presents

Since there are a dozen grandkids now, that special one-on-one day is something that both she and the kids really cherish. Mom still does a modest gift to celebrate their birthdays, but they both look forward most to their birthday experience day.

The Birthday Experience

It usually goes down something like this:

Mippi and Poppi arrive to pick up the birthday child, who has already been asked what they’d like for dinner.

On the way to Mippi’s house, they swing by the grocery store, and Mippi buys them ridiculous amounts of junk food including: a dessert for that night, movie treats, and (most anticipated) a box of their favorite junky sugar cereal. Any leftovers are send home with the child and are “shared” (aka used as powerful bargaining agents for the next few days with siblings).

playing games

After their special dinner, they watch a movie or play a game.

baking together

The next day, after a big fun breakfast they choose something special to do together. They’ve done all sorts of fun stuff like going swimming in the lake, learning to drive a golf cart, having a special tea party, going horseback riding, taking a trip to the American Girl store, or having a pedicure. The boys have built junk hovercrafts, put together a model vehicle or airplane, gone to an air show, gone fishing or hiking, gotten ice cream, and toured cool junkyards.

All the while, Mom snaps lots of photos, and then she compiles them into a Birthday Book so the memories can be enjoyed again and again.IMG_2422

I’m so, so thankful to live close to both sets of grandparents, and for the blessing of having them in our lives to make these special memories. Even if you don’t have grandchildren that live close, I’d encourage you to make time with them one on one as you can, and soak up those times together.


What’s something special that you do one on one with each child in your life to make memories? Do you have special memories of time with your grandparents?

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  1. Deborah says

    Excellent ideas. We are going to try to do more of these. I would love to have suggestions of what to do when you are not living close. We have 4 grandchildren close, but we have 2 that we are 14 hrs from & see only once or twice a year.
    Thank you for all your tips & recipes.

    • says

      Hi Deborah! It’s tougher when the kids are further away. I think anything you can do to connect with them in a way that’s fun for them and that allows you to pick up on and encourage their natural strengths is a great idea. Of course, when they are with you, set aside one on one time. What ages? There are so many ways to connect now even with distance.

      You could have a one on one Skype date! Plan ahead with the parent for a surprise date/time, and send some $ so Mom or Dad can pick up their favorite milkshake on the way home…then surprise the child with a Skype date with you. :) Find out their favorite game…if it’s something you’d enjoy see if they want to play it with you? The key thing is finding ways of connecting that they enjoy, and that foster conversation and sharing. Maybe trade best jokes each week, and write them down and make a book at the end of the year? If you’ve got a writer, an artist, or a budding photographer, encourage them by asking for drawings…see if they want an assignment. (Sometimes that challenge is really fun for creative kids!)

      HTH! Maybe our readers have more fun ideas. :)

  2. Cheryl S. says

    I love this idea and it makes it so much more special. Our little gran child is only 1 but we will look forward to beginning this tradition when she turns 2 in January.

  3. Cindy Litchfield says

    Wonderful idea. My son-in-law’s sister and brother in law do this with my twin 11 year old grandsons. This year they are going to a heavy metal concert at the Meadowbrook in NH. Not my choice…but not my present !!!

  4. Conney Keel says

    Our “newer” son-in-law brought 2 boys and a girl into our grand-parenting equation. He always requests experiences over things. Each child under 10 still gets a small “thing”, but this year at Christmas we were blessed to have them all (5 adults, 8 grands) come over. Since it’s a long travel by car or plane, we recognized the gift we were given! This year, the menfolk were in charge of the red meat for our meal. Grandma (me) and all the womenfolk and kiddos went to my friend’s house. She led us all in making stepping stones for my landscaping. It was quite a fun time for all! Some wanted to take theirs home, but had to make do with pictures over FaceBook. I will always treasure those stones, and the memories of these precious children.

  5. Mrs. Right says

    I remember the years when my grandparents took my sister and I shopping for Easter. We went to one of the “big cities” to buy a complete Easter outfit: dress, slip, socks, hat, etc. They also took us to the zoo, and I remember one time we spent the night in a hotel on the waterfront.

    When I had children, I encouraged activities, memberships to zoos/museums, and handmade cards from friends, rather than more toys.

    We don’t have any grandchildren just yet, but I hope when the time comes we’ll be able to have time together, rather than sending “stuff”.

  6. patti says

    I love this, Gwen! What a fantastic way to build their relationship with grandparents! Our kid’s grandparents are gone now and I really miss the times they had with them. I love love love this tradition.

  7. Niki C says

    We lost my precious mother in law two years ago this month. This was something she did with each grandchild, and the photos and memories are so special to my children. I am so thankful to have had such a godly woman in our lives!

  8. N says

    We have special time for birthdays. My husband takes our daughter out to the train park to play, then gets a special lunch, then off to buy her birthday dress, finally they stop for a gourmet cupcake on the way home. My daughter talks about her birthday day with dad all year round. I’m developing a similar routine for my son.

  9. Karrie Smith says

    I saw them playing Settlers which is something we do when family gathers. We have a “child’s name” day each month. It’s sometimes a big day/date with mom and dad but other times it’s a movie and what they pick for dinner type day. We celebrate it on the day of their birth each month (i.e.- my oldest born Feb 21st, we celebrate him the 21st of each month).