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The Problem with Pirate Treasure: Should Party Presents Be Money?

At our house, there’s a birthday coming down the pipe. For months now, the birthday-boy-to-be has been telling everyone that he’s five-and-three-quarters (!!).

You know what this means. The Birthday Party Planning Machine is speeding ahead full throttle.

Photo courtesy of Calsidyrose


You want to get a whole roomful of parents worked up and foaming at the mouth? Talk birthday parties.

Gone, it seems, are the jolly old days when eight kids got thrown in a basement rec room with boiled hot dogs and three balloons, and LIKED it. Pity.

Today, birthday parties are a political minefield of choices about inclusion and consumerism and identity and obligation. And they get pricey fast. Not to mention require the organizational skills of an event-planning ninja.

Birthday parties are an industry now: with rented venues and entertainment and activities for hire. They have themes, and de rigeur loot bags, and in the elementary-school years there’s a trend toward huge gaggles of children converging on the chosen space. Expecting Fun with a capital F.

Yeh. As a mother, the whole prospect gives me a bit of a capital F, myself. Ahem.

In other words, they give me hives.

But, let’s face it, birthday parties are not about me. They’re about the kids.

And my kid? His enthusiasm about his birthday party is a beautiful thing. So I suck it up and muddle through playing the part of Birthday Party Planning Machine every year. I even – kinda – like it. Because his excitement is catching and his delight palpable.

He’d like a pirate theme. He’d like a pinata. Can do, kiddo.

He’d like a skull & crossbones cake. I’m thinking this one: I used fondant for the first time for my daughter’s third birthday last fall and the result was relatively cute and civilized.

Photo courtesy of Meringue Bakeshop

He’d like to have the shindig at our house, because our new place has a huge backyard, and so I am petitioning all the gods for decent mid-April weather and calling that easy-peasy. And cheap. Pirates don’t mind a bit of mud, after all, right? Especially if they’re hunting for treasure?


He’d also like to invite his whole kindergarten class.


Sure, it’s a grand idea. Nobody gets left out, which suits the messages we’re trying to impart at this age.

But fifteen tiny pirates means a whole lotta loot.

My children usually get one big present from us for their birthdays. They also have three sets of generous grandparents, plus aunts and uncles and family friends who tend to send something their way. They’re lucky.

Even if they never had a single birthday party, they’d be rolling in about ten brand new toys every time the calendar turned. That’s a lot of new stuff. A lot of packaging. A lot of wrapping paper in the wastebin. And a lot of sensory overload: even Mr. Five-and-three-quarters (!!) got overwhelmed after about Present Number Eight last Christmas.

Add in fifteen extra party toys on top of that and you’ve got a lot of excess on every front, in a life where we’re ostensibly trying to minimize excess.

What’s a Birthday Party Planning Machine to do?

Last week, a post on money guru Gail Vaz Oxlade’s site raised the issue of birthday invitations that come with a link to a site where you both RSVP and offer a credit card donation, part of which goes to charity and part to fund a present of the child’s choice.

The response in the comments was varied, but the level of vitriol took me by surprise. Some people are straight-up Capital O Offended by the idea.

And me, I’m puzzled.

I get not wanting to be asked for your credit card, sure. There’s something about it that reeks of transaction rather than relationships.


Let’s be honest. The presents part of parties is a more or less obligatory form of social grooming anyway. The present stands in as a symbol of the giver’s fondness for the recipient. The origins of the practice go WAAAAY back to a time when the gifts – which were usually handmade, practical, and often consumable – served to offset some of the expense and burden of actually throwing the shindig. It’s a social practice based in scarcity.

So in a world grappling with excess, does more excess do anything to actually foster the sort of equitable redistribution that gift-giving once served? Or is it possible to redirect some of the excess to places in society where scarcity is still a very real challenge?

And is that offensive? What do you think? If gifts are a symbolic exchange, does openly converting them to the vulgarity of money make you uncomfortable?

Last spring, we attended the party of a five-year-old friend who asked for donations to the local Humane Society instead of gifts. We gave her a card and a ten-dollar bill. I didn’t need to run around town for a gift, or worry that she already had whatever we chose, or fret over whether Plastic Toy A really properly represented this little girl and our feelings for her. A card. A picture inside, drawn specifically for her. And ten bucks to go towards the cats and dogs she happens to adore.

I didn’t think it was offensive. I thought it was awesome. And so did my young pirate.

Until I read the post, we had thought we might go this route.

A treasure box at the door to collect (small) donations of coins, if people were willing to play along. No credit cards. The kids could help scoop and tally them up at the end, and we’d make sure both kids and parents knew where the gifts were going.  A picture of all the little pirates would accompany the donation. Chocolate coins for take-home loot bags, for my kids and all the guests. And the birthday boy’d still get to rip open his pile of family gifts when the festivities were all over.

Now I’m not sure. The Birthday Party Planning Machine has ground to an uncertain halt. I don’t want to offend people, seriously. I just want the kids to have fun and my birthday party hives to go away.

AAARGH, mateys.

What do you think we should do?

How would you word the invitation to cause the least kerfuffle? And would you ever consider asking for donations instead of presents? Why or why not?





Twitter: @bonstewart Life blog: Theory blog:

18 Responses to “The Problem with Pirate Treasure: Should Party Presents Be Money?”


I think asking for a donation to charity in lieu of a gift is fine, and i wouldn’t be offended. but, for us, picking out presents is a lesson in generosity for my children. they always get to help pick it out, and in the process we examine how well we know the person, things we’d like to get to know about them , and we try to understand their friend’s likes and dislikes. we also talk about buying meaningful gifts fro local stores (if possible) and why that is important. when my children receive gifts it allows them to practice gratitude, work on thank you etiquette, and sharing. i don’t think “stuff” is inherently bad especially if life lessons accompany the gift in both directions. for some families (many that we know currently) the gifts they receive still fall into the realm of necessity. i know people who depend on birthday gifts for their child’s school clothes, for example. i know others that put cash received into college funds. i think it can be complicated, but we try to give and receive gifts with grace, and we use the process to teach our children many important things.



ps–i think putting out our family charity collection jar at the next party is a great idea!



I love it! I seriously love buying gifts for people more than anything, but when it comes to kids and bday parties? Hate. I don’t know them, so I can’t pick well and I have no idea what they have at home.
As a parent, if an invite came with “in lieu of gifts for the birthday boy, he requests a donation of any size be made to x charity” I would be beyond thrilled. Not only because no wasteful junk, but how great a lesson for everyone!!



I am still the kid….I want the loot…and if you’re going to the Humane Society I want the puppy too….



You can’t please everyone all the time. We did donations to Sick Kids for my 7yo’s birthday last year. Some donated online, some brought cash. I only heard positive feedback. Nearly all the kids brought homemade cards. It was awesome.

We always have parties at home and truly I think the kids have more fun. And I find it easier to feed kids, the food is out, they play they eat, repeat.



I love pirate parties…we once used two oversized appliance boxes to make a pirate ship for the kids to play in, drawing a shark along the side the stern…kids still talk about it, ok by kids I mean, me!
As for the idea of donation in lieu of gifts, I think the idea is brilliant. Does it always work? Nope. I have seen parties where people bring donation AND a gift. Or others where the child regrets the decision and cries as she opened the cards. That said, if my kids supported the decision (to be honest I never attempted) I would be all over this. as Angela pointed out, I think this would work very well with the much younger set and then again in the teens. I’ve got a year to go, ack!! Thanks for articulating this so well – I was really surprised by the negative feedback to this idea on the original post and hope this offers a fresh perspective to others.


angela ( angfromthedock )

I have kept thinking about this topic this week. I have been through the birthday party hoopla already with my teen and tween and have definite, real life experience on what worked for us and what did not. and now? with the 3 year old already talking about his birthday party…at the end of august…i remember why this brings about so many different feelings.

parents do not want to disappoint their kids on their birthdays. it is the one day a year that it is all about that child.

okay, i get that, but it is not true. it is a birthday, everyone has them. it is fun, it is special for that child…but it is not the end all and be all of the world. i have become jaded over the years i fear. the number of birthday party breakdowns i have witnessed, inevitably around gift opening time or candle blowing out time, number more than the fingers and toes i have. i just do not want to do that any more. it is not fun for the birthday kid, it is not fun for the little guests.

certain ages require more finesse than others – the 1- 3 crowd? easily pleased and distractable. and usually where the oversized birthdays begin. when it is least needed, but most easily accomplished. false security parents, false security.
this does not work with the 4-9 crowd. this age group LOVES their parties, the excitement, the buildup, the chaos…the all about it being all about them. nothing wrong with this, it is where they are at.
after 10, kids become a little more chill for the most part. less full class invites, smaller, more personal party ideas, more able to comprehend the chance to make change with their choices. the perfect age for socially conscious giving decisions:).
all that said? i LOVE the charity gift idea. LOVE IT. and i have used it both successfully and unsuccessfully. worked at 3, with my first boy, with books donations going to the library of a less that well funded local school. it did not work at 6 with my girl. we got donations and unasked for gifts. the ironic thing? i was more heavily criticized at the 3 yr old party ( how can you take away his chance to get gifts given by his friends???? yeah…you mean bought last minute at walmart on the way to the party? the 97 cent bows are a give away. i know, i have done it) than the 6 year old party, where the parents actually put out more money with their choice to give double…but where the parents and kids felt good about giving all around. go figure.

so what would i do? i would word “please bring a small donation for the pirate chest with all gold doubloons going to the xxxxxxxx charity chosen by ( your child’s name here) in lieu of gift. gifts appreciated but not necessary at this pirate party.” – and then allow the guest to decide.

i think teaching children how to give and receive is extremely important and that learning and sharing can happen even on a birthday day. it starts young and continues…my teen and tween now? not damaged one bit by my attempts ( failed and successful ) at charity birthday parties and they have grown into big kids that *get* it and now love the giving idea.



I think that, as you present the party idea, it’s brilliant. The idea of asking for a credit card leaves me cold, and I definitely see a big difference between asking for money towards a charity and a fund towards getting the kid’s preferred gift.


Bonnie Stewart

Thanks for the input & feedback, everybody. I think we’ll try it. In the “no gifts, please but if you’d like to bring a few loonies for the treasure box, Oscar wants to make a donation to x in lieu of party presents.”

“x” will be his choice, but the only charities he currently knows about are Big Brothers Big Sisters, the local food bank, the Humane Society, and Heifer, where we give chickens to people at Christmastime. If people aren’t comfortable with his choice among those options – or cash is an issue – I’ll make sure the treasure box is set up so it’s not a big noticeable deal if people don’t contribute.

Definitely don’t want to make people feel more obliged than they already would with the usual present stuff.

Definitely don’t want to make people feel guilty, either.

Just want to figure out what will work outside the same-old, same-old. At least this discussion starts that engine…again, thanks much.

(Also…thank you cards. O is just now able to write, so we’ll do thank you cards for family gifts this year. Agree that practicing gratitude is important. Also very happy not to have to supervise fifteen extra thank yous. Blush. Lazy mother…we all get weary somewhere.)


Pam @writewrds

I think the treasure box for donations is a great idea. Might actually be a relief for parents not to have to go out and get a gift. We had a pirate party one year and it was a blast. The kids had a lot of fun. (Me too.) (I did a wee treasure hunt in the backyard with clues, although these kids might be a little young for that.)



This is brilliant! We are over run by toys in our house, and actually never even had a birthday party for my five year old this winter because I just could not deal with another useless toy. It sounds cold but he got enough with presents from Mom, Dad and Grandparents, not to mention the tropical vacation we just got home from. Toys and other belongings are starting to get in the way of building relastionships by obbessing with material objects.



We have been to a couple different “twoonie” parties where you bring 2 toonies and one goes to the charity of the child’s choice and the other goes towards the purchase of a gift that the kid picks out for themselves. I love it, we are definitely dong it for my 5 andthreequarters son ‘s next party!!



it was actually my granddaughter who, several years ago (around her 7th birthday i think?) that said ‘grandma i told all my friends not to buy me any gifts this year because i already have so much and i would like them to buy something for someone who doesn’t have as much as i do’. out of the mouths of babes as they say…


Anne Bengtson

I love the idea of donations instead of gifts! My daughter and 2 of her classmates all turned 8 just before thanksgiving this year. We had a BIG party at our local roller skating rink for all 3 of them and invited both 2nd grade classes (60ish kids). In lieu of a gift for each of the girls we asked that they have their kid pick out a gift that we would collect at the party and then donate to toys for tots. Everyone loved the idea and our girls learned a great deal about helping those less fortunate (and we didn’t have to take 60 new small plastic toys home to be forgotten about in roughly a month when Christmas came around.

The parents that we involved with this particular party all loved the charity part of it. No one was offended at all and the kids had so much fun rollerskating! It was a fantastic way to celebrate 3 fantastic kids!


Angela Blattmann

I love the idea of a toonie party! My son gets so excited when he watches the gift openings at other kids parties that I’d hate to completely take away the idea that he’ll get a nice gift at HIS party too, but allowing him to collect all the money so he can buy his own might just work. Gift opening time is always so chaotic! Present open. NEXT. Repeat. And so much waste.



Sorry but asking for gifts, announcing (unasked) you don’t want gifts, and requesting donations are all absolutely 100% inappropriate. Sadly we live in a gimmie society where people feel all of this is okay. And I’m not sure where you got the information that gifts used to be given to offset the costs to host, but this is untrue. Sure some cultures gave wedding gifts but they had nothing to do with paying back the hosts, and individual birthday celebrations are a relatively new concept. I highly recommend you visit where this exact topic has been discussed more than once.



    Kool Chicken, etiquette is all about local customs and what is done and expected in particular environments. In our particular environment, gifts are always part of children’s parties: like them or no, they are assumed to be part of the social contract. Failing to understand this would be a far greater breach of etiquette than assuming it.

    In our particular locale, luckily, there is a growing custom, accepted within the mainstream, of asking for donations to a particular charity in lieu of gifts or flowers at occasions where these are commonplace. There is no overt obligation on anyone to give anything, as there wasn’t in the party invitation I sent. This isn’t about gimme culture but actually about trying to displace the un-thought-through habits OF gimme culture, and saying actually, I’m good, thanks. It’s to free people of the obligations of gimme culture, which have become symbolic.

    I’d be interested in your very authoritative sources about what wedding gifts ARE for. Certainly, again, in our local etiquette, historians have recorded the practice as described.


I hope you went through with the treasure chest idea. That’s brilliant! My daughter is only 18 months old, but we’ve been invited to birthday parties for our friends’ babies and toddlers. Today I just could not go to a party because I could not afford to buy a gift. (Seriously, we have $15 for groceries for the next week and a half.) This friend is a relatively new one, and I didn’t know if it would be okay to come without a gift, and I really didn’t want to bring up our family’s current financial situation, so we just didn’t go. I would have loved to have celebrated this child’s birthday with our new friends, but just couldn’t do it. I dread asking people to come to our daughter’s celebrations in the future, because I don’t want people to have the same quandary that I had today.


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