The Charity Birthday Party

by admin on January 19, 2012

A few years ago my Mother-in-law read an article in a national magazine that suggested children request donations for charity instead of gifts at birthday parties. MIL thought this was a wonderful idea and proceeded to press the issue with me, suggesting that I do this for my children’s parties. She says that kids these days get too much stuff.

My two youngest children (5 and 8) have birthdays just a few weeks apart. Every year we plan a modest party for each where they can invite a few friends (usually five or six), play some games, have some treats, and celebrate. Each year I nod and smile at her suggestion and then we do our own thing. This year she is very insistent, sending emails and articles about teaching kids to be community minded and generous. Just this week she brought it up in front of my future sister-in-law after she asked about the kids birthday’s this year. I’d had enough. I told MIL that  I thought it was a terrible idea and that we would not be doing it this year, or ever.

Now I feel an ogre for shutting down the charity idea. I mean, who doesn’t want to give to charity? But I have so many problems with this.

1)      We have birthday parties to celebrate the occasion with friends. If they choose to bring gifts, that is a nice gesture on their part. I don’t want to ask them to bring anything, and certainly not to bring money to a charity of our choosing. They may not even support this hypothetical charity.

2)      How much does one give at a “charity party” (that term even squicks me out). You can buy a nice, simple gift for under $5.00. I don’t like knowing what someone is giving, and I don’t like putting them in the position of having to give more than they can afford because they feel they should.

3)       There are plenty of opportunities to teach our children about generosity. They take part in food bank drives, donate gently used clothes, books and toys, and buy toys for the toy drive at Christmas. And giving does not always involve money. We can be generous with our time. Both my husband and I volunteer in the community and the kids see this and sometimes take part. Birthday parties don’t need to be part of this learning experience.

4)      Finally, our kids don’t get a lot of stuff. We are not the kind of parents who spend unnecessarily. New toys are restricted to special occasions. I don’t think it’s a bad thing for the kids to get a few new toys and treats from their friends at birthdays. They certainly enjoy picking out gifts to give their friends. It’s a two way thing.

Still, a part of me feels like a gimmie pig for saying no. Is there something in the big book of etiquette that says parties should not be used for charity?   1107-11

There are parties hosted all the time that are used for charity.  They are called fundraisers.   There is nothing inherently wrong with hosting a party in which the main objective is to raise funds for one’s favorite charity.   MIL’s problem is that she is insistent on hijacking her grandchildren’s birthday parties in order to have a different theme than one would expect from a birthday celebration. It is commendable to teach children to be generous and charitable but MIL had her chance to raise her children to have the values she wanted to instill in them and if she made a mistake, do-overs with the grandkids are not appropriate.

If MIL is that concerned for the moral character development of her grandkids,  MIL should be setting the example for them by doing charitable work and community service and taking them along with her to learn it firsthand and by observation.

{ 74 comments… read them below or add one }

Jojo January 19, 2012 at 10:18 am

I can’t understand why MIL can’t just give a charity gift on behalf of the children? She’s showing them that she’s doing something on their behalf for the good of others and everyone can still enjoy a piece of cake and some brightly coloured plastic. Win-win situation for everyone.
I completely agree with admin that hi-jacking a child’s birthday for your own agenda is inappropriate. Personally, I’d throw a massive joint party for both children somewhere very big and expensive this year. MIL will have to watch her grandchildren having the time of their lives and it will be an excellent reminder that the way OP does things it actually very reasonable and a great deal less decadent than many parents.

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kelly January 19, 2012 at 10:19 am

We have a simila rissue a lot in the UK with Oxfams christmas gift. basicly instead of donating in your own name normally, you wait until Christmas and then make a donation in the form of buying a goat for a farm in africa, shcoolbooks for a school in Peru etc, as a gift for another person. It is a nice idea in theory, and I think this sort of thing could be fun for adults who do nto know what to get each other, work secret santas etc, If, and only IF everyone agrees. My issue is with people who happily accept gifts from others and then hand over a card saying they have brough a pile of manure for a farm in Uganda as a gift to the person and then sit back smiling sanctamoniously. The end result is that they are the ones who get the gift as they get the credit, and the nice feel good glow and expect everyone to praise them for their generous idea. If they want to be generous then they shoudl ask for these donations as their own gifts, which they never do.
However in this case perhaps getting the MIl a pile of manure for a farm somewhere for her next birthday gift might be a good idea as she is so keen to have others do the same.

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Powers January 19, 2012 at 10:21 am

Kids who do this (at least, when they do it voluntarily) often get their names in the newspaper. I wonder if publicity is a driving factor for the mother-in-law here.

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Xtina January 19, 2012 at 10:22 am

That’s just wrong–forcibly hijacking a child’s birthday party to make it into a charity fundraiser. The point of the party is to celebrate the birthday, not make it an event in which you are essentially charged a fee to attend, even if it is for a good cause. It seems unfair to the child (unless the child asked for it specifically), as well as taking the focus from the child’s special day and making it about the charity (which all guests may not support). Let children have their attention and fun on their special day. You can set an example with charity another time and place.

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gramma dishes January 19, 2012 at 10:23 am

I fully agree with the points made by both the OP and Admin.

The grandmother here is totally out of line. She doesn’t get to choose how her grandchildren celebrate their birthdays. It sounds almost like she’s forgotten what it is like to be a child and wants to create admiration for herself for “encouraging” such generosity in her grandkids. It would give her something to brag about.

I suspect the children will be quite generous in the future if Grandma’s version of generosity isn’t permitted to be forced on them right now. Let Grandma do the charity idea for her own birthday and Christmas gifts if she’s so enthusiastic. But for the kids? No. Just no.

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Vicki January 19, 2012 at 10:23 am

It might be passive-aggressive, but I’d be tempted to start sending MIL cards with notes saying “we’re taking your advice and donating to X charity in your honor” every time she has a birthday, and for any appropriate holidays (even if I was giving other people books, or pajamas, or something). It’s also possible she’d be genuinely pleased, in which case everyone would win.

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MoniCAN January 19, 2012 at 10:30 am

For years I’ve been writing my own big book of etiquette in my head based on solely on how things make people feel, not stiff old rules. If I someday publish it, it will certainly include a chapter about asking guests for specific funds (charity, bride and groom’s honeymoon, etc). Once the host does this, my version of etiquette will automatically require the event name be changed from “birthday party” or “reception” to “Fundraiser for X.” Then people won’t be confused on just what to bring!

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AMC January 19, 2012 at 10:32 am

I agree with Admin. There’s nothing wrong with requesting donations to charity instead of gifts, but this is ultimately up to you and your partner, not MIL. And your objections to it are valid. Don’t feel bad about putting your foot down. Your mother-in-law has said her piece and the answer is ‘no.’

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Ann January 19, 2012 at 10:37 am

That mom is doing things just right, in my opinion. Including politely shutting the MIL down.

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Wink-n-Smile January 19, 2012 at 10:41 am

So, in other words, the grandmother should do exactly what the OP is doing.

Sounds like the grandmother raised her child right (and that child married a like-minded person, also raised right), but due to the pressures from the media, is feeling inadequate and like she didn’t reach perfection, so she’s not good enough.

Time to thank MIL for the wonderful job she did in raising her child, OP’s spouse, and show her that her lessons have been passed on, and that she was a good mother. And by all means, encourage her to organize a fundraiser, or two, for her favorite charity, and invite the children to participate.

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jena rogers January 19, 2012 at 10:42 am

I agree with Admin on this one. MIL is being plain silly, and OP has no reason to feel guilty, particularly in light of all she does to instill a charitable spirit in her children at other times of the year. A birthday party fosters special memories that kids will have for the rest of their lives; it celebrates their lives. The spirit of such a celebration is something that, undoubtedly, they will pass on to family and friends as they grow older. In that regard, charity really does begin at home.

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AS January 19, 2012 at 10:43 am

OP, your idea about the matter is on the spot. Kudos for telling your MIL off.
The party for your children sounds like what I’d have had when I was young – a small intimate affair with few close friends, and the main purpose of it is enjoying. Friends didn’t have to bring, but I remember we used to love choosing gifts (at a very low budget) for our friend’s birthdays when we were young.

If parents want to teach charity to their children, IMHO, taking them to a charitable organization like an orphanage or an old aged home and sharing their birthday with the less privileged kids, or adults who might love kids might be a good idea (which could be in addition to the party thrown for them).

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Cobbs January 19, 2012 at 10:55 am

I agree that grandma must not combine a five year old child’s birthday party with a charity donation. Wait until the child is 18. What if the charity chosen is Planned Parenthood? There are strong opinions about that organization. Or, an animal protection group, while worthy, must be explained to the children. Must they hear about cruelty and abandonment? Grandma must hush up.

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Lucy January 19, 2012 at 11:01 am

My mother worked on a project ten or fifteen years ago that brought her into contact with a certain local social circle; one that could be considered several steps above ours. The “in” thing with them at the time was children’s birthday parties that involved a day of volunteering at the animal shelter.

I worked at a veterinary clinic at the time and I admit I went into a total rage when she told me this. I saw miserably neglected and abused animals at my job, and those were just the ones the owners had brought in voluntarily: I can only imagine the horrors the animal shelter must see in strays and confiscated pets. (Anybody watch “Animal Cops””? They are not making that stuff up.)

Yes, it seems like a nice idea, but homeless animals are not entertainment. If you want your kids to learn about charity and humanitarianism, by all means–make it fun, but don’t make it a party game. Make it a regular activity, not a special trip to play with kittens on Little Suzy’s birthday, to be forgotten the rest of the year.

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Cammie January 19, 2012 at 11:13 am

Does she give gifts to your children or does she donate to charity? That, I think, will tell you everything you need to know.

Your MIL has made it clear what SHE would prefer, and I see nothing wrong with her suggestion. For MIL’s Birthday, Mother’s Day and any other gift-giving occasions, she would prefer you donate money to charity on her behalf rather than gift her with anything. Right? Because anything else would be self-serving.

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Lilya January 19, 2012 at 11:14 am

Am I the only one who immediately thought about “Bleak House” and Mrs. Pardiggle?

OP definitely wasn’t rude, her MIL is for pushing an agenda. I got the impression it’s not even an agenda she believes in, just a fashionable one.

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JillyBean January 19, 2012 at 11:14 am

You are definitely not a gimme pig at all!

An important point that you specifically mentioned: “If they choose to bring gifts, that is a nice gesture on their part. I don’t want to ask them to bring anything, and certainly not to bring money to a charity of our choosing. They may not even support this hypothetical charity.” That covers a few points of etiquette! 1) You’re not asking for anything, 2) You’re not assuming people are bringing gifts, 3) You’re not forcing them to donate money – especially if they have a hand-made gift, 4) You have concern that they may not agree with the selected charity.

You are on the ball, and I commend you! :)

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L.J. January 19, 2012 at 11:16 am

A child who “receives” charitable donations for his birthday isn’t being taught to be more charitable. He’s being taught that things can be taken away from him and given to other people and that he’ll be called greedy and selfish if he objects. He’ll probably grow up to be LESS generous, to hold tight to his possessions and money for fear that someone will grab them away.

If a child decides for herself, without any adult pressure, to donate to charity, that’s great. That’s a secure child who feels she has control over her possessions and is thus free to be generous. If a child receives twenty gifts for Christmas and her parents suggest that she donate some of her old toys to charity (and let her choose which ones), that’s fine too. If it’s not voluntary, it’s not charity.

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Another Laura January 19, 2012 at 11:24 am

I also think that if a child has the idea to have a charity party for his/her birthday, that is fine, but if it is forced upon him/her, it is more likely to breed selfishness than generousity. When things you like are taken from you without your permission, you are more likely to cling to them.
I learned this when my mom gave away some of my favorite books and toys without consulting me. If I had been involved in the process, we could have perhaps picked some things to give away that weren’t as important to me, and I may even have agreed to give up something I liked.

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Coralreef January 19, 2012 at 11:29 am

Young children look forward to their birthdays, to unpack a few surprises and to have fun with friends. I would find it somewhat cruel to the birthday child to redirect the occasion. And to tell the guests what to bring/give? Hum… no, really no.

As Admin said, fundraisers exist exactly for that reason. If MIL wants to do a fundraiser, more power to her, the guests know what they are in for from the start and will give to the charity if they approve of it. Teaching kids to be charitable is not a once a year thing (on their birthday no less), it’s a way of life that needs to be shown everyday. You can only teach kindness by showing how to be kind on a daily basis.

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sv January 19, 2012 at 11:33 am

Two of my children had these kinds of parties. My first daughter was having her 7th birthday when she suggested it. She wanted to help raise funds for a local wildlife rehab centre where we routinely do volunteer work. I was a little apprehensive about how to do it and I worded the invitation VERY carefully, because of course you do not want to presume that people A) are going to bring a gift and B) want to donate to your particular charity. I worked very hard to make sure that everyone knew that a gift or donation was not expected in any way. I also gave information about the rehab so people could look it up and make their own decisions ( PS – the rehab is very well known in our region and receives a lot of press, so most people were familiar with it already. ) Everything went off beautifully – I took pains to ensure that all donations were as anonymous as possible and when we sent out our thank you cards we included pictures of the rehab and my daughter donating the money. She loved every moment of it and it truly was a great experience.

My second daughter, inspired by her sister, wanted to do the same a year or so later. Once again, I worded the invitation very carefully. I stressed to the guests that gifts were unnecessary and please do not bring any. Once again I received RSVP’s with expressions of admiration to my daughter’s thoughtfulness. However, for some reason, I was horrified when this group of parents sent their child along with donations AND gifts. Not all parents – just some. It was horribly awkward and I wished with all of my heart that I simply had handled my daughter’s request another way. None of the gifts were elaborate and all of the parents said the same thing, that they just wanted to get my daughter ” A little something for herself.” But that being said, it still felt very awkward. Gifts are not a big deal in our home. Neither of my girls felt deprived by not having friends bring gifts ( indeed, my girls do not have a birthday party with friends every year, and do not mind in the slightest. ) Both of my girls suggested this on their own, without any prompting from me at all. I felt it was a generous and kind gesture on their part and wanted to help them put it into action, and I was proud of them. However, there is no denying the fact that for someone as “etiquette conscious” as myself I found it quite difficult to do. How I agonized over those invitations!!

My son will soon be old enough to have his first birthday party with friends. However, he does not have the same impulses as his sisters – I suspect none of this will be a problem in his case :)

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spartiechic January 19, 2012 at 11:34 am

I agree with both the OPs point and the Admin’s. A child’s birthday is supposed to celebrate the anniversary of their birth. You can use any other day of the year to teach about community service and charitable giving. In fact, I think it’ll mean more to have them actually participating than demanding that their friends give to charity. I’m not sure I’d bring my child to the party if I saw an expectation of charitable giving attached to the event. Fundraisers are fundraisers and birthday parties are birthday parties – neither the two should mix.

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twik January 19, 2012 at 11:40 am

Not an ogre – someone with a spine!

MIL may not realize it, but she is giving her beloved grandchildren a gift – the gift of always feeling guilty, of feeling that they don’t deserve good things or to enjoy the consideration of their friends. I’m sure that’s not what she means, but that’s what she’s achieving.

Charity may be good for the soul, but one should concentrate on one’s own charity, not others. Does she have a milestone birthday coming up? Perhaps you should suggest to her that rather than have a party, she can tell everyone to donate to charity and stay at home.

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Stepmomster January 19, 2012 at 11:41 am

It sounds like therapy in the making to me. I believe as adults we have a responsibility to our own children not to create situations on purpose to ruin their joy.

I suspect that the people who say they are donating their gifts to charity are adults or older children that came to that conclusion themselves, but did not have it forced upon them by an outside party. Giving comes from the heart… more specifically the heart of the giver, not some poor 5 year old sitting at his Birthday Party wondering why some strange children deserve his presents more than he does.

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Elizabeth January 19, 2012 at 11:59 am

You are not a gimmie pig. You sound like a nice, sensitive person trying to make your children feel special on their special days (and it is their day).

Charitable donation is admirable, and separate. The two do not need to be combined.

MIL needs to set her own example rather than spouting ‘to dos’ at you.

Enjoy the party and enjoy watching your children celebrate themselves.

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kingshearte January 19, 2012 at 12:05 pm

If grandma wants to donate to charity in lieu of buying gifts for her grandkids, more power to her. I’m sure the OP is raising her children in such a fashion that they will respond graciously. If grandma wants to request that people donate to charity instead of giving *her* gifts, then so be it. But for her to presume to dictate what other people should give other people? I see nothing wrong with firmly informing her that she does not in fact get to dictate this.

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lkb January 19, 2012 at 12:07 pm

Amen Admin! Why doesn’t MIL have her own “charity party” for her grandchildren?

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alli_wan January 19, 2012 at 12:20 pm

If Grandma wants to host a charity fundraiser, she can do it herself, even on her own birthday. (So long as it’s clear it’s a ‘FUNDRAISER’ and not a ‘BIRTHDAY PARTY’).

Sounds like my sister, who thinks ‘no’ means ‘you haven’t pestered me enough’.

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Huh January 19, 2012 at 12:27 pm

My problem with this is the same problem I have with the idea of making “volunteer” community service mandatory for high school seniors to graduate is that of forced charity. I don’t see how forcing someone to do charity work is teaching them to be generous and charitable. And the MIL’s attitude about it, at least from how it’s written here, puts me off anyway. I think if OP or anyone’s child finds a charity they would like to support and wants to do it, that would be great, but it shouldn’t be forced upon them for their birthday.

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Pam B January 19, 2012 at 12:29 pm

I agree with the idea that MIL should request gifts to charity when her family/friends ask HER what SHE wants for her birthday! She can say “I would be very honored if you were to make a donation on my behalf to….. That would make me day!” It almost sounds like MIL wants to brag about her wonderful, little grandchildren’s “charity parties” (?) just doesn’t strike me well at all.

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Calli Arcale January 19, 2012 at 12:50 pm

I agree with the OP and the admin. Hijacking one’s grandkids’ parties for charity is a lovely way to build resentment, especially since as the OP pointed out, it puts awkward pressure upon attendees. Presents are NOT REQUIRED at a party. Never. It is gracious to give gifts at a party, but it is never mandatory, and it is in very poor taste to specify gifts. What’s more, I don’t really think it’s teaching charity to teach kids essentially to hijack gift-giving occasions as fundraisers. That isn’t teaching kids to be charitable. It’s teaching them to get others to be charitable on their behalf.

If you want to teach kids charity, do what Admin said. Take them to volunteering events. (Age appropriate, naturally.) Charity isn’t about you; it’s about helping others. Pack meals for starving families in other parts of the world. (Seeing how much food is actually in a day’s ration will also be educational.) Help sew or tie blankets for the homeless. Visit people you don’t know at nursing homes. Pack school supplies for disadvantaged children. Adopt a highway, and clean it regularly. If you live in a suitable area, go on a tree planting trip, planting seedlings in a logged-out meadow. There are so many opportunities; some of them could even be worked into a birthday party, not as the designated gifts but as ways to actually *involve* the guests in a fun activity that helps other people. It would depend on the guestlist, probably. But it’s more important to make this sort of thing part of the child’s life than to make it something they think about once a year.

BTW — I would be delighted to receive a certificate saying somebody had bought manure for a farm in Uganda in my name. I’ve got too much crap already (yeah, pun intended, sorry, couldn’t resist). To this point, however, I have not yet found a delicate way of indicating that, and most of my relatives would much rather give me stuff, so I’ve just been making that part of my Christmastime charity and buying it myself.

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Library Diva January 19, 2012 at 1:05 pm

I work for the type of community newspaper that frequently gets calls about children doing this sort of thing, and it’s never sat well with me, for reasons I couldn’t put my finger on. Thanks to the OP, the admin, and some of the other commentors for helping me articulate why.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve met some remarkable children and teens in this job who do genuinely do things from the heart. I’ve also met others where you can see their parents pushing them into this, who can’t articulate the reasons why they wanted to help a particular cause, and I wind up just feeling sorry for them, and uneasy at feeding into the whole thing. It’s like a different form of being a “stage parent.” It also makes for a rather poor article. Unfortunately, I never know what I’m dealing with until I meet with the people in question.

OP, perhaps this job has made me somewhat cynical, but I despise it when people try to manipulate me with the “good cause,” the way your MIL is trying to do. To what purpose, I don’t understand. It sounds like you’re doing a good job teaching your children about charity and raising them with reasonable expectations (I have heard of first birthday parties that are as elaborate as a wedding). Don’t feel guilty or gimme piggish for wanting your children to have the exact type of birthday party MIL probably threw for your spouse. Your objections are more than reasonable, and the type of thing more hosts should consider.

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Kaiti January 19, 2012 at 1:23 pm

@Huh – I would not equate this to mandatory community service for high schoolers. My high school, way back when, required all students to do a few hours of community service every year. It wasn’t a whole lot of hours, and we could choose where we wanted to do our service. It was not like hijacking a child’s birthday party for charity, and while it wasn’t entirely voluntary, it was at least self-directed.

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Roo January 19, 2012 at 2:35 pm

Totally agree with admin and the other commenters here – there are many other wonderful opportunities to teach children about charity without hijacking a birthday party.

Not only that, but enjoying gifts on their birthday is just a normal emotion for children. So Grandma telling Junior, “It’s your birthday, but I’ve decided to focus on this charity in lieu of you” feels to me like saying “This cause is more important to me than you and your feelings are.” I wouldn’t be surprised if a young child felt hurt by that: “Why didn’t Grandma want anyone to give me a birthday present? Was I bad?”

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Rap January 19, 2012 at 2:35 pm

“My problem with this is the same problem I have with the idea of making “volunteer” community service mandatory for high school seniors to graduate is that of forced charity. ”

Actually these are two different things. I personally have no issue with requiring a community service project or a certain minumum number of hours of service for a high school diploma. I agree it shouldn’t be called “volunteering” but that is the right age for kids to start understanding that the free ride is almost over. Everyone (in theory) in a US community pays taxes so kids can go to school for free. A few hours of community service is pretty minimal payback and its a way to show kids how they’re now adults, stepping into the adult community and assuming adult responsibilities.

This birthday party thing? I think there’s a nice way to say butt out. If the child in question was genuinely interested in doing something like that, then fine, but if its a parent or grandparent pushing the agenda, then you are just… pushing an agenda on the kid’s birthday. It sopunds like the OP is already involving the kids in civic minded activities.

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Mabel January 19, 2012 at 2:41 pm

I agree with other posters who said Grandma should do some charitable things and ask the kids if they want to participate. That’s a much better way to reinforce the charity education than taking away the fun of their birthday parties. I can only imagine what the kids would think of that. I envision much resentment and crying. Your birthday is supposed to be a special day for YOU.

Anyway, it sounds like the mom has already got the charity thing covered. If the kids are participating in toy drives, etc. then they are already learning how to be generous and helpful. Grandma is clearly doing this for her own glory. Mom did the right thing by not letting her take it over. Yay for having a spine!

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Cheryl January 19, 2012 at 2:59 pm

Ok, so MIL needs to get a life or lead by example. These are little kids, not that they can’t be taught how to give back to their community and others but it is THEIR birthday. I would suggest that you do this for MIL birthday first and see what she says afterwards. Do not feel like an ogre, MIL can’t get the hint then it is her problem. Question, why isn’t your husband rectifying the situation, that is his mother, this should be his task to handle.

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Xtina January 19, 2012 at 3:37 pm

@ L.J.–you summed it up just right. I don’t understand how taking a hypothetical gift and/or party away from a child–especially a young one–could possibly ever be understood by the child to be generous, or a way to explain or introduce the concept of charity. How could a child possibly WANT to be charitible if, in his or her eyes, it involves taking away of something that is meant for them? As far as they understand it, all charity means is that THEY lose something.

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Gilraen January 19, 2012 at 3:39 pm

I know what to get grandma for her birthday :-)

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Kat January 19, 2012 at 4:04 pm

Totally agree with admin and JoJo. Grandma should give the kids a charity gift. I have a friend who sponsors a penguin in my name each christmas (she knows I love penguins XD) but the idea of her trying to get all my other friends to do the same thing for me is wild. The gift giver gets to choose the gift.

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Another Alice January 19, 2012 at 5:23 pm

The OP and Admin are completely correct.

But while we’re on the subject, what is the etiquette for gifts of charity, meaning, “A donation has been made/tree has been planted/animal given in your name”? I have received these before, and frankly, I’d rather receive just a regular card and no gift. Not, of course, because I disagree with giving to a charity, and not even because I disagree with the particular charity the giver has donated to, but I just find the whole thing obnoxious and sanctimonious. To me, unless someone specifically says it is what they prefer, OR that they have a long history with the organization in terms of support, I find it to be MUCH more about the giver feeling good about themselves and teaching ME a lesson as opposed to giving me a gift because they want to. I just find it presumptuous – usually it’s a gift from someone I don’t know well, and I would never even expect anything at all from them. But because the person does not know me well, who knows how many hours I spend volunteering, or how much money I donate? To assume you need to do that FOR me is rude.

I personally don’t find it any different than giving someone, say, something decorative and then insisting on where they display it in their house. Gifts with caveats are not gifts.

(And I’ll stress again that of course there is nothing wrong with it when the person receiving the gifts says they prefer that when asked. And also that of course I would never, EVER tell the actual giver any of the above! ;-) )

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SJ January 19, 2012 at 5:46 pm

What’s more, she is trying to tell you how to parent your kids. Obnoxious regardless, but also, you seem to be doing just fine. I don’t know the best choice, but apparently, she was not going to let this idea go!

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Cat January 19, 2012 at 5:55 pm

I’m with Vicki. MIL would never get another gift from my children, Christmas or birthday. There are many charities who would be happy to get a donation and MIL can rejoice that the grandkids are being so charitable in her name.

I worked with a woman, older than I and I remember Truman being President, who would never let us celebrate her birthday although we celebrated everyone else’s. Her Mother had impressed upon her that birthday parties are nothing but begging parties and would never let her celebrate, even as a very young child.

She had the lowest self-esteem I ever saw in a person. She really didn’t think she should have anything she wanted and she let people walk all over her. One woman was falsifying data in the computer system and having my friend put it in under her code so that, if anyone caught it, she would be the one to be fired. I stopped it by sitting in her office and answering her phone whenever the cheat called.

Children need to feel they are worth something and celebrating birth is a fine way to do it. I do not believe in building false self-esteem by applauding everything a child does, but no one should be made to feel worthless.

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Angel January 19, 2012 at 6:05 pm

It would be one thing if the kids came up with this idea on their own, but forcing them to have a “charity” party in place of a birthday party, particularly at ages 5 and under, just isn’t fair. The MIL is WAY out of line here and definitely should be put in her place. If she wants to give to charity so badly, let her do it–don’t force others to do it!

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theredqueenofoz January 19, 2012 at 8:19 pm

If MIL chooses to give a charity gift to her grandchildren on their birthday, that’s her choice. And there is nothing wrong in her making a suggestion to you about their party, but after you have politely ignored it she should let it go. When she didn’t, then you need to be more forceful about.

It sounds like you and your husband are being careful not to raise children who demand everything and do give back to the community. A child’s birthday is not the time for charity gifts, unless it is of their choosing, its about celebrating them. It is okay to spoil them on their birthday because that is one of the ways you let them know they are special and important and loved!

By the way, all presents to MIL should be charity gifts as she has highlighted that this is her preference.

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Cat Whisperer January 19, 2012 at 9:59 pm

This is actually not an etiquette issue; it’s a peck-order dominance issue about MIL thinking she’s “head cow” in the family herd and trying to beat OP into submission with this issue.

When someone in your family keeps bringing up over and over that you “should” do something the way they suggest to you, and they become increasingly obnoxious about when and how they make their suggestion, that’s a red flag that what’s going on has to do with peck-order, and that the person who is making the suggestion really doesn’t care about the suggestion they’re making per se, they just want your submission to demonstrate their dominance in the social order. It’s also a red flag that this person sees themselves as ranking higher than you in the peck order, or wants others to see them as ranking higher than you in the peck order.

The thing about these social dominance “turf tiffs” is that you can do the proper thing, which OP has done by politely declining the suggestion, and the person pushing the issue won’t back down. That’s how you know this is about social dominance and not charity. A person who just wants to prove they’re the boss of you will refuse to take the hint, and will actually become increasingly insistant about what they’re suggesting, and will adopt more aggressive tactics– like MIL did in this case, pushing the issue in front of another family member, which makes it harder for OP to gracefully decline the suggestion.

While OP’s response to MIL may not have been precisely the correct response according to etiquette, it’s completely understandable in the context of the “peck-order power struggle” that’s going on here. OP also needs to understand that she can produce reams of publications on etiquette that support her refusal to turn the kids’ birthday parties into charity events, and it won’t make any difference to MIL. MIL is interested in obtaining submission, not in the correct etiquette or even in charity.

MIL may back down on the charity party suggestion, although I doubt it; but even if she drops that issue, she’ll find another issue and continue to try to get OP to show submission in the social order.

My advice to OP: OP is correct in regards to her views on teaching kids social responsibility and charity, and is also correct that it is not MIL’s place to push the issue once OP rejected it. OP also needs to understand that MIL wants OP to recognize her as “head cow” in the family herd, and will continue harrassing OP until she gets submission. Etiquette provides an “out” on this: listen to MIL with an attitude of deference and respect, tell MIL that you appreciate the thoughtfulness of her suggestions, and that you’ll give it consideration. Then CHANGE THE SUBJECT. If MIL continues to push the issue, repeat the expression of admiration for her thoughtfulness, and reiterate that you’ll considerate, and change the subject. Politely and without indicating annoyance. Repeat as necessary.

If you engage in direct conflict with MIL, it isn’t going to be fun. The next step in this sort of dominance dispute usually involves recruitment of allies within the family and development of a split as people take sides. If MIL has a real “alpha” dominant personality, that may be unavoidable; MIL may already have begun recruitment and started digging in for more open conflict. If that’s the case, then try not to stoop to MIL’s level. Nobody ever lost this kind of battle by taking the high road in the relationship.

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MeganAmy January 20, 2012 at 12:16 am

I agree with all of you. Especially with L.J. and twik.

When I was a small child, my grandmother would sometimes tell me “Instead of getting you a gift for your birthday, I sent some money to my foster child in X country.” I don’t remember her explaining anything about charity. All I knew was that she was generous to some stranger who she’d never met but not to me. And she said it in such a smug and sanctimonious tone as if to indicate that I were spoiled and greedy. OP is not a gimmepig and neither was I. What I did learn from my grandmother’s “lessons” of giving gifts to strangers and not to me on my birthday was that I would never do that to someone else or make them feel as insulted, hurt or miserable as I did each time she did that. Like Cat’s story, I felt unworthy, through no fault of my own.

The fact that I volunteer and do charity work today is owed to the good example by the other side of my family, not my grandmother withholding gifts from me and then bragging about it as if it made her a better person.

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Snowy January 20, 2012 at 12:56 am

When I was working at an animal rescue, a young girl would have her friends bring gifts for our animals every year instead of for her. Toys, food, supplies, treats, towels–whatever our patients would need–or things we need to run the place, like hand soap and paper towels. The girl decided to do this *on her own,* and she loved bringing the things in, but that’s the thing–she did it on her own. Her parents never suggested it or prompted it, and she got a lot of joy from it.

For the grandmother to be trying to hijack her granddaughters’ birthdays is reprehensible. If she wants to raise their social awareness, pick a place they all like and volunteer together one afternoon a month. Grandma sounds pretty self-righteous and self-centered to me.

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anonymous January 20, 2012 at 2:08 am

I’m not sure I would have used the exact phrase “I think it’s a terrible idea” (I might have said “that idea does not, and will never, work for us” or something to that effect).

Otherwise, kudos to the OP for having a spine. I’m not sure it was an entirely polite spine, but a spine is better than being spineless!

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Edhla January 20, 2012 at 2:24 am

As far as I’m concerned there is only ONE birthday a person should turn into a charity event, if they so wish.

Their own.

While others have pointed out that presents aren’t to be demanded, I still think there’s something unspeakably rude about informing somebody you are donating to a charity of your own choosing instead of giving them a personal token of appreciation. If the person tells others to do so, fine. But it’s rude for others to make that decision, because gifts are all about the person receiving, not about the ego/pet cause of the giver.

The fact that these are small children makes it worse. When you’re five, birthdays are a huge deal. There’s nothing spoiled or selfish or wrong about a five year old child getting presents for themselves on their birthday.

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