≡ Menu

The Charity Birthday Party

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.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Margo January 20, 2012, 7:32 am

    I agree – OP’s stance is completely reasonable. If Grandma brings up the issue again I would specifically make the 1st & 3rd points in OP’s list to her, particularly emphasising the fact that the childre *are* learning about generosity and charitable giving and community spirit, but that you don’t feel that their birthday party is the correct venue for this.

    I would also be strongly inclined to ask her outright whether she wold prefer for you and the children to give to charity in lieu of buying her a gift, on her birthday. You can explain that you feel children learn by example, and you know how enthusiatic she is about the concept of gifts to charity instead of actual gifts…

    I think that this kind of gift is only appropriate where the recipient has specifically indicated that they would like this, or whereyou know them extremely well, well enough to know that they would be happy with this AND to know which charities they support.

  • twik January 20, 2012, 9:50 am

    Interesting that one commenter has given the “media side” to this.

    I suspect that what has happened is that MIL has either seen a story like this on the news, or has had someone she knows brag about “MY grandchildren raised X dollars for Y cause on their birthday. Yours just played pin the tail on the donkey, and ate cake.” So, she’s itching for bragging rights. This has less to do with her concern for charity, and more to be able to say that her grandchildren are budding Nobel Peace Prize candidates.

  • Margaret January 20, 2012, 11:48 am

    I think the charity birthday party SOUNDS great, if the only thing you know about it is that some kid did it and was fantastically happy about it. Perhaps the grandma has simply not considered the points that the OP enumerated in this submission. Why not send grandma a note? “Dear MIL, We appreciate the generousity behind your suggestion to have the children host a charitable fundraiser in lieu of a birthday party. However, we will not change the format of our birthday parties. Please consider the folowing reasons why we choose to celebrate our children’s birthdays as we do.” You can close with some nice things too — “Thank you for raising a kind, generous, thoughtful son. We also strive to pass on those values and qualities to our children.” This allows grandma to see that you have actually given the issue some thought, it’s not a personal rejection of her, and it will probably give her a perspective that she hadn’t considered.

  • Flora Louise January 20, 2012, 12:00 pm

    When a child is given a note that says “A donation has been made in your name to Save the Whales” is he required to write a thank you note?

  • Samantha January 20, 2012, 12:13 pm

    While we don’t plan to do this for birthdays–we do give charitable donations for Christmas gifts, both to our children and family members. If Grandma is so interested in this idea, why not suggest that SHE donate to a charity in the child’s honor and then discuss this with the grandchild. Maybe have an activity that would incorporate why this charity is either important to grandma or had some meaning to the child (i.e. if your child had a favorite animal and there was a charity to support those animals).

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with the idea. I think it’s great to get kids involved in generous giving and caring about the community. What I do think is wrong is that grandma somehow thinks it’s her place to dictate how you celebrate birthdays. My mother insisted that my children would be “devastated” if they did not believe in Santa. And you know what? They’re not. And its not her decision how we celebrate any holiday.

  • Rap January 20, 2012, 2:32 pm

    ” 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.”

    Well, yes, teaching the kids to delight in being spiteful is exactly the point of manners.

    I’m not defending the grandmother’s actions in being so pushy on this point, but really, I don’t see any evidence that that the grandmother also felt Christmas should be a charity event, and I don’t think “Your grandma didn’t want to get you a present, she wanted to put you to work on your birthday for other people and give those people the presents you would have gotten, so we’re going to do the exact same thing to Grandma for every holiday ever going forward since she won’t give you presents” is not exactly the nicest way to handle a relatively minor disagreement.

    I don’t agree that a child’s birthday should be co-opted into a charity event unless the child is geniunely interested in giving, but I really don’t think the grandma was suggesting something so wildly inappropriate that this level of vitriol is appropriate. She’s suggesting the kids do a little charity giving, she’s not insisting they never recieve a gift ever again and nothing in the OP’s letter indicates a bad relationship with the mother in law, just that she felt bad that she had pushed back on the idea so hard. The OP had every right to push back, its her kids party, but Samantha at #54 made a lovely suggestion that doesn’t involve spite. If Grandma feels that strongly, then she can donate in the child’s name. Maybe do one of those “Sponsor a child” programs for example, and explain to each grandchild that *they* can help by having Grandma make a donation. This doesn’t have to be a “Well, if Grandma likes charity so much, we’re just never ever giving her a thing ever again, every cent we *would* have spent can go to her precious charities and she can *choke on it* HA HAHA THAT WILL TEACH HER” moment.

  • Edhla January 20, 2012, 5:43 pm

    Rap, how is it vitriolic to donate in Grandma’s name, when she was so pushy about donating in her grandchildren’s name? If doing it on Grandma’s birthday is spite and vitriol, how is her suggesting to do it on the birthdays of both the LW’s children not the same? If Grandma actually cares about the charities involved rather than the idea of her grandchildren being little saints and giving her bragging rights, she’ll be delighted.

  • Edhla January 20, 2012, 5:46 pm

    Sorry, to clarify: I maintain my position that if you want a birthday to be a fundraiser, the only one that it’s appropriate to turn into one is your OWN birthday. However, I’m honestly bewildered that Rap is equating doing to Grandma what she wanted to do to the grandchildren- which is simply have no presents on her birthday, rather charitable donations- is “vitriolic” “wildly inappropriate” and “spite.”

  • Anonymous January 20, 2012, 9:40 pm

    People here have made a lot of good points–it’s rude to try to direct gift-giving, and it’s cruel to hijack someone else’s birthday party (especially a child’s), and then make the birthday honoree feel guilty, spoiled, greedy, selfish, etc., for objecting to the hijack. Also, in the case of the “volunteer at the animal shelter” party (or variations on that theme), it’s rude to shanghai party guests into acting as free labour. However, nobody’s mentioned that conventional birthday parties provide a multitude of learning experiences for kids. I’ll make a list to make it easier:

    1. Invitation etiquette: Send out invitations on time, with all the relevant information, don’t discuss the party in front of non-invitees, don’t use invitations to exclude people (for example, by inviting all but one child in the baseball team or the Brownie troop), and don’t invite kids you don’t know well just to get more presents.

    2. Planning and preparing for a party: Choose a theme, operate within a budget (Canada’s Wonderland with one friend, or a backyard party for the whole class? Princess party just for the girls, or gender-neutral circus party for a mixed-gender guest list?), and help decorate and put together the loot bags. I loved doing that as a child. 🙂

    3. Being a good host/hostess: Work the room, interact with ALL the guests (not just your BFF), and make sure everyone’s having fun. If someone appears to feel left out, bring them back into the activity, and help them feel included. Also, greet all the guests at the beginning of the party, and say goodbye to them at the end.

    4. Sharing snacks and craft supplies, and winning and losing graciously at the games.

    5. Receiving gifts graciously, even if Max gives you, say, a Mouse Trap game, and you already have one.

    6. Writing thank-you notes after the party.


    1. RSVP etiquette–reply on time, don’t bring tag-alongs (siblings, other friends, etc.), unless the host actively encourages this.

    2. Gift selection–choose with the birthday kid’s preferences in mind, not your own (so, if Simon was invited to Sarah’s birthday party, he could think, “I don’t like soccer, but Sarah does, maybe she’d like a new soccer ball).

    3. Coming to the party dressed appropriately–so, dressy clothes for a dressy party, and sweats and sneakers if it’s at Bounce U.

    4. Allowing the birthday child to enjoy the spotlight for his or her day–as Miss Manners says, one “cannot be the bride at every wedding, or the corpse at every funeral.” By the same token, the birthday child shouldn’t go all “zilla” and act bossy just because it’s “MY DAAAAAY!!!!”; but then, some adults would do well to remember that too.

    5. Respecting the home/party venue, and being grateful for what you’re given–even if you’d prefer chocolate cake to vanilla, or a pink Slinky in your loot bag to a purple one, or even if there are no loot bags at all–it doesn’t matter, because it’s rude to denigrate someone’s hospitality, unless it’s a medical, religous, or ethical issue, such as a food allergy or vegetarian/veganism, and in that case, you handle it discreetly.

    6. Sharing, taking turns, and winning and losing graciously.

    Anyway, there are other things too, on both ends, like table manners, etc., but with the “charity party” scenario, a lot of those “birthday party etiquette” lessons get missed:

    1. No opportunity for the guests to select appropriate gifts, or for the birthday kid to accept them graciously, because it’s all about giving money to XYZ Charity. Worse than that, it’s obvious how much each guest has spent, which can cause embarrassment, and even if it doesn’t, it’s just…….gauche.

    2. No opportunity for the birthday kid to enjoy the spotlight (or for the guests to defer the spotlight to the birthday kid), because the spotlight is all on XYZ Charity.

    3. In the case of the “working parties,” there’s no opportunity for the kids to learn about taking turns and winning and losing graciously at the games, because there are none–it’s all about, say, cleaning animal cages at the ASPCA.

    Anyway, that’s all I can think of right now, but it sounds like the OP has the right idea–let birthdays be birthdays, and charity events be charity events, and that way, her kids can learn about both. 🙂

  • Cordelia January 20, 2012, 9:57 pm

    Throwing a party like this sounds like an attempt to appear generous, using other people’s money instead of one’s own.

  • SamiHami January 20, 2012, 10:03 pm

    Dear Gramma:

    Happy Birthday! Instead of buying you a gift, cake or dinner this year we decided to make a donation to the Flying Purple People Eaters Association.

    Enjoy your day,
    Your family

    Repeat on Mother’s Day, Xmas and every other gift giving occasion. Something tells me that once she is on the receiving end of such charity she’ll have a change of tune.

    I am all for supporting charitable organizations. However, hijacking a small child’s birthday to direct other people in how to spend their money is reprehensible, to say the least. She needs to be shut down immediately. She does not get to decide how other people choose to celebrate milestones.

  • Angela January 20, 2012, 10:05 pm

    My daughter and their friends have CHOSEN to do this a few times since they became teenagers. I cannot imagine making a 5-year-old do it. We have often given donations in honor of our best friend couple, as they have a tiny house and don’t WANT anything, and they do the same for us (same charity, even). In that case it’s a nice way of honoring someone while still respecting their wishes. Hijacking a children’s birthday party isn’t really honoring the child (more like using the child) and changes a part of the party that both the child and her guests enjoy.

  • Enna January 21, 2012, 5:29 am

    MIL should not force the issue. It is one thing to make a suguestion or give a charity gift to her grandchildren that is different. If I was in OP’s position I would suggest that since MIL is going on about it so much maybe she should have a charity birthday fundraiser for her birthday. I would seriously consider buying MIL charity gifts since she is hinting at it so much she must want it.

  • Kimberly January 21, 2012, 9:10 am

    My parents taught me about giving to charity without turning my birthday into a charity event.
    1. They both volunteered for various groups.

    2. Every August during absolute boiling point of a hot, humid, Houston Summer we went through all our toys, clothes, and books. Those we had outgrown, and didn’t have special sentimental value were cleaned up. We checked all the pieces were there and we gave the clothes to Catholic Charities and delivered the toys and books to RMH, Texas Childrens, and MDAnderson. (It was explained that it was ok to give used toys because they were for the playrooms not individual children.) My sister continues this tradition with her 4 and 6 year old.

    3. One of the highlights of the Christmas season was taking our own money to the toy store and buying 2 gifts. One for Sharing Mass and one for Toys for Tots (Dad was a Marine). Boy we put a lot of thought into those gifts. I remember rejecting my Mom’s suggestion that I get Hot toy of the year – because you had to have someone to play the game with. My logic was what if she doesn’t have a brother or sister who like to play and no kids her age on her street. It was a bit of seeing the world from only my viewpoint- My sister hated board games and I was several years older than all the kids on my street – most were my sister’s age (5 years behind me in school) or younger. I go something that you could use on your own or with friends. Again my sister and cousins have continued this tradition.

    4. Once we were old enough to volunteer it was expected that we would find a charity that we would support. The old enough part had to be explained to me – I tried to volunteer as a big sister when I was 12.

  • Doris January 21, 2012, 11:25 am

    The answer seems simple to me – throw a charity birthday party for MIL!

    As for teaching children about charity, when mine didn’t want to give money to the Salvation Army, I gave each a quarter and said if he could find something to buy for that, he could keep it. If not, that quarter would help feed a family. Every one of them donated. Every year since, we have donated one quarter for each member of our family every time we pass a Salvation Army pot. We also have twice-a-year cleanings where we donate any clothing, toys, blankets, etc. which we no longer like or can fit into. I still do this even though my boys are now out of the house, collecting anything they contribute.

    Having seen how toys add up quickly, if my sons were still at home, before a gift-giving event such as birthdays, I would ask them to make room for new toys by donating some of their old, but safe ones to the pediatric section at the hospital, the safe houses for abused women & children, the local WIC center, or any place where kids need some fun.

  • SamiHami January 21, 2012, 3:26 pm

    Flora Louise: I think the whales should write the TY note.

  • Steph January 21, 2012, 7:42 pm

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who wondered if MIL had some selfish reasoning behind it. Some people really are the type to brag about their grandchild’s generosity.

    OP, I think you handled this wonderfully and it sounds like your children have great parents to show them true generosity and grace.

  • Rap January 22, 2012, 5:47 pm

    Edhla, do you really think based on what we’ve read, the correct response to the grandmother is “you’ve never ever recieving any gifts at all from us again, you want charity? Well, there’s your charity, you can enjoy knowing on every holiday going forward, we’ll always never ever gift you with anything and instead will donate to charity in your name”. Come on. Do you really think that sort of response is geniunely going to help the OP establish a good relationship with the MIL? Or that the grandkids learn anything other than spite from this?

    Its entirely possible the MIL would appreciate it, but in fairness, the MIL did not say “the children should never recieve presents again for any holiday ever!” so yes, I think responding to the MIL’s suggestion with “We will never give you a gift again for any holiday at all, we will donate to charity in your name for all holidays going forward because your suggestion that the kids have a charity party for their birthday is that offensive to us that we can never give you a gift again.” is a response full of vitriol. I’ve reread the article, the MIL is not suggesting the kids never get a gift again, that every holiday for these kids should be a charity donation, so I don’t understand how Grandma being pushy on the point and *not getting her way* means Grandma should be forever punished.

    If you can’t see how “If Grandma wants charity, well, we’ll make sure she never ever gets a gift again and we’ll remind her on every holiday how she wanted charity and is getting charity donations because of one incident that happened when you kids were five” is a really angry, bitter response that is sure to not make relations better, then I can’t help you. I think the OP was fine in saying no, and I see no indication that MIL in any way ever said “The children should never get any gifts ever again and all holidays should be focused on charity” so yes, I think gleefully saying the MIL should be punished on every holiday for the rest of her life with a reminder of her faux pas is cruel and angry. Everyone makes mistakes. Delighting in punishing someone for their mistakes, greatly exaggerating their punishment to make a point, and never ever letting it go is spiteful. Please don’t suggest that “MIL would never get another gift from my children, Christmas or birthday” isn’t a spiteful overreaction to the MIL being pushy over a birthday party.

  • Edhla January 23, 2012, 9:34 am

    Rap, if you had bothered to read what I wrote, you would have seen that in two seperate messages I specifically said that the ONLY birthday it is acceptable in my view to turn into a charity event is one’s own. It’s a pity you didn’t bother to actually read what I had to say before rounding on me the way you have done. All I was questioning was why “let’s donate in Grandma’s name since she seems so keen on charity” was vitriolic while “let’s donate in five year old child’s name, because it’s Grandma’s pet cause” is “a mistake.” The double standard of intent and effect was what I was questioning, and nowhere at all did I ever suggest that this plan (which was not suggested by me at any point) should be implemented. Your own tone is quite vitriolic and since you have decided to ignore anything I actually said in favour of what you clearly WISH I’d said (spoiling for a fight?) I have nothing further to say to you.

  • Rap January 23, 2012, 11:02 am

    And if you had read what I wrote – I was clearly quoting someone who had pointedly included Christmas as part of the MIL’s punishment. Here’s the quote again – “MIL would never get another gift from my children, Christmas or birthday.”

    Its a pity you didn’t bother to read what I wrote – my point was using the MIL’s suggestion as a reason to pointedly punish the MIL on all holidays going forward is angry and full of vitriol. I made it clear in my origanal post that I felt that including all holidays was a step too far, which is where I think it is taking into angry retaliation. You are insisting I was speaking about birthdays only – I was not, and the quote from another poster I cited is clearly including Christmas. The MIL made a mistake – my issue is that some posters here are clearly suggesting that the MIL never recieve another gift on any holiday and be reminded on every holiday why a donation to charity is being made. I feel thats an angry and vitrolic response. The MIL made a mistake, should she pay for it for the rest of her life?

  • Snowy January 23, 2012, 8:59 pm

    “Also, in the case of the “volunteer at the animal shelter” party (or variations on that theme), it’s rude to shanghai party guests into acting as free labour.”

    Either I missed another person’s post or you misread mine; the party was not at the shelter, nor did any of the children volunteer. Instead they had a regular birthday party at the birthday girl’s house, but they children got to see pictures of some of our animals and brought presents suitable for them–toys, food, treats, cozy towels, etc. After the party, the birthday girl and her mom brought the things to the shelter–where we oohed and ahhed (sincerely) and thanked her profusely!

  • Anonymous January 24, 2012, 12:14 pm

    Snowy–when I mentioned the example of the “working birthday party,” I wasn’t referring to the OP’s MIL’s suggestion, or the example of the little girl who requested gifts for the animals at the shelter instead of for herself, but rather, Lucy’s example in post #14, about the trend of having “volunteer at the animal shelter” birthday parties. Sorry, I should have been more clear.

  • Roslyn January 24, 2012, 8:31 pm

    Wow. Are we related? That MIL sounds like MY mother!!! Sometimes it isn’t the fact that the idea is the best idea, but since it’s HER idea then EVERYONE has to listen to her and follow to the letter.

    I have actually had my Mother say that something I did with my kids was silly etc, and when I told her that it was HER idea she denied it.

    Good Luck, and let those kids enjoy their birthday’s !!!

  • Karen November 30, 2012, 9:22 pm


    I don’t like the idea of asking people to bring money, but liked the charity idea. What we did was have an “egg hunt” themed birthday party (what he wanted) for my son (age 4). It was great – all the kids had a blast! The (plastic Easter-type) eggs were filled with either coins, stickers, those bracelet things, or candy [checked w/other parents]. If they found coins, they put them in their choosing of three jars – “Help People” (food bank), “Help Dogs” (humane society), “Help Cats” (a cat rescue grandma works at). If they found other items, they put them in their goody bags. Each kid had a specific color of egg to look for, so once the older ones found all of theirs, they helped the younger ones — so everyone got 14 eggs and the same # of favors/coins. At the end, the kids all counted up the money to see which charity “won.” A great time was had by all, we did the charity thing, and no guest had to bring any money. 🙂