Updated on 09.09.11

Some Thoughts on a Girl’s Birthday

Trent Hamm

Last night, we had a small birthday party for just a couple of our daughter’s friends to celebrate her birthday. We held the party at a park and had a simple treasure hunt and a couple of party games – a very simple and pleasant birthday party.

At the party, she only received two presents. In comparison to that, we had given her five (or so) presents at home earlier in the week, along with a gift from her grandparents.

When she opened just the two presents, she really enjoyed opening them and within just a little while had played with both gifts (one was a ring toss game and the other was an art kit).

When she opened the six presents at home, she really enjoyed opening the first two or three of them, but after that it was pure diminishing returns. Even more interesting, she has more or less chosen two preferred presents (a doll and a game) and has scarcely looked at the other ones.

The experiences for these two situations were very different, but the biggest change was simply the number of presents. Two gifts worked out far better than six.

Here are a few thoughts on that experience (that go beyond just a girl’s birthday party).

No one needs a giant pile of presents. In the end, we’re drawn to just a few of them. This is obviously true for my daughter, but it’s also true for my other children – and, frankly, true for me, too. At Christmas, I usually end up really enjoying just one or two of the gifts I receive, even if I receive several and even if they each might appeal to me greatly if I received them alone.

You only have so much time and attention. I have tons of different hobbies that I’m interested in, but in reality I simply don’t have time for all of them. I only have so much time and attention, and convincing myself that I have more than I have is simply a mistake.

Figure out how you’re going to use that time and attention. At this point, I really have two hobbies: reading (when I’m alone) and board and card games (with friends and family). I participate in online forums related to both hobbies and I engage in them as often as I can. Given the free time that I have, these two things fill it up quite quickly.

Don’t waste a dime on other areas. I’d love to have time to take up golf again, but I realize that I actually have the time for golf roughly once a year. Thus, it would be completely nonsensical to invest in a bag of golf clubs. I’ve really walked away from many hobbies over the past several years, both to save money and to give myself adequate time to enjoy hobbies that are more important to me.

Give something besides presents. When I think of Christmas, I don’t think of gifts. I think of sitting around and talking to my family and enjoying their company. When I asked my daughter this morning what she remembered about her party, she didn’t remember the presents. She remembered the scavenger hunt and riding on the merry-go-round with her best friend. The best things we receive in life are rarely wrapped up with a pretty bow.

Instead of giving your child or your spouse several presents, get them one or two that are really well thought out. They don’t have to be expensive. They simply have to be something that truly appeals to the recipient. They’ll get far more value and joy out of one gift that really matches their interests than multiple gifts that do not.

In a few months, my son turns six. Rather than giving him several presents, we’re going to instead think carefully about what he’s passionate about and get him just two or three that match those interests well. This allows us to think more about the ones he does receive, allows him to enjoy all of his presents instead of just selecting a few favorites, and saves our pocketbooks as well.

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  1. Monique Rio says:

    Are you still learning to play the piano? You didn’t mention it in your hobbies…

  2. Sarah says:

    I am glad that my presents weren’t always a careful match to what I was already interested in…because several of my lifetime hobbies and directions came from ‘I thought this was neat, maybe you will too’ gifts.

  3. Sara says:

    For my kids Christmas and birthdays I feel the same way. I generally give them each one kind of big present. They pick it out and they know the budget. Then I fill in with a other things like books, clothes, etc. Usually when I think I may not have enough and get one more thing, it is the straw that breaks the camel’s back and that is that one extra present (or event) takes a nice holiday and moves it towards chaotic and stressful. Fewer presents also saves a lot of fighting about cleaning the room and saves having to have the big yard sale in a few years.

  4. Tanya says:

    Love this post. I saw a show on TV where a woman threw a $50,000 birthday party for her 4-year-old. And while the moms where drinking champagne and enjoying the decor “for the child,” the little girl and her friends seemed happiest when they were running in circles and just playing. Simplicity works.

  5. Amber says:

    If I was ranting, I would say, “I hate presents!!!”
    Overall, it is rare for a present to be a natural expression of the heart. Children opening up several presents makes me want to scream.
    But you have put it so well here – no ranting!
    You have provided evidence of your statements that everyone can relate to.
    If we are all honest with ourselves, we can see that we are usually unrealistic with our expectations, which cause us to waste time and be frustrated humans.
    I admire how you took the time and thought to learn from your childs behavior, rather than think she has been ungrateful.

  6. Gretchen says:

    Who calls their daughter “a girl” or “the girl” as we’ve seen in other posts?

    You call your male children your son/sons.

  7. Jon says:

    I can be away from this blog for months and every time I return to see if the writing has gotten any better, I am always let down. The first 2 paragraphs don’t even make sense. Your a professional, please proofread!

  8. Money Beagle says:

    Agree. We have a two year old and once he gets something that has to have now (‘Open it…open it’) the other stuff is pretty much ignored, to where you have to coax him into even opening the rest!

  9. josh says:

    @ #7 Jon

    “Your a professional, please proofread!”

    “Your a professional” doesn’t make sense. Please proofread future comments.

  10. ckstevenson says:


    I don’t think you meant this, but it was implied to me, were you saying that you are trying to limit the interest areas of your kids? I think you were saying that for YOU that is a focus, to prioritize your time and hobbies. But for a little kid, you weren’t saying that, correct?

  11. Nate says:

    I need to make my in-laws realize this. Every year they get each of their grandkids at least 15-20 presents (not exagerating) and they are interested for about the first 3-4 of them. Then all they want to do is open them up and play. We’ve been trying for years to get them the realize this, but it just doesn’t sink in.

  12. Jessica says:

    Something they want
    Something they need
    Something to play with
    Something to read

  13. Jon says:

    @ #9 josh

    I don’t get paid tens of thousands of dollars to write comments. Trent gets paid to write. Thus, he should have time to proofread.

  14. Jon says:

    @ #9 josh

    My point being, I never read past the first two paragraphs of this article because it was so poorly written from the beginning. Which is one of the reasons I rarely come back here.

  15. lurker carl says:

    Here’s something to think about for Christmas. Jesus received three gifts from the Three Wise Men, each child should expect only three gifts under the tree from Santa/Mom & Dad. You can’t fully control what grandparents, relatives and friends bring but you can control your own gift giving behavior and limit children’s expections.

  16. lurker carl says:

    And there is nothing wrong with giving only one birthday gift.

  17. Jon says:

    @ lurker carl

    Technically we don’t know how many Wise Men came, only that 3 types of gifts were mentioned. Magi traditionally are numbered at 12

  18. lurker carl says:

    Jon, three were mentioned so we used that number. Three Magi or twelve Magi isn’t important here; my wife and I are only two and we couldn’t afford to indulge them with piles of expensive gifts year after year after year. Sticking with three gifts for Christmas worked well for us.

  19. Nancy says:

    #12 Jessica,

    I’m going to commit your comment to memory!

  20. I’ve heard it this way, too:
    Something you want
    Something you need
    Something to wear
    Something to read
    (Because after all, kids usually WANT playthings.)

  21. Ray says:

    For my kids, we’ve gone from tons of presents and big money presents to a couple of basic presents and one big one. This seems to work better than a huge pile. Even the grandparents have stopped buying in volume. The $100 toys seem to be a waste – crayons, books, bubble wands, lego, that stuff gets way more use by my 4 and 6 year old than some elaborate talking doll/DVD combo.

    For my friends and family, either they get something I know they really want or need, or they get a gift card. I know a GC is somewhat “lazy” and impersonal, but I explain it as – you can get something you want instead of me giving you something that is useless. We’re “old” now, so we all have too much junk.

  22. Genny says:

    Does anyone else (besides us) have a different perspective on this? We do a big Christmas and birthday and Easter and give lots of clothes and useful items as well as books and toys but just don’t buy anything else during the year. So DD will get socks and underwear in her Christmas stocking as well as fun lipgloss, She will get flip flops in her Easter basket and summer pjs as well as candy, etc. She will get a lot of fall and winter school clothes for her birthday as well as several gifts she really wants. She does get a lot of presents at holidays but if she wants anything during the year she has to buy it out of her allowance. We did this for two reasons, we love big holidays and we wanted her to be grateful for the things we gave her like clothes. She really does not bug us to buy her things during the year, and will put a want on her holiday gift list.

  23. Bubamara says:

    My husband and I have 3 small children, similarly aged to Trent’s children.
    We have decided to have a Christmas tradition of Santa bringing one BIG present for them all to share, in addition to personal presents. In previous years this one big thing has been a workbench and play tools(daddy is a carpenter), a train table, and an art easel. Then each child usually gets a couple medium and several small toy presents, some of which are tucked into the stocking with candy as space allows. We also are going “old fashioned” in not wrapping all the presents. We wrap a few. There are also a few books and needed new clothes to increase the pile ;).
    There is also a small present each on St. Nicholas’ Day and Three Kings’ Day/Twelfth Day of Christmas as my husband is from Europe and we want to honor those traditions in our family here.

    At birthdays, we do old-fashioned parties as well, cake and ice cream after light meal at home or at a park, and a few themed games/activities for a few friends. I make the cakes myself. The cake and theme is NEVER a licensed character. We don’t do presents at the party. We do a few presents, recently just one big one, at the family party with the grands at home. I don’t bring presents to his friends’ parties and don’t expect them to bring one to theirs’, actually I ask them not to.
    There are good websites about this, but the birthday parties for even lower-middle class children are ridiculous. We attended one last winter that was at a rented ball room, required costumes, and had a MOUNTAIN of presents for a 4 year old. And this was a family that at the time had no employment. *sigh* Right on, Trent! (again)

  24. Bubamara says:

    Oh, and we encourage the grands to give “experience” gifts, like yearly passes to the local aquarium, extracurricular lessons’ fees, and the like. :)

  25. M E 2 says:

    Dave clues in on one of the key components of making money.

    “We learned early on that if we help enough people, the money will come.” – Dave Ramsey

    Do you have a skill or a product that can make people’s lives better? That’s probably your key to making money.


    That’s NOT what he’s saying. He’s saying if you help enough people, eventually the goodness will be reicprocated in monetary ways elsewhere.

  26. Telephus44 says:

    I guess what I struggle with is WANTING to give things to my child. My son is the only grandchild on both sides, so he gets tons of presents for birthdays and Christmas – and it’s not like they are burying us in junk, these are well though out well-made gifts – so I don’t want to deny them the chance to experience the joy of watching him play with something new. So honestly, yes, I buy him toys during the year so that he doesn’t get overwhelmed on birthdays. But if you’re trying to restrict it to 3 presents (or 2, or 5, or whatever) – what do you do, just tell the entire rest of the family not to buy anything? Yes grandma, I know you saw that Lincoln Log set at a yard sale, that your grandson loves building things, and that all his uncles played with them growing up and you’d love to pass on the tradition, but you’re not allowed to give him a toy this year. Clothes or a trip to the zoo only.

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