Why We Do Gifts in Our Family

I've shared on a couple of occasions about our daughters' birthday parties. I've also discussed Christmas and gifts (and the problem of finding room for those gifts), and by now you've probably picked up on something about our family:

We celebrate these occasions in a pretty standard American way.

We have birthday parties. We give gifts. We receive them. We ask for a lot of experience gifts, but we don't make a big deal about it. When our girls ask for the latest and greatest trendy new toy, we at least consider buying it for their next birthday or Christmas (though often they've moved on by then, and we breathe a little sigh of relief).

Isn't this at odds with our desire to live tiny(ier)? Doesn't this encourage the ideas of consumerism and greed and accumulating things that we really don't need? Isn't this (gulp) bad for the environment and the world we inhabit?

The answer is perhaps yes.

However, we try to do things in a responsible way. We limit the number of gifts we give and receive. We try to be mindful of where we will store any gifts that we buy for our daughters. And we really don't buy them many non-necessities throughout the rest of the year. We also focus a lot of our effort to lower our carbon footprint in other areas.

Before I get into why we do what we do, I would like to take a moment to say that there are some AMAZING families out there who do some pretty spectacular things with their kids when it comes to birthdays and Christmas, and I admire them so much. The lessons their kids are learning about priorities and values and compassion and generosity are breathtaking. I've read stories of kids choosing specific charities for donations in lieu of gifts and families doing acts of service together instead of birthday parties. I've seen photos of beautiful wooden toys and furniture that add a quiet charm to a room that plastic can never replicate. I've heard recommendations for ways to simplify gift giving, from politely requesting fewer presents or certain types of presents to sticking with the ideas of something you want, something you need, something to wear (or give), and something to read for Christmas and birthdays. (We actually use this last one as a guide for birthday giving ourselves!)

I have only good things to say about the ways that these families and others like them celebrate. I think most of us could all stand to be a little more like that and a little less like Veruca Salt from Roald Dahl's classic children's novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: spoiled rotten and still asking for more.

But we have chosen a pretty traditional path for our family celebrations, and I would like to talk here about why we do what we do for Christmas and our children's birthdays. I'd also like to touch on some of the mistakes we've made over the years and ways that I wish we could do better.

Why We Do What We Do

Our family lives in a very small home, but our lifestyle is very enmeshed in our larger community of extended family and friends. A lot of the small-living families that we follow on social media or interact with online in some manner live on the road or in an isolated area. We fit into neither of these categories. We live close to friends and family, and our girls go to Sunday school and homeschooler classes. They are surrounded by kids who live traditional lifestyles in average-sized homes, sometimes with their own rooms to house their own toys. And our girls notice.

We feel that by living in such a small house with a somewhat nontraditional lifestyle, we are already asking a lot of our children. They feel left out sometimes and different sometimes. I hear Sunshine talking wistfully about friends' houses and asking why we don't buy a bigger house. We patiently explain that living like we do gives us freedom to spend more time together and to not work as many hours as other parents have to work. It's also better for the environment, and, in many ways, better for us as individuals. She usually gets quiet at that point. I don't always know what's going on inside her head and how much she understands or doesn't understand about our choices for our family. She doesn't often complain about our situation, and I hope someday she will better understand why we live so differently from the people we know. She's young still, and she doesn't really understand that everything costs something, be it money or time or your sanity. But she does know that not everyone lives like we do, and she's still on her own journey to make sense of her place in this world.

Sunshine is such a social child. Birthday parties are EVERYTHING to her, and she has a wishlist a mile long. (I'm pretty sure she's already forgotten about most of the items on it, but I dutifully write things down for her when she asks.) More than that, sometimes she just wants to be a normal kid like everyone else.

So we do the parties and send the invitations. We invite the family and friends and give them leeway to bless our girls in ways that they choose, though we try to give appropriate suggestions when asked. Sometimes large gifts find homes at Nana's house or Grandma's house or a cousins' garage, where they can be enjoyed during our frequent visits and playdates. Sometimes gifts get loved for a time and then gifted or donated to someone else to love.

That's not to say we always get it right. We have definitely got it wrong at times

In fact, sometimes we have majorly missed the mark with gifts for our girls.
  • Sunshine went through a phase where she was in love with little chairs as a toddler, so we bought her a little chair from IKEA thinking that she would love it. She loved knocking it over and pushing it out of her way! It now lives at a cousin's house, and she still thinks of it as her chair, even if she's outgrowing it and anyone is welcome to use it. We thought she would love having her own chair at home, but it turns out she's just not that kind of kid!
  • Two years ago, we bought Sweetheart a dollhouse that folds up to be about the size of a large watermelon. For nine months, she barely touched it. We were just about ready to get rid of it and free up the space when she started pulling it out to play. She loves it now, but it just sat there taking up space for nearly a year, and when you live in a home the size of ours, you can't really afford to keep toys that just take up space and never get touched. Especially ones the size of watermelons.
  • We used to buy our girls a lot more books when they were little. It became overwhelming, to say the least. We have our favorites that we keep around, even some that are clearly outgrown but still hold sentimental value, but for the most part we utilize the library more than the book store these days.

We hope to continue to do better

We're not planning to stop hosting birthday parties or to stop giving our daughters presents at Christmas. Far from it. But as the holidays approach, we're setting out to be as mindful as we can about the gifts we give. We're planning to spend more than prior years on gifts this Christmas in order to give our girls things they really want and will use rather than to simply fit another gift under the tree. We feel blessed to be financially able to do that at this point in our lives. There have been years when this wouldn't have been possible for us, and I do not take our current abundance for granted.

I've also given a lot of thought to what kind of gifts I would appreciate most for myself that won't take up a lot of space in our home. I'm hoping to be able to get my wedding rings resized now that we're done having babies and my weight has stopped fluctuating. It's been six years since I was able to wear my heirloom diamond engagement ring, and I miss it. It's so easy to let non-essential things like that fall to the wayside, but it's definitely something that will mean a lot to me, and my parents have generously offered to fund this for me as a gift this holiday season. Realizing that every gift doesn't have to be exciting in the moment to be worthwhile is a lesson that I'm trying to take to heart more and more, and sometimes the best gifts are the ones that quietly bring you joy day in and day out long after the latest toy or gadget has been forgotten in a drawer or closet somewhere. This is something I'm still learning myself that I hope to teach our kids as they get older.

As the holidays approach, I am reminded of one of my favorite Christmas stories, and I think we all have room for a little more Dr. Seuss in our lives. All of the gifts and the fun and excitement and the food are good and wonderful things as long as we can remember what's really meaningful beneath all of that. We love the Christmas season and everything that comes with it. We want to give our children the whole experience of lights and shopping and music and the excitement of waking up to filled stockings on Christmas morning. But we also want them to heed the realization of one Mr. Grinch:

"Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more." 

Finding that balance is our goal, and it's one that we're still endeavoring every year to get right.