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Why I stopped giving return gifts at my kid's birthday parties

This year, I stopped the practice of return gifts and something interesting happened

Some parents pull out all the stops to plan an unbelievable return gift.
Some parents pull out all the stops to plan an unbelievable return gift. (Unsplash)

“Aunty! Uncle! Where is my return gift?” If you are a parent, you would have undoubtedly heard this line during the tail end of your child’s birthday party. 

When I was a kid, just a party in the building was enough incentive to turn up and have fun. When did return favours become absolute must-haves in children’s birthday parties? I wonder if we borrowed this tradition from weddings. Do kids demand return gifts because parents normalise it or do we adults crumble in the face of that determined kid who sidles up to ask for a party favour?

Some parents pull out all the stops to plan an unbelievable return gift. A parent I know once threw a birthday party and gave each kid a fish in a bowl as a return gift! I am glad my daughter and I could not make it to that party. I am so scatter-brained that you cannot entrust me with a rock as a pet, let alone a live one. I am hazardous to plants too so yes, that poor fish escaped me. 

My friend told me that her daughter was invited to a Squid Game themed birthday party where the parents gave away customised Squid Game pencils and bobbleheads. To quote Phoebe Buffay from Friends, “now I’ve seen everything.” 

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Who am I to judge? Many years ago, I was caught up in this madness too. For my daughter’s first birthday, I blew tons of money on a party planner who organised personalised boxes, cupcakes, and all kinds of complicated return favours. I doubt if my daughter understood or even cared. She was 1. All she wanted to do was to play with the cardboard cake box and take naps.

As a new mum, I was obsessed with planning the perfect return favours too. Ever heard that famous line from a book titled The Hours by Michael Cunningham? “Oh Mrs. Dalloway. Always giving parties to cover the silence.” That was me, trying to throw the perfect birthday party when it truly did not exist.

Before I was a mum, I was not even keen to plan my own wedding because the whole exercise bored me. So what changed?

Perhaps as new mums we undergo an existential crisis for some time. We are constantly with our kids, breast and bottle. Our work takes a backseat, sometimes never to return. Our identities dissolve into everyday schedules, nap times, and meal planning. These days, though, we just want to keep it simple because honestly, we’re fed up of the combat sport that this has become. Maybe this is what growth feels like - not wanting to compete with other moms about who commissions the best-looking cake. 

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I asked a few fellow parents why they hand out return gifts . “The kids need something to do on their way back home,” one parent said. “If it is a pencil or a crayon and a little notepad, they can draw on it and it can keep them occupied.” During a trip back home in a scooter or a car, all a child wants to do is look at the world rolling by. My daughter can do it for hours!

Another problem I have with return gifts is the amount of useless plastic the tradition generates. At one point, my whole house was filled with return gifts that my daughter had not used for more than a few hours, a litany of plastic that filled every nook and corner - sickly pink erasers, generic sharpeners, pocket books, pens, and pencils that did not work more than once. 

This year, I decided to break tradition and have no return gifts! Surprisingly, only one boy asked me why. I said, “Did you have a good time? Isn’t that the best return gift?” He smiled as he got into the auto and said, “Yes, aunty. Thank you.” A return gift is instant gratification. Once they get past the disappointment of not getting one, kids simply forget and move on. 

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Looking back at that landfill of plastic return gifts, the only things that stand out are the experiences - my daughter tasting cake for the first time when she was 1, her face breaking into a smile when she realised it was not medicine or baby food. Or how during her fifth birthday party, she and her friends were obsessed with the wrapping on a gift and were giggling when trying to tear it up. Or her entire class in a new city showing up at her party to make her feel at home.

The party is the return gift, the experiences are what make it fun. Let’s tame the excess and instead take photographs and make fun memories. Your kid and her bestie discovering how cake mixed with samosa is a yum combination? That’s a memory for the ages. A return gift cannot even come close. 

Shweta Sharan is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.

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