Advice Columns

Miss Manners: A pressing problem with presents for kids’ birthday parties

Q: We are preparing to celebrate my daughter’s fourth birthday and are hosting her first party. We don’t expect any gifts. The invitation is extended for them to come celebrate with us, no gifts expected.

Lately, on half the invitations we’ve received, there is a statement about “your presence is the only present required.” But if we show up empty-handed, there still appears to be a pile of gifts, and we feel embarrassed. When there is no mention on the invite, people still seem to bring gifts.

Is it better to put the “no gifts” disclaimer on the invitation or just say nothing and hope they know that it’s not expected? It seems tacky to mention gifts, but might it appear that we expect them if nothing is said?

A: When you say that “we” do not expect any gifts, Miss Manners would be delighted, if surprised, to hear that the pronoun includes your daughter and not just you and your spouse.

Denying, convincingly, that your child is counting on a present, and yet showing enthusiastic gratitude when one arrives, is good manners, but it would require an emotional dexterity that challenges even adults. Although hypocrisy in the name of good manners can be a virtue, telling people on the invitation that a present is not expected at the birthday of a 4-year-old strains credulity beyond reason.

Better to omit any mention of presents, accept the gifts that do arrive with a smile, a thank-you — and, of course, a subsequent thank-you card — and put them away quickly, for later consumption.

Q: Why are cuss words, cuss words?

A: By general agreement, arising from usage, that certain words are offensive. Miss Manners is therefore puzzled that people who enjoy shocking others sprinkle them around so freely as to nullify their effectiveness.

Q: A very dear friend of the family has passed away. He will be cremated with a memorial service in the future. I would like to do or give something to his widow, but I’m not sure what would be appropriate.

A: Gift-giving in connection with funerals has a long and troubled history, tied up as it unavoidably is with the feelings of the survivors. But death should not be automatically considered a fundraising opportunity.

Until recently, gifts tended to flow from the bereaved family to other mourners. Victorian widows provided mourning clothes to their servants, who were allowed to keep them, presumably because they already fit, and in the expectation that the staff might be affected by financial consequences resulting from the loss of family income. Modern widows sometimes give personal items belonging to the deceased to relatives and friends as tokens of remembrance.

Gifts to the principal mourner raise different issues. The desperate family whose source of support died may be discreetly helped by friends financially, although good taste precludes this from being preceded by active solicitations by the recipients.

Whether or not the loss was economic, death is inevitably a loss of company and companionship. Miss Manners therefore observes that unobtrusive but ongoing attention is often the most welcome present.

Judith Martin writes the Miss Manners column with help from her son, Nicholas Ivor Martin, and her daughter, Jacobina Martin. Send your questions to Miss Manners at her website, MissManners.com; or through postal mail to Miss Manners, Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.

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