CRANFORD, N.J., July 22 — At Gavin Brown’s 4th birthday party, the usual detritus lined the edges of the backyard: sippy cups, sunscreen, water shoes, stuffed animals. There were 44 guests and as many buns on the grill, in addition to an elaborate ice cream cake adorned with a fire truck. For the adults, there was sangria and savory corn salsa.

But the only gift in sight was a little red Matchbox hook and ladder rig. All the bounty from Gavin’s birthday — $240 in checks and cash collected in a red box next to a plastic fire helmet — went to the Cranford Fire Department.

“Thanks, buddy,” Lt. Frank Genova said on Sunday when Gavin handed over the loot, after which he took a tour of the pumper truck and tried on a real captain’s helmet. With the party proceeds, the birthday boy suggested, the firefighters “can buy new fire trucks, new equipment, and more food.”

In part to teach philanthropy and altruism, and in part as a defense against swarms of random plastic objects destined to clutter every square foot of their living space, a number of families are experimenting with gift-free birthday parties, suggesting that guests donate money or specified items to the charity of the child’s choice instead.

Witness, perhaps, the first hyper-parenting trend that does not reek of wanton excess.

Grown-ups who have everything have long politely requested “presence” instead of presents for later-in-life birthdays and anniversaries, and some couples have recently shunned the wedding registry, instead directing loved ones to donate.

Now, the trickle-down effect: Annie Knapp of Milford, N.J., collected $675 at her Sweet 16 in April for Heifer International, which provides livestock to poor families. Zachary Greene, who lives in the Chicago suburbs, turned 8 in November surrounded by books that his friends brought for a local reading program. And in Randolph, N.J., 6-year-old Jack Knapp (no relation to Annie) even got his grandparents to lug a 50-pound bag of kibble to his party for the local animal shelter.

Maggie Jones, director of Children for Children, a New York nonprofit, said that in the last year the number of participants in the group’s Celebrations program — which encourages “a tradition of giving” around milestones like birthdays, bar or bat mitzvahs and graduations — has more than doubled to 100-plus families. Ms. Jones said that she knew of four private schools in New York City that had made such parties the standard.

Davida Isaacson, a principal with Myerberg Shain & Associates,  a fund-raising consulting firm, says that no-gift parties are one prong of a growing movement to involve even the youngest children in philanthropy. Some parents match children’s charitable donations dollar for dollar, she said, while others invite them to research causes and help decide which ones to support.

She recalled one wealthy couple telling their son when he was 18 or 19 that they were dividing their estate as if they had four children instead of three, the fourth being charity.

“The kid stormed out of the room,” she said. “And he came back a few minutes later and said, ‘You know, that’s really neat.’ ”

The gift-free party does have its detractors, most eloquent among them Judith Martin, who writes the Miss Manners syndicated column.

“People seem to forget that you can’t spend other people’s money, even for a good cause,” Ms. Martin said in a phone interview. “Do you really want the birthday child to grow up hating philanthropy because it’s done him out of his birthday presents?”

While she sympathizes with parents’ desire to avoid materialistic feeding frenzies, Ms. Martin advised: “They’d be much better off getting together with the other parents and agreeing on very small presents.” Besides, she noted, children learn valuable lessons giving gifts they would rather keep for themselves — and saying thank you even for things they do not like.

Toyi Ward, president of Favor Party Planning in Somerset, N.J., recalled a slightly traumatic no-gift party in which the birthday boy watched guests pile up items destined for underprivileged children through the group Toys for Tots. “The birthday child was 4, and it was a little difficult, because there were some toys in there he might have really wanted,” Ms. Ward recalled.

Catherine Racette gave the thumbs-down to  a recent no-gifts party she attended (bringing a gift anyhow). “I mean, it’s the kid’s birthday,” she wrote on a community bulletin board, “Let them get gifts — that’s kind of the fun of being a kid.”

Bill Doherty, who helped create Birthdays Without Pressure, a Web site opposed to expensive, competitive parties in the Nickelodeon set, said the no-gift notion was “great, especially if the child is involved in choosing the charity,” but cautioned that “it could become another source of competition.”

“Kind of like rich people and their gala charity balls,” he explained, “so people would ask, ‘How much did your child raise for charity?’ ”

In Randolph, N.J., Jack Knapp’s family has a five-year tradition of redirecting birthday benefits: They have collected dress-up clothes for a girl with cancer, items for the pediatric emergency room at Morristown Memorial Hospital and groceries for the Interfaith Food Pantry.

After seeing her two older siblings treated like heroes when they dropped off their haul, the youngest, Emily, recently told her mother, Mindy Knapp, that she wants gifts for her 4th birthday next month to go to the neonatal unit. Not that she can define neonatal.

“She said, ‘Could we give stuff to the babies at the hospital?’ Mrs. Knapp said. “Now they wouldn’t think of doing it any other way.”

Mrs. Knapp said her children’s grandparents “always support whatever cause the kids are into,” but also insist on giving them gifts, noting, “Otherwise it would be like a scene from ‘Mommie Dearest.’ ” As for skeptics, Mrs. Knapp said, “once they come to the party and see how the kids are all so excited, every single parent who expressed any doubt to me has said later, ‘I take it back; it’s a beautiful thing you’re teaching your kids.’ ”

Last year, Jack went to a party for twins where there was what Mrs. Knapp described as “a mountain of birthday presents.”

“He went up to them and said, ‘Wow, who’s getting all that stuff?’ ” she recalled. “It never occurred to him that they were bringing them home.”

Here at Gavin’s party, the 20 children did not bring gifts, but they left with them: organic cotton Ecobags filled with fruit leathers, likewise organic, and wooden toys.

Gavin’s mother, Shelley Brown, said she began talking with her son about the possibility of a present-free party several months ago. “We’re trying to raise him in a way of not being too much of a consumer,” said Ms. Brown, 35, who carried his year-old brother, Griffin, in a sling most of the afternoon. “He definitely has enough things.”

Kyle Miller of Cranford, whose 2-year-old daughter, Cady, attended the party, appreciated the life lesson that came with it. “We’re incredibly fortunate — we have an abundance of material things — but maybe that’s not the message we want to give our kids,” she said. “We want a different message.”

Another guest, Glenn Johnson, admitted to being a bit nervous about the prospect of showing up at a child’s party empty-handed (though he did bring $20 for the firefighters). So a model airplane, neatly wrapped, sat outside in his Toyota, just in case.


Tiny Kelley, New York Times