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Do We Always Have to Buy a Gift?

Q: Dear Kim,

When your children are invited to a birthday party and you have either no intention of going or a conflict in your schedule and cannot attend, are you still obligated to give the birthday child a gift? I ask because we have lots of friends and it gets expensive purchasing so many gifts.

A: Dear Popular,

So many people, so many parties. At least this is a nice problem to have. And what a perfect time of year to address the etiquette of gift-giving!

You are never obligated to give a gift. Many people consider gift-giving to be a two-way street. You give me a gift, now I have to give you one. But the very nature of a gift is that it is not meant to be reciprocal. A gift is something you give without expectation of receiving something in return. Our commercial culture has attached too much weight to the concept.

Whatever the case, it's never wrong to give a gift. Just make sure it's in line with your family's budget.

When choosing a gift for anyone, or whether or not to give one in the first place, stop and think about some of the best gifts you've ever received. The ones that obviously had time, energy and thought put into them are, to me, the presents that are the most valuable.

A close second is the unexpected offering, especially from a child. One spring I stayed with some friends for a few nights out of town, and when I left, their 4-year-old girl gave me a tiny, furry koala bear. Remember the kind whose arms and legs are like little vise grips, and you can clip it onto your clothing or your suitcase or someone else's nose? She had gone into her room, selected this favorite little bear, and given it to me to remember her by. It didn't take much effort, but it glowed with affection and it symbolized that she had enjoyed our brief weekend visit that much.

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That koala bear is still on top of my dresser a year later, even though I have two kids of my own who make me sloppy, love-fueled gifts all the time.

If your kids have birthday or holiday parties seemingly every weekend (and this can get especially crazy the more kids you have), and you grow increasingly harried as your errand list grows, take a moment to think about the next birthday child. Is he someone with whom your kid is particularly close? Or are you good friends with the child's parents? In that case, it will likely make that child feel special to receive a gift from your family. It will make you feel good, too, knowing that you did something to help make this birthday memorable.

If the party is for someone who is a more distant acquaintance, a simple message with your regrets is fine (and, dare I say, required—it's lame to skip the RSVP process). But if you have time and you want to add to the birthday boy or girl's joy even if you can't be at the party, you can send a little treat to school the next day or drop it off as a surprise.

Whatever the case, it's never wrong to give a gift. Just make sure it's in line with your family's budget. For that classmate or soccer team acquaintance, even a small gift like a cool pencil or a package of fun stickers taped to a homemade card will brighten the birthday child's day. It will also send a clear message to his parents that you are a classy and thoughtful person whose children are worthy of inviting over for another party or perhaps a play date.

See? You just bought yourself some guilt-free, kid-free time. Everybody wins.

Do you have a dilemma that's too big for your friends, but too small for a therapist? Send it to me at mommecs@bermanbraun.com, and I may choose to answer it in next week's column. I've got your back.

MORE: Throw the Ultimate Kids' Birthday Party

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