The Gift of a Goat

Ellen Padnos
Ellen Padnos

I need some help from the moms of the world out there. I’d really love your feedback after you read the problem I’m thinking through…

We have too many toys in our house.  Sound familiar? I fantasize about being that woman who either throws away or donates “stuff” that hasn’t been used in a while, or even a mom who cleans and organizes toys every night so pieces of plastic don’t get left across various rooms on multiple floors.

Sadly, I’m not.

My son’s 5th birthday is coming up in February.  He’s a great kid. If ever there was a child worthy of receiving presents it’s this kind, happy little soul. However, we spend a lot of time talking about the world, looking at the globe, and imagining what life is like for other people, particularly in Third World countries.

This past summer, we had a really interesting experience where we shared a house with a girl who had basically never slept in her own bed before. Although she lived in the US, her family was quite poor and she’d always had to sleep on couches, cots, in sleeping bags, or in a “family bed”, snuggled with her parents and/or siblings.

Maybe Anthony was too young, but when he started crying because it was hot, I used it as an opportunity to teach him about “perspective” – real problems vs. problems that may feel important but in actuality are trivial.

As all kids do, he is counting down the days to his birthday. I’ve explained to him that instead of presents this year at his birthday party, we are going to collect money (anonymously) from friends instead of getting gifts from them.  With this money, we are going to buy a goat for a family in Africa through Heifer International. According to their website, “A gift of an animal through Heifer International not only brings hope and change to families around the world, but also brings sustainable prosperity to entire communities. Help make a difference in the lives of those in need today!”

I’m not entirely sure if it will be a goat (it may be a cow) or if it will be in Africa (it could be another country such as India or Pakistan), but I didn’t want to be too abstract for him.  He said he loved the idea!  Then, a couple of days later he said, “Mom, it may be weird and dirty for us to keep a goat in the house.” Oops, I guess he didn’t totally get it…

So I tried again. “Take 2”: I explained again, right before Christmas. When someone presented him with a gift he broke into tears explaining to them that children in Africa had nothing, “sometimes not even parents,” so he shouldn’t have anything either. Oh shoot – was I robbing this poor kid of his childhood?

It’s now time for “Take 3.” Do I let this kid get mountains of unneeded presents from his friends? Is five too young to start raising his consciousness?

Like all moms, I just want the best for my kids.  It seemed like such a great idea; no additional stuff cluttering up my house, a kid learning and giving back, a good lesson for his buddies and their parents, and best of all, a person or family who really needs it would have a goat or cow that could potentially change their lives.

But the reality of a “no gifts” party is setting in, and I’m worried Anthony will be very disappointed.

What do you think I should do?

[ Editor’s Update: Please see the follow-up story, Water Buffaloes and Bees and Goats, Oh My!, which posted on February 8, 2012. ]

Click here to see more articles on by Ellen Padnos.

Ellen Padnos lives in Manhattan Beach, CA with her husband, Ben, her children Anthony (4), and Annie (1), and her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Lola. You can also follow her on Twitter (@ellenpadnos).


  1. There are no easy answers. My take on this is that doing good for other should never feel like a sacrifice. Why substitute one form of suffering for another? The learning in time is to find the awesome liberating joy that comes with sharing. If it is is not there, and it takes time, then don’t push it. I am with Heifer and we developed this program about giving which I think Anthony will find interesting.
    Please tell me what you think?

    Peace and joy

  2. This is such a timely post! My daughter’s first birthday is coming up and I specifically put *no gifts* on the birthday card invitation (for all of the reasons you listed above) but age one is vastly differently that age five. I think you are going down the right path of social consciousness, plus a couple of thoughtful gifts from family is always better than a mountain of stuff from others.

  3. Here’s a quick thought: In the US, there are ~50MM children between the ages of 0 and 11 ( If 2% of children’s birthday parties became “fundraisers” where families raised $200 for charities like Heifer International, or Ronald McDonald House, Healthy Child Healthy World, UNICEF, or Toys for Tots – pick a charity (ideally something children can easily understand and relate to) – that would be $200MM a year. And the kids wouldn’t even notice not getting that extra box of Legos or Start Wars or Dora the Explorer doll!

  4. I find this commendable. However, I wonder if it might be more meaningful to a 5 yo if you were able to collect gifts (or books, food, or $$) and then *take* them to a local charity – maybe the children’s hospital, shelter, food pantry, or whatever you find in your community. That’s much less abstract to someone his age, while still teaching the same lesson.

  5. I love the idea. It teaches our children to be giving from a young age, rather than always expecting something. A few family presents are fine. These days when kids have birthday parties– they get a ton of gifts–it’s often way too much. There’s also the competitive aspect with moms that create gift bags for every child invited to the party. Instead of a simple birthday party–it’s about how can I top the last party my child went to and do I measure up with all the other moms?

  6. What a great idea! You have inspired me to think more about birthdays, holidays, and just life in general for my daughter, and how we can tie in ways to teach her about giving back, and developing a social consciousness. LIsten to your intuition about what to do for Anthony’s birthday. You know him best, and know what he can handle at this age. Each child is different. Thanks for sharing your struggle and thoughts on this. I look forward to hearing how everything goes!

  7. Perhaps you could contact Heifer International about getting a pen pal (email pal) for your son so he could read first hand what a difference the gift of a goat made in the life of a child his age. I had a pen pal as a 7 year old from Africa for an entire school year. It was enlightening and unforgettable, a very treasured memory for me.

  8. Two guys we know had a wedding in NYC in 2001. Like so many same sex couples who had lived together many years before their wedding, they seemed to have almost everything they needed. (This is before they had children.) We gave them two goats as their wedding present. They loved it. And since then, when their children attend “no gifts please” birthday parties, chicks or ducks from Heifer international are what their family donates!

  9. In our house, we go through toys and books with our now 3 1/2 year old twice a year (just before Christmas and his birthday in May) and let him pick out stuff to donate to kids who aren’t as fortunate as he and his baby sister are. That allows him to have some control over what stays and what goes, and allows us to have a chance to clear out at least one large trashbag’s worth of stuff before we are faced with more on Christmas morning and his birthday. He always goes with me to the charity of choice, and this has worked out really well for our family.

  10. We did something very similar for my sons 5th birthday. Instead of presents for him we asked everyone to please bring an item for the local humane society. he loves animals and actually came up with the place on his own. Maybe doing something like this, where he can take the gifts will allow him to better understand the concept.

  11. My son is turning 3 in March and I have been having the same debate. He is currently an only child so any and all toys in our house are his! March really isn’t that far from Christmas and he just got a ton of stuff as gifts. I wanted to suggest people bring a donation (money or gift) for the MD SPCA (Animal shelter in the area) that he can go to with us to donate the items. We are actually doing a joint birthday party with a friend whose son has the same exact birthday. We actually discussed it and she said they were thinking the same thing and suggested Ronald McDonald house – both great places. At least for me, I will still have family (parents and our siblings) bring gifts and we will have some too, so he has something to open (but it won’t be out of hand) and then people can decide if they want to donate or just do no gift.

  12. No gifts at 5 is hard. But someone will bring a gift to the party anyway. You might even give your guests the option to gift or donate. I think it is a lovely idea! I have two small girls (6&3), and we are always looking for ways to raise their social awareness. I think it is easier for them if it is local. We had a big yard sale last year and my girls had a lemon aide stand, together they decided to donate all the money to a local animal shelter. I was SO proud! Also LOVE the pen pal idea from above!!

  13. I think you should let people give a gift if they wish. When they are invited to a party in celebration of you boy it is their choice if/when/what they want to give (or not give). Let the choice be in their hands.

    Also, I think that in order to truly understand the impact of giving–it is important to have strong memories of receiving. I think a birthday is a lovely occasion to shower your boy with gifts and teach him the lesson of having a thankful heart. Then, he will understand the joy he will show to someone else when he gives of himself (time, talent,, goat $, etc).

    Life is a balance. The important thing is to make sure your son feels valued and celebrated on his birthday, however that may look to you guys!

  14. While I think your idea is a noble one I think 5 may be too young to accomplish what you are thinking. My personal thought is start smaller have him help his community, somewhere he drives by everyday, rather then a country he knows nothing if anything about, it wont seem real. Second if you have say 10 kids coming to his party make him pick 12 things( or more) to give to a kids charity. Less clutter, he is helping and receiving new toys. I completely support having your kids get involved with the less fortunate but I have an almost 5 year old and he would grasp that somewhere in africa a goat will help someone. He would however understand he is helping sweep the floors at the food bank so his neighbors can get some assistance.

  15. My son has been to a couple of birthday parties where they asked the guests to bring canned goods, or pet supplies rather than gifts for the birthday girl/boy. It’s worked quite well! We will be doing the same this year. I approached it in this way. We as his parents will be getting him gifts, but at the friend party we will collect something to donate…his pick of what to collect and for which charity.

  16. I think it is a great idea to give to those less fortunate and it teaches our kids to think of others. I know for Christmas a couple of my students bought ducks in their teachers names they have many purposes from eggs on to help provide for these families. And the kids look forward to going online with their mom and doing this every year.

  17. I love this idea and I think my daughter will be wanting to do something like this for her 8th birthday. But I think perhaps five is a little young to totally comprehend why he is not getting any gifts for his birthday – he may do better with a more tangible giving like taking his old toys to a shelter. Either way, it’s a good direction to head, even if it’s not 100% this year – thanks for the inspiration!

  18. I would say 5 is a little too young to understand how him getting nothing, helps a kid in need, without him directly seeing it. I do think it is a great idea though. I would suggest letting him receive gifts, but before(or after) his birthday, or any other holiday, have him sort through his present toys. Donate, or sell, those toys. That way he is learning how to help others, while still allowing him to be a child. There are enough children/families here in America that do not have anything either. Most cities have local agencies that help those types of families you can take him to in order to donate his toys. I already do this with my 2 year old.

  19. There’s a company called ECHOage birthday parties. Your guests log on and leave a gift donation and then your child gets to choose an item which is worth half the donation $. The other half goes to the charity of your child’s choice (from the ECHOage approved list). Better for the environment AND a good way to teach charity to your child!

  20. Both our 10 and 12 year old have done the no gift birthday party. We have so many toys too. One of them asked all the party goers to bring used sports equipment and we sent it to SportGifts in California. They are a great non profit that helps bring sports to kids who
    don’t have the chance to play a sport. Our other son asked for everyone to bring dog supplies to donate to muttmaddness a rescue we have adopted from in the past. They never missed not having gifts and normally receive money from grandparents that they can buy things they want in the future. We have also given a percentage of christmas money from family to missions projects at school and church. Today kids have so much it’s nice for them to give instead of get. Blessings to your family.

  21. Though I love the idea, I think 5 is too young to get it. I would get him one special toy, at least so he has something to be happy about.

  22. My daughter has had “no gift” parties for years. I think a friend started this tradition when her son was about five or so. We adopted it either in Kindergarten or First Grade. My daughter doesn’t feel left out because her family (grandparents, etc.) buys her gifts. She still has a party (which she loves) but her friends bring donations to a charity that she helps chose. One year she wanted to help animals so we collected things for a pet shelter. She went with me to drop off the items and tour where the animals lived. We have also collected for food pantries a couple of times. I think it is a valuable lesson to share with your kids and I’m glad you are exploring this option.

  23. A child’s birthday and charity are two seperate things. Let the child experience the joy of recieving gifts and let his loved ones have the joy of giving to him and celebrating his birth. If the child comes up with the idea of a no presents party on his own, then I would definately do it. You mentioned you are not quite sure about the no presents party. I always follow Oprah’s advice “doubt means don’t”.

  24. I asked that children who came to my daughter’s birthday party bring a new book that my daughter donated to a local school for homeless children. Many of my friends have asked children to donate toward a cause or buying an animal for a family in a third world country at their parties. My daughter, and most kids I know, already have way too many toys they don’t play with. And all of them will still get a few presents they really want from grandma and grandpa. My daughter really enjoyed giving the books to the children and didn’t miss the over abundance of presents.

  25. My daughter when she was turning 9 decided she had too much stuff and wanted her friends to bring things for cats and dogs. Then when her birthday was over we took the blankets, food, and toys and other supplies her friends had brought and took it to the local SPCA. They loved it. So did my daughter. My current almost 5 year-old I’m not sure would go for it. She might in the beginning because it sounds like a good idea and she likes cats and dogs. But after she might not really understand that the gifts weren’t hers, and she would be giving them away. I don’t know. I say wait a little longer, but it is an individual choice and you have to do what is right for you and your family. I’m thinking on my next birthday to tell my family to give me gifts that I can give to a certain charity to be a good role model for my kids.

  26. I say it is never too early to teach kids about helping others. Around Christmas I took my 2 and 3 year olds to make toys to send to kids who had never even held a toy. My 3 year old went from saying he wanted to a be a cowboy to wanting to a be a tool man so he can make cars for all the kids who don’t have any toys.

    I also teach my boys that what we have is a blessing. Some are given more then others, that doesn’t make us any better, but it does give us more responsibility. We have more and therefore can bless others more.

    I say go for it, teach your son to care for others, to be aware of his world and not just himself. If you are worried about him feeling sad about not having anything to open maybe you can have him open things for the kids. Make a poster with your goal, how much it takes to buy a cow, then have your friends and family put the money in an envelope for him to pen and record to see how close he is getting to the goal. That way he will be excited and probably wont even think about not getting any presents.

  27. Heifer International is great, and so is My 11 year old, also named Anthony, now chooses which small group or individual receives his donations, in $25 increments, they are “microloans” to people around the world. Go with what feels right to you and your family, and know that you can change it. (Parenting is a ‘work in progress’.) Thanks for opening up this discussion. Also, it does alot more good in the world to donate to kids and people–the pet food industry is huge! Happy Birthday, Congratulations, and Best Wishes!

  28. An approach we took recently with our five year old was similarly minded, at least when it comes to minimizing toys in our own household.

    Our son is very much into the whole idea of reduce, reuse, recycle.

    We did a library theme party and asked guests to bring a gently used wrapped book in lieu of a gift. At the end of the party, we had a book exchange and all of our attendees went home with a new favorite! He didn’t even notice that he didn’t get a ton of gifts and all the parents were actually quite pleased with the idea.

    Not quite Heifer (which we have been given as a wedding gift), but still teaching the idea of sharing with others.

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