This past weekend, my four-year- old daughter attended two birthday parties, one right after the other. Culturally, I am always at a loss on what to bring as a birthday gift and how much to spend, particularly when I don’t know the child myself. I wish there were some rule stating that birthday gifts are not necessary unless your child plays with the birthday child at least once a week outside of school. I just feel quite a bit more pressure when I don’t know the parents or the child, because you are blindly buying a gift and one of the measures of success seems to be how much you spend. I still feel that the thoughtfulness behind the gift is more important than the gift itself, and I appreciate well-thought out gifts over expensive ones. Besides, I really think most children have too many toys to begin with. The birthday party should be about the child having fun with her friends (or his, of course), rather than what each guest brings. In fact, I can remember who came to my own birthday parties and what we did, but I can only name one present from all of those ten years of parties. That should be a good enough reason to stop bringing gifts to every single birthday party.
The flipside of birthday gifts is of course the goodie bag, which was the original reason I decided on this topic. Goodie bags can be well-thought out or just thematic cheap toys. Obviously, I prefer well thought out bags, as a parent, though these are much harder to come up with. A bag of thematic cheap plastic toys just ends of being slowly recycled over the course of several weeks and a few tantrums, which is a waste of money, resources, and emotions. However, my daughter uses the colored pencils from one goodie bag daily (what a brilliant idea!) and very much enjoyed the slice of cake she took home in lieu of a goodie bag last year. This past weekend’s bags were also well thought out, and everyone came out ahead for them. Each had only two or three sweets, which was just enough for my daughter to appreciate, but not enough to rot her teeth or break the bank. One bag had a whoopee cushion and a water pistol, neither of which I regret, yet. The other, I kid you not, had a pair of knickers and a pair of socks.
Knickers and socks. That was about the last thing I was expecting, and it seemed a bit odd. On the other hand, I immediately recognized why this was so useful for everyone involved. My daughter was thrilled, because she likes anything new and colorful. She will actually wear them until she outgrows them. For the parent throwing the party, it was less expensive than cheap plastic toys and any leftovers were probably put to immediate good use. I admire the parent for going out on a limb and putting in nice looking underclothes, and I wish more of us would be as brave. It will certainly raise the bar the next time I consider what to put in goodie bags.
So why is a goodie bag so important, or a birthday gift for that matter? These little mundane things reflect the decisions we must make daily, particularly about where to spend our money, but also about what we feel is a good use of energy and resources. In the case of birthday parties and goodie bags, we have been conditioned to expect certain standards of ourselves and others, and those standards seem to have snowballed into the unreasonable. What is wrong with expecting the presence of friends and loved ones at a celebration to be the best and only gift? Do we not think enough of ourselves and our relationships or our children and their relationships?
The knickers and socks gave me pause because they were so unexpected, but I appreciate the gesture. In an ideal world, they would have been carbon-neutral organic fair-trade cotton and guaranteed to not have come from a sweatshop, but we don’t live in that world right now. Right now, all the little girls in my daughter’s nursery class are comparing their new socks and sharing memories about the party, which is enough. Small steps, like scaling down goodie bags and birthday gifts, give us a place to start.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go hide the whoopee cushion for my unsuspecting husband…