Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Annual Birthday Party Showdown

Semira celebrating her 5th birthday last February

At the risk of ticking off half or more of my friends, I apologize in advance. But I have to get my ongoing issues with children’s birthday parties off my chest. It is something I just can’t escape especially with two kids being invited to endless birthday parties (already three in January)! And it is very timely as we begin planning for Semira’s 6th birthday.

Let me say that I am not a scrooge and I don’t hate the concept of having a birthday party for your child. I have problems with what comes with these parties, namely presents and loot bags. Here’s a recap of a recent conversation in the Prager Household.

Me: Semira, have thought about what you want to do for your birthday this year?

Semira: I want a gymnastics party.

Me: Like last year? That’s great. Gymnastics is fun for both boys and girls.

Semira: Mom, can I get presents this year?

Me: Nope.

Semira: Ugh! (Followed by grumps, snorts, and crossing of the arms, etc.)

Me: Semira, it's too many presents. You do not need 20 new things, half of which will be junk and the other half you won't play with much. We will still buy you a nice present. We can look online later for something you might like.

We search and search online for something. It is obvious Semira has no idea what she wants (except for a DS which is a big fat NO). She can’t even think of anything (probably because she doesn’t watch TV). So I do a Google search to find out what toys were the hot items for girls her age this Christmas. What do we find? Nothing she is all that interested in or anything I am willing to buy. Sorry, I won’t be spending $200 on a giant plastic toy. I just can’t do it and sleep at night. We finally come up with a dog that barks, pants, walks, etc. I think it is silly, but whatever…it was the lesser of many evils.

Later that same night, all four of us are in the upstairs bathroom getting ready for bed and brushing teeth. I give Steve a quick recap of what we settled on for a present.

Me: So Semira would like this dog that barks, pants, and walks for her birthday. We looked a lot and so much of what we found was S-H-I-T (I spell it out).

Lily: Ooooohhhh Poppy, Mommy said a bad word! I know what she said. Can I say it? Can I say what she said?

Me: Sure, go ahead.

Lily: Mommy said SHIT!

Me: Yes Lily, I did say that most of the toys we found were shit.

The moral to the story…Lily can spell! (I am still working on losing the sailor talk). But the other point is that my kids are trained to expect A LOT of presents on their birthday and that they never leave a party empty handed. Birthday parties go something like this: Invite the entire class plus some other friends you know, have an activity (swimming, gymnastics, games, etc.), eat cake, open presents, and give everyone a loot bag on the way out the door. I can’t count how many birthdays like this we have been to since my kids have been about three years old.

Well, guess what? My kids don’t receive a boat load of presents because Steve and I banned presents after Lily turned three years old. The amount of presents she received was too much for us. That was it! We decided no more. In my excitement, I thought I would mention my new idea to a circle of girlfriends. My assumption was that most others would agree and want to do the same thing. What a win, win…we all reduce the number of gifts our kids get and the number we have to buy. The feedback I received was just the opposite. Let’s just say the response was lukewarm at best. I was stunned.

When I was growing up, all of my toys as well as my sister’s toys fit into one wooden toy box that was kept in our basement. There were a few exceptions like bicycles, miniature dollhouses, and the Barbie dream house. Today, all I see is home after home swimming in toys (including my own). Toys are like everything else. Kids play with 20 percent of them 80 percent of the time. It seems like the rest are just sitting around or getting in my way. They really don’t care about them (until you attempt to give them away)!

I feel an immense sense of guilt from all this. It is such an incredible waste of resources. Everything is crappy plastic full of chemicals made in developing countries by poor adults and children working under terrible conditions. Half of it breaks within the first few weeks. The rest collects dust. You can no longer give toys away either these days with all the toxic chemicals. Many charities no longer take them. So off they go to the landfill! Let’s pollute the earth some more. The thrill for my kids lasted all of 15 minutes and now I am stuck with the lasting effects of the stuff. Besides the social and environmental issues I help create, I now have more stuff in my house causing me mental angst because I hate clutter and I hate fighting with my kids over clutter.

So what do I do? Well, we will be having another round of present-free birthdays this year. And they will be loot bag free as well. I think we will have a piƱata and kids can take a few pieces of candy home with them. Next, I am telling the world what I really think. A handful of my closest friends and family know how I really feel. But really in my quest for maintaining peace, I usually just shut my mouth and go with it (yes, I buy gifts for other kids, although I try to keep them small and non-plastic). But in my heart, I can’t believe other parents don’t feel the same. Wouldn’t it be nice if birthday parties were simply about the gathering itself? Only good can come from this: less stuff to buy, less stuff to receive, and less stress associated with stuff. Happiness comes from the celebration, mainly the gathering of friends and the fun, not the stuff you give or receive. At the end of the day, this is the message I want my kids to hear loud and clear.


  1. Preach it Erika! This is great stuff. I only do birthday parties every other year for our kids (because quite honestly, I HATE hosting parties). The years that they have a party--that is our present to the kids, they don't get a present from Bill and I, because a) we're already spending $$ on the party and b) they will be getting gifts from their friends. It's worked out nicely. I tried to do the "no gifts" one year and it failed miserably--everyone brought something anyway. I wholeheartedly agree with you! I also think the idea of a loot bag is dumb--the kid got to come to a party, have fun, eat cake--why do they then need a "gift" of their own?? Who's idea was that? For Julia's party this year each girl got a candy cane with a fun flavored lip gloss--I'm not going to go out of my way to spend even MORE money on junk from the dollar store. Your thoughts inspire me!!!

  2. Hey...friend of Jen's here. I agree with most of this! I would LOVE to have a present-free party! As in the guests don't bring presents! On the other favors (is that the same as a loot-bag...I guess I don't know the difference since Jen's party favor wasn't considered that?) for the guests can definitely be used as a learning tool for your own kid to teach them to give cheerfully. My son was so excited about making the party favors with me for his and his little brothers bdays. And I guess maybe sometimes they are over the top...but they can be done VERY inexpensively. My youngest sons were less than ten dollars for all of the favors. He was so excited about giving them to his friends at the party.
    I LOVE hosting birthday parties and celebrating our kiddos being another year older, but could also definitely do without all the presents. Mostly because I agree with your thoughts about how lots of toys don't get played with. But being with friends and family to celebrate is always great! I might put "No gifts" this year...but I know the grandparents wouldn't follow it for sure!

  3. You go girl! I have something to add to this whole "kid" party thing. How can anyone justify spending over $100 for a kids party at Chuck E Cheese, Bounce It Out etc. I'm talking about kids ranging in age of 2-8. What ever happend to the "house" party, where you invite no more than 5 of your closest friends & play games, etc. I am amazed how many parties my kids have gone to, and only 1 (other than their own) was at someone's house. Every year I go thru the same thing with both of them. "I want my party here or there, not at home"...too bad I say. When you are older, we can have a bowling or skating party, but at this age...NO WAY!! Ok, there's my vent... As far as the gifts go, I totally see your point. That is why I limit the guests to 6, and when the parent rsvp's, I let them know what the child really wants..not always all toys, clothes too. Goody bags are rediculous. I didn't do them for my son's first "kid" party, and it was like I was a weirdo. Oh, well..Now I try to come up with a craft idea for all the kids to do together, and they take that home as their "treat". One more thing..My kids didn't start having "kid" parties till they were 5. Before then, we celebrated their birthdays with our family...
    Sorry for the long winded response..but this is something I too am passionate about!

  4. We don't do presents or goodies bags for my girls' parties either. We do collect money for a charity of the girls' choosing. I figure that way the girls learn about giving and that birthdays are something to be grateful for. I seriously hate goody bags and think who ever started that tradition should be shoot! Most parents appreciate not having to shop and bring more crap back home. Keep spreading the word!

  5. Soap Box Warning! The 10-year old girl in our family doesn't get a big party every year. You know why? Because we're her parents and we get to decide. Hurray to you and Steve for tackling these issues with your values squarely in front of you. If we want a different world, like one with less crap and more credence, then step out folks and make it so!

    Just to be clear, she's not living in Bleak House or something. Maybe one year she's stuck celebrating with just Pops and me, but another year might include a trip to see family, or, more often, just a few friends for cake and ice cream. When she turned eight she had eight friends over (invited friends = years old), with a scavenger hunt, bobbing for apples, cake, and small party bags. I figure we might host one or two more such extravanganzas before she moves out (ages 13 and 18 would make it every 5 years). And we always try to mark her half-birthday with half of a simple cake.

    We welcome presents. She's an only child with only a handful of relatives who recognize her birthday with gifts, so it's lovely when close friends consider her interests and purchase accordingly. Rarely is there plastic garbage, thank goodness. One year she received a large gift bag holding lots of smaller packages, each containing a different kind of chewing gum creatively wrapped to make each package look sizable. Not only did she have gum for a year, but she also loved how much energy they invested in creating something unique for her. She is thoughtful about what we should buy for others' birthdays, and rather expects the same when gifted. Her ideas come from browsing in small shops and from the handful of catalogs we receive.

    Our case is rather out of the ordinary, I'll admit, but that's largely due to choices we've made. No TV, no malls, and rarely a big box retailer. She learns at home, so no classmate pressures. We sometimes decline invitations to parties if she isn't close to the recipient because it's just not worth the pressure to feel obligated to buy a gift, reciprocate with an invitation, or watch the birthday craziness play out.