Monday, February 7, 2011

Taking on the Birthday Industrial Complex

Does it ever occur to you that the hoopla surrounding kids' birthday parties has gotten, um, perhaps a little out of hand? In our community, it is pretty common to spend hundreds of dollars on a child's birthday party. Not to mention the hundreds of dollars spent by the party guests on gifts. Children around here put together birthday gift wish bins (much like a registry) at local toy stores. Party guests can then just select an item from the bin, pay for it, and know with certainty that the birthday child will love it.

Seriously, folks? The birthday kid has a registry? At what point do we recognize that this has gotten out of control? I know proponents of this system will argue that at least a gift off a registry won't be a duplicate or simply not the child's cup of tea. But I would argue it takes all of the fun out of gift giving when the recipient chooses their gift. The giver misses out on the serendipity of finding just the right thing for a dear friend, and the recipient loses out on the surprise of it all.

No wonder countless parents experience a sense of dread when their child is invited to yet another birthday party. Ugh, another gift to go pick up, more money to spend, another Saturday afternoon of would-be family time shot. I thought birthdays were supposed to be fun.

I say, enough with this madness! I am opting out of the crazy, materialistic mentality of what children's birthday parties have become. Enough.

In our family, we've decided to take on the madness in two ways:

1. Charity-focused, gift-free parties for our own kids.

For my six-year-old's birthday party, her invitations clearly stated "no gifts, please!" They also informed the guests that the birthday girl would be making a donation to our local SPCA in honor of her birthday, and they were welcome to bring cat and dog toys or supplies or some spare change to contribute to her donation. This gave the guests the opportunity to honor the birthday girl, but in a way that was far more meaningful than just another toy on her shelf. An interesting corollary: my daughter sat down and read and examined every card that her friends had brought her, most of them handmade. She admired her friends drawings and savored their birthday wishes in a way that I fear would never have happened if they had been attached to shiny new toys.

Birthday donation

Then we keep the birthday magic alive by bringing the donation in person to her charity of choice. It feels wonderful to balance out the understandable self-centeredness surrounding a child's birthday with a little outward-focused giving. And let me tell you, a kid bringing a jar of coins into an animal shelter gets some pretty amazing positive reinforcement from the staff.

Now, this "rule" only applies to friends. We have a small, separate family birthday gathering, and grandparents and aunts and uncles are absolutely free to give traditional, tangible gifts. We're not ogres, after all. But again, these gifts received from her family are all the more appreciated because they are the only ones she receives.

2. Handmade, personal gifts for friends.

Yesterday, the six-year-old attended the birthday party of one of her friends. So we talked about what we thought the birthday girl would like, combed through the fabric stash for inspiration, and ended up making this little kitty. My daughter designed and stuffed it, while I did the sewing machine and hand finishing grunt work.

Handmade cat

Other homemade gift ideas include scrapbooks, embellished photo frames, mix CD's, or a decorated t-shirt. There are also the semi-homemade kinds of gifts, such as a collection of art supplies or craft materials. The point is that it isn't about the money, and it isn't about fulfilling the specified, predetermined wishes of the birthday child. Being frugal doesn't have to seem like being thoughtless; in fact, it can be significantly more thoughtful. And in the time you would have spent braving the toy store (and your own child's inevitable desire to get something for herself while you're there), you can sit down with your child and spend some time thinking about her friend.

This might seem like a tall order, but in many ways it has made my life easier. It reminds me, once again, that the most important thing we can give another person is our time. What does it say to a child that you went to the toy store and forked over x amount of dollars? How much more meaningful is it to that child that someone spent time really thinking about them?

Say no to the Birthday Industrial Complex! Fight back! Go give The Story of Stuff another watch if you still need convincing. And maybe you'll be able to greet your child's next party invitation with just a little less dread.

Radio Silence

Prayer flags

I have to make a confession.

I've been cheating on you. I know, I know, I don't know how it happened, I just... well. I've been writing somewhere else.

The thing is, once upon a time, a long long time ago, I wrote fiction. Poetry too, sometimes a lot, but always fiction. Short stories, plays, a novel I almost finished, etc. And gradually I just... stopped. I can't really explain what happened. I thought for a long time it was because my life had become happy and stable, and that my writing stemmed only from pain and chaos.

It was a theory.

I tried to keep writing after getting happily married and discovering all of the joys that currently fuel my spirit: handwork, gardening, cooking, etc. Every few months I'd get a story idea, but I'd be stuck with the idea, stymied by how to start, feeling like the words just wouldn't flow. I had pretty much accepted that my writing mojo was just... gone.

And then I started writing in this space. Without the pressure of having to somehow "make art" with my words, I was able to start letting the words flow. And in a more tangible way than just writing in a journal -- here I was able to get feedback, to have some accountability for my words. The frozen mechanism of my writing mind began to thaw.

Then this past summer, I got an idea for a children's book. A "middle grade reader," as they say, a chapter book not a picture book. And this time, I was able to take the idea and immediately start stringing words together. That rusty old mechanism was able to get going. My friends, it's going rather well. I think... I think I might actually finish it this time.

Then, round about the last time I posted in this space, I picked up a gig doing some freelance writing for children. Lots of little assignments with due dates within 48 hours. Fiction, nonfiction, 300 words here and 800 words there. It was the sort of writing exercise that in many ways I should have been doing for myself all along, as part of the discipline of keeping that writing mechanism well-oiled and functional. But now I was accountable to someone else, I couldn't sit and fuss with a piece, nitpicking and trying to make it perfect. I just had to send it out the door, and move on to the next one. I had to find the muscle-y hard-working side of my writing brain, the part that comes to work whether or not it's feeling inspired.

And now it's like the Fourth of July up there in my head. I've got more ideas than I have time to write them down. I am simultaneously working on three different pieces that I actually think are going somewhere useful. I even somehow mustered up the hubris to write for grown-ups again.

I haven't forgotten about you. I'm not sure how this space will evolve when I am spending so much writing time holed up in the privacy of my imagination. But meanwhile, you know, I'm still here. Just... blessedly, delightfully distracted.