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.


  1. Honestly?! YES.

    In our community, birthdays are still pretty much what I recall from my own childhood - cake and punch, sometimes at the local Pizza Hut or skating rink, but often at the home of the birthday child. Usual stuff for gifts. Nothing crazy.

    But the Birthday Industrial Complex - YES. Out of hand! And it was The Story of Stuff that set my feet on a new path in this.

    My favorite party we have done so far was Dacey's red bird party last year. The guests brought books for a book exchange - everyone went home with a gift! I loved it. I tried to persuade her to do some kind of charity focus this year, but she wasn't in for it. Maybe next year. :)

    We have never, ever purchased licensed character stuff for birthday party decorations. It's always handmade (and looks it! hee). We've been choosing some of the crafts from Rae Grant's crafting books to make as gifts lately, too. SO much more meaningful.

    Anyway. Great post, and I am 100% there with you!

  2. We're doing a shared party for two kids, no gifts, but we did buy animal character plates and cups for the kids, and we're having it in the church basement so we can set up tents all over the place. And buying a half sheet cake. S

    Since I work and travel for my job, I am super paranoid/protective of my time, and sometimes I make decisions accordingly. So Jo and I spent an hour happily making a cake for the family party, but safeway is just fine for the bigger kid cake...

  3. I could not agree with you more. If I wasn't about to run out the door, I'd write a much longer comment, but I just wanted to say yes, yes, we're with you all the way!

  4. I totally agree with you and attending any of your parties would be a event to look forward to. I have family that are losing what gift giving is all about and I attend with a sense of dread when it is gift opening time. My SIL even whinges and complains about gifts people give before the event and it really enhances my stress when trying to choose a present. I just dont buy her kids anything anymore. And they hate handmade gifts so heaven forbid that I make something.

  5. Well...yeah! My child turned 5 today. She is going out to eat tonight with Grandma and Poppa, and our family....then Saturday, She is going to see a mouse at a pizza know the one...with her aunt and uncle. Then Saturday evening, it is over to a friend's house for a combo party for her and my friend's grandson! I'm pooped just thinking about it all.

    We do not however do wish bins or any of the like. Can you imagine how self absorbed these children are going to be if we keep this up?