Tuesday, January 8, 2008

A Giftless Birthday?

As Sam's first birthday approaches, something has occurred to me: people are going to bring gifts.

We are going to have between 33-45 people. And in exchange for cake and pizza, roughly 15 gifts will appear on her little gift table, waiting for her to open. From our recent experience with Christmas and Hanukkah, I know that Sam will appreciate the boxes and ribbons far more than whatever is inside, at least in an immediate sense. Plus, the last thing we need are more things cluttering our already brimming toy box and small condo.

So why are we not doing a no gifts party? After reading this article last July, I was put off by the idea. In many ways, I see the allure. The child learns that greed is not a good quality. The child learns to give. The parents have more control over what their children receive (good for the legions who are anti-Barbie/violent toys). And finally, less stuff=good. The other day we went to the first birthday party of a friend's son we have known since Sam was a newborn. He had legions of gifts and as the mother stared at the pile, she wondered aloud if she should have said, "no gifts."

I wondered the same thing. Are we greedy for allowing people to probably bring gifts to our parties? Of course, they do not have to at all, but the likelihood that people won't is quite low. And for many people, invitations requesting "presence over presents" will just lead to an etiquette quandary: do I? Don't I? And if I don't, will I be the only one?

After re-reading the NYTimes article, I started to think about some of the assumptions implicit. The writer clearly had a point of view and that was charitable=good; greedy= bad. It is a pretty simple equation and quite true on paper. But I posed the question to R last night: what would you do if we got a birthday party invite asking us to donate money to charity instead of the child? His response? "Skip the donation." Sad, but true. I tend to think of such a request as voluntary and as such, I would probably choose to opt out. If I want to give to a private charity or organization, I will do so on my own time, in my own way. I would not appreciate being told who or what cause to donate my money to (unless it is after a funeral, which is obviously a different story).

There was something about the families profiled in the Times that rubbed me the wrong way. "No gifts, please" is one thing. But the whole idea of giving to charity, well that reeks of smugness. I realize the sentiment may not be that at all, much like people who drive hybrid cars and do not feel the need to share that fact with everyone they see. But there is a smug-factor implicit to the whole notion of the "no gift" party. The parents may not mean this at all, but some may interpret it as: "we do not need your plastic, cheap toys when we can buy our own high-end European ones." Further, it seems to be a quandary unique to the upper-middle class. Note that most of the articles on the topic come from the publications they read and not USA Today.

While I love the idea of making Sam charitable, thoughtful and not greedy, I have a hard time imagining that gifts at a birthday party take away from that. I loved my birthdays. I loved each and every Barbie I received, much to my mother's chagrin. I loved the toys, clothes and stuff accumulated from a good birthday haul. I was probably the kid these articles want to avoid creating. There was and is a certain gimmegimmegimme inherent to who I am. And I do not want Sam to be like that.

But I am not sure that "no gift" parties is the way to accomplish that. R and I are considering the idea when she is older of asking her to donate two of her gifts after the birthday haul to a pediatric unit in a hospital. Maybe we will do that. The notion appealed to us. But then so did the memory of savoring each gift I received, of looking forward to my birthday with high anticipation and of seeing a table piled high with wrapped gifts begging to be opened. Greedy? Well, maybe. But oh-so-delicious during those fleeting moments of childhood. Why take that away from a kid?

There are so many opportunities to teach Sam giving and non-greed, but Jan. 25 is not going to be one of them. And as long as she sends her thank you notes promptly, it will be the one day a year she can party likes a rock star--and have the swag to prove it.


Lis Garrett said...

For the last few years, my oldest daughter (8) has requested tangible donations (not money) for our local SPCA instead of gifts. I don't believe we are being smug. In fact, many of her friends do the same at their parties. We still give her gifts, as do her grandparents and aunts. And as far as I'm concerned, I would rather her friends bring a $5 bag of dog food rather than a cheap, $5 toy that will just break or get lost.

My Wombinations said...

That is a little different than what was described both in that article and in the other one I read on the topic in Slate (http://www.slate.com/id/2135287/). I would happily bring a tangible donation to a birthday party so I would not have to show up empty handed, especially if the birthday girl--not her parents--was the one requesting it. My problem with the mother in Slate and also the ones in the NYTimes is that it seems like something the parents want to force on the kids while the kids just want their presents (see the Slate article). Additionally, giving dog food to the SPCA is one thing, but money to a cause I am shaky on supporting, especially a cause that appeals more to adults than to children, feels wrong to me. And one thing that is addressed in the Times piece is the idea that, among the kinds of parents who are doing this, how much was raised for charity becomes a competition in itself. I just find that to be very icky. And yes, smug, too.

Kristi said...

I actually love the idea of a "no gifts, please" party. Isabella was literally inundated with gifts for her first birthday from my large family, so much so that I took six of them away (still in their boxes) and stashed them in her closet to give her at Christmas. She was given so many toys both for her birthday and for Christmas that our small house is quite literally being overtaken with them.

I think it's perfectly fine to ask people to donate $$ in a child's name to a charity (and I would opt for an animal shelter, a cause that's near to my heart and one that's probably uniformly accepted, over a controversial one, such as Planned Parenthood) in lieu of gifts. I may end up doing this next year, and I would wholeheartedly support this if asked to do so for another child's birthday (as long as I wasn't asked to line the coffiers of the Republican party).

I really don't see what's smug about this as all. And while she initially may want presents (what kid doesn't?) she will eventually learn that giving to others feels good too. This is an important lesson I want to teach her to broaden her world view beyond the tiny little space of it she occupies, so she can see how much her life can impact others.

My Wombinations said...

I agree that broadening a child's world view is extremely important. But I actually worry that not getting gifts would have the opposite effect on a child. They would feel slighted and pissed off that their parents forced them to give to charity instead of enjoying their birthday booty.

The smug factor comes in when liberal parents deprive their children of something they want because they want to tell people they did it, not because it is imparting any real wisdom about the world.

My Wombinations said...

One more thing: the notion of being told what to spend money on is very offensive to me. I am a bleeding heart who picks my own causes. I do not appreciate anyone else telling me what I "should" be doing. That, in itself, is most certainly smug. This notion of telling me where I ought to put my money has a certain high-handed smug-factor. There is an element of taking everything a bit too seriously that I also find unappealing. Birthdays are fun and light. They are not an opportunity for one parent to tell another where they ought to put their time and money.

Beagle said...

My take on these sorts of things is that if someone is needing to announce how charitable they are then they aren't really that charitable. But if it's done with sincerity rather than smugness then it can be a nice idea and learning opportunity.

So it may just come down to what the intent and approach to such a party is.