Thursday, September 16, 2010

Living Happily on a Shoestring: Birthday Bonanza or Completely Bananas?

by Christine Wilkinson

Is it me?

Am I a birthday kill-joy? What is it that I don’t seem to get that everyone else does?

I knew the messy issue of gift-giving was going to come up as soon as school started. And here I stand with my daughter already E-vited to two birthday parties. I have not RSVPed to either...yet.

When I was a kid, my birthday was a big deal. Or at least it always felt like one. In the morning I actually got to choose what we’d have for dinner that night. (That was actually the best part.) And after dinner there was a gift from my parents and a collective gift from my brothers (also purchased by my parents, I’m pretty sure) followed by cake, ice cream, and blow-out-the-candle wishes. What wasn’t to love?

You already know I am in debt, but I swear to you, that is not the root of my big issue with children’s birthday parties these days. Part of the problem is that my daughter is fortunate enough to attend a private school (as the child of a faculty member), which places her among far wealthier classmates. But I don’t think even that is the root of the problem. Birthdays have become like weddings -- each host trying to outdo the last one. I find these parties wasteful, and I truly believe we’re not doing our kids any favors by lavishing them with $15 plastic gifts from Walmart, which ultimately languish in a landfill in someone else’s backyard.

One of the two recent E-vites was sent out to fifty recipients (and guests) for a party at a local sports-plex. I checked out its website for party information and found out that even if this family is throwing the cheapest party the complex offers (which I doubt), the rental fee for the space alone is about $500. That doesn’t include party favors, cake, food, gift bags, etc. The family throwing this party for their much-loved seven-year-old will likely spend upwards of $800 on this party -- and that’s a conservative estimate. And then all fifty or so guests will run out and buy the requisite gift, spending at least $15 -$20 (another low estimate), not to mention all the wrapping paper, gift bags, etc.

I know that these parents want the very best for their kids, and I believe that holding such celebrations brings joy for the parents, too. So what’s my problem? Who am I to judge? I appreciate that I should feel lucky simply to be invited (although the new PC rule is to invite all the children in one’s class so that no child is left out).

My question, though, is: Is this the very best for our kids? A smorgasbord of spending, receiving tons of loot and being the recipient of over-the-top consumerism?

It just doesn’t sit right with me.

For the last six years I have politely declined all party invitations, offering plausible excuses. My daughter was too young to really notice, and we have always celebrated her birthday much as I did when I was a kid. We make it a party for our three-member family, or sometimes we invite one other family over (with clear instructions to please, please bring no gifts). Up until now, my daughter truly had no idea what she was missing.

But this year she’s savvier: There’s a lot of talk about the upcoming parties. I don’t want her to feel left out, but I don’t want her to witness what I consider to be birthday gluttony, especially when a $500 rental fee could do so much good if spent elsewhere (e.g., in Haitian relief).

This issue truly causes me much internal conflict. Like all moms, I want my child to be happy, and I certainly don’t want her to feel punished by being held back from social events. I want her to have all the best things in life, but I also want to teach her that those very things --the best things in life-- will never come gift-wrapped in plastic boxes.

So...what do I do? Cave, buy the cheapie gift and send her to the party? And the next one, and the twenty after that each year? Do I keep her home, divert her attention by doing a fun family thing? Sit down and try to explain it all to a seven-year-old? And here’s the really tough one: Do I try to explain how I feel to her classmates’ parents? And if yes, how can I possibly do so without insulting their traditions, or sounding extremely judgmental?

Let's take money off the table as an issue for me. What's the right RSVP?

Please post your thoughts below!

Christine Wilkinson is a veteran middle school teacher, who holds a Master's degree in Education and is currently job hunting. Christine is also a freelance writer who has had articles published in the Raleigh News and Observer and most recently in the Washington Post. She has lived most of her adult life in the DC-Baltimore area, although she recently returned from a three year detour in the South (Raleigh, NC). She is married with a 7-year-old daughter, which prompts her to observe: "While I may be struggling in this economy, I lead a rich life blessed with a great family and amazing friends."


  1. My big gripe about birthday parties is those thrown by adults who do NOT specify "No gifts, please." I am always amazed that adults host birthday parties for themselves or their spouses with the expectation that their friends and relatives will enjoy bringing gifts in their honor.

    Personally, I am very offended by this practice. If a birthday person wants a gift, then I suggest that he/she ask that gifts be donated to various non-profit organizations in honor of that particular person.

    I remember watching my brother's wife, on the morning after her big 50th birthday bash at a country club the prior evening, open her lavish gifts brought by people who attended her party. My sister-in-law could certainly afford to buy all those presents herself. Yet there she was basking in the moment.

    And when one of my very close friends called to invite me to her sixtieth birthday party -- a large but informal party at her home -- I asked her if she was telling people not to bring gifts. She replied, "Of course not! I WANT presents."

  2. Boy, this is a tough call. You don't want your child to feel left out, but you also don't want to have her eyes popping out of her head over all the "pomp and circumstance" of elaborate birthday parties. Most certainly, though, you don't want to needlessly waste money on gifts that a child who has everything probably won't even remember in a couple of weeks.

    So, here's my suggestion...

    Personally, I'd consider letting her go to a couple of parties - those of only her closest classmates. It'll be awfully hard at age 7 for her not to feel completely left out, and kids at that age can be cruel, so you certainly don't want her to feel like a pariah.

    But, when your own daughter's birthday comes around, with it comes the opportunity for you to choose to set an example of how to be less self-focused and more others-focused. Throw your daughter a modest party at your home the "old-fashioned" way, with cake, ice cream, games (pin the tail on the donkey, etc.).

    In the invitations to her party you could explain that you would rather that her friends' parents consider donating to a cause, instead of bringing a gift to the party. You should have your daughter help choose the charity with you. Maybe they could make a donation to Children's Hospital, Ronald McDonald House, or any number of organizations that help sick children. Perhaps you could ask her friends to bring a backpack filled with school supplies for needy kids. Or, maybe they could bring a brand new stuffed animal, baby doll or games that will be donated to a child in the hospital. The possibilities are endless!

    Hopefully, if you start a trend like this, it will spread like wildfire amongst her classmates and their families, who instead of competing to have the most opulent party money can buy, to donating the most to charity. After all, it always takes one person to start doing the right thing before others will follow.

  3. I share many of these same concerns. But I think these issues, like the parties, are always more about the parents than the kids. Most kids don't know or recognize the expense involved in a party, and attending one won't damage her. I'm sure your kid will eventually come to the same conclusion as you about the waste/excess, but for right now it might be more important to have those shared experiences with her classmates. You should let your daughter attend if it's important to her (which it probably is), but let her know that your family's birthday traditions are different without being judgemental of the other kids and families. If/when you do have a party for your daughter, you can always specify no gifts (which I know ANY parent would respect and not see as judgemental). Good luck!

  4. Ask your daughter if she wants to go to the party. This is about your daughter and her friends (and sorry to say this, but is not about you). There is no expectation for you to give an expensive gift or a gift... you can even have a nice homemade gift for the birthday boy/girl.
    Remember birthday parties are to celebrate and share your happiness with the ones you love.
    Let your daughter have fun.. you might have fun too!

  5. how about planting a tree in the party giver's name and have them send the birthday child a certificate. probably less money spent and good karma for all. Deborah Kavruck

  6. First, I need to say one thing that needs to be said...holding other people to your standard of social awareness never ends well. If they want to spend $750 to rent a venue for their kids birthday party, that's on them. So don't let it drive you nuts.

    Second, socialization in more than just a school environment is a necessary part of a kids healthy social development. While not going to the party won't necessarily leave your daughter socially stunted, she will feel somewhat "left out". Let her go, there's no real harm.

    Third, if you don't want to buy a $15 plasticky gift that will eventually end up in a landfill, don't. There are other alternatives -- a nice (well, nice enough) pen and a nice journal...drawing pencils and paper...a book or a gift card to a book store...a nice potted plant (I'm not kidding...what about something like a beautiful African violet?). You get the idea. And, going this route, you won't have "caved", and if everyone is paying attention, they might even realize that what you're trying to do is be budget and earth friendly without the gesture feeling cheap. Also, as a smart shopper (which I know you are), buy some of these items when you find them on sale, squirrel them away for when they're needed, and you're a debt hero!

    Now, here's something that you can to your friends, and see how they feel about this. Chances are good that there are other moms and dads out there that hate the whole consumerist aspect that have taken over birthdays. Make a pact between friends that you will have a party without presents, without "gift bags", with homemade games in someone's back yard or a public park, with a home-baked cake, etc. Maybe, as an idea, it'll catch on and spread.

    Finally, my personal theory on why parents make birthdays such a big deal these days -- guilt, and keeping up with the Joneses.