Once upon a time... a birthday party meant a windfall of gifts for the birthday kid. Now, it seems every child feels entitled to a sack of loot — no matter what the occasion.
Birthday party season is upon us. In the next few weeks, my family has half a dozen parties, including one of our own. Which means that I am quietly throwing away the pirate eyepatches, soccer ball shaped erasers and temporary tattoos leftover from parties past to make room for the new swag.
I'm not sure when goody bags became mandatory. It happened sometime between the lopsided Duncan Hines cake and pin-the-tail on the donkey home gatherings of my childhood, and the bounce house fests that my own children attend. All I know is that when my first-born was barely a year old, the members of my mother's group started bringing plastic clappers and mini bubble jars to park playdates to celebrate their babies' first years.
It started out fun. A creative outlet, even. I indulged my toddler's fascination with Bob the Builder by filling mini yellow tin buckets with rulers, pencils and stickers in the shapes of hammers and saws. And some kids are still talking about the toy recycling bins filled with crayons that we handed out during the garbage truck phase.
But somewhere along the line, it stopped being fun. My kids started bringing home monogrammed tote bags filled with plastic knick-knacks. Coloring books that never got filled in. Entire games and puzzles that would qualify as a present for the guest of honor — not just a giveaway for the guests.
As the birthdays progressed, the ante got upped — along with my kids' expectations. They assumed, by my own admission, an air of entitlement. In the car on the way home from one particular celebration, one of the boys ripped into the mylar bag he had received on the way out.
"What?! That's all?" The tone of his voice was not so much whining, as dismissal, and he didn't even bother to stop the small notepad and crayons from falling to the van floor and rolling under the seats. "That's not much of a favor."
It was one of those ugly moments of parenting enlightenment, when I realized that this practice — the party favors — that I did "for the kids" was doing them more harm than good.
Not to mention how much parental work it requires to enact those middle of the night knick-knack roundups, and the guilt of throwing plastic noisemakers and non-functional erasers into the trash. For a while, I tried to gather up the old party favors and re-use them, by donating them to teachers to use in classroom prize boxes. Apparently other parents had the same idea. One kid's discarded party favors — personalized with his name and birthdate — found their way into my son's prize box, calling attention to the fact that he was not invited to this particular child's party.
I've done more than my part to contribute to the frenzy of goody bag escalation. Now it's time to help the pendulum swing in the other direction.
In an ideal world, I'd call for the end to all party favors. Just wave buh-bye to your guests at the door and send them off with a cheerful, "Thanks for coming to our party!" But I'm not one to advocate mass hysteria at Chuck E. Cheese.
Maybe we can begin to wean our young off of the frenzy of consumption by giving small tokens of friendship at our parties. Small things that might be meaningful, like a homemade cookie, or at least practical, such as a gift card for a round of miniature golf. At the last birthday in our family, each guest got to choose a single Clone Wars Pez at the end of the party.
Or if you're feeling bold, just send my kids out with a smile and a "Thank You." That would really be doing me a favor.
All text and images © 2010 Grace Hwang Lynch