What used to be enjoyable social occasions seem to have become for most of us expensive, joyless obligations. The charming comic strip "Baby Blues" recently had a series of strips in which the parents, who have two small children and another on the way, were feeling overwhelmed by the amount of money it was going to cost them to buy gifts for all the children who had invited five-year-old Zoe to their birthday parties.
And nowadays, when everyone is afraid of seeming insensitive if she doesn't invite every child in her child's class, there are almost no birthday parties that a given child is not expected to attend and bring a gift to.
Toys are not cheap, you know, and few parents of small children are wealthy. In fact, many are struggling single mothers. Unfortunately, every gift that would pass muster at a birthday party is likely to cost at least $15-$20. If your child is invited to even a couple of parties a month, as is often the case, or several in a single month, the expense can put a real strain on your budget.
Many parents limit the number of parties their children can attend within a given span of time, but even with such limitations, there are problems. In the first place, the child who misses out on a big party ends up feeling socially excluded, especially when all her friends get together to chatter about what a great party that was. Also, if a child has used up her party allotment and one comes up that she really, really, really wants to/needs to attend, either her parents will give in, or she will suffer major disappointment.
I have to admit that I think kids get way too much stuff these days. I think they get too much stuff at Christmas time, too much stuff on their birthdays, and too much stuff every other time an occasion is marked in any way. In fact, they often get too much stuff just because their parents had to drop by a store to pick up dog food or light bulbs. I would like to see children get far less stuff.
But I also think that celebratory occasions are seriously marred by being transformed into nothing but gift-giving and gift-getting opportunities. Children are by nature greedy, so it's very difficult for them to focus on the significance of having friends celebrate their special day with them when what they are really interested in is what goodies their friends have brought for them. In fact, if the goodies aren't "good enough," they might very well decide that the friendship isn't worth having after all. What seems to matter to far too many children these days (not to mention their parents!) is the presents, not the presence of the child's friends.
When I had my home daycare, I regularly threw "month birthday parties" outside of daycare hours--parties to celebrate the birthdays of all the daycare kids who had birthdays in a given month. Besides the daycare kids themselves, I would invite their siblings and any of the daycare kids who had been friends with the birthday kids, but who no longer were in my daycare.
On the invitations, I would put a strongly worded note, saying that I would be providing a gift for each birthday child, and that no one else was allowed to bring gifts. I phrased the admonition as being intended to protect children from feeling bad if some brought gifts and some did not, because I knew that some parents and kids would inevitably violate the rule if I left them an opening to do so.
As a result of my rule, a lot of kids were able to come to the "month parties" and enjoy themselves, without worrying about whether their parents could afford to buy a gift, or whether their gift would be considered good enough.
And instead of just getting stuff, the birthday kids had a really good time playing with a lot of friends. Furthermore, since each child knew perfectly well that he or she would be getting just one gift, which I marked as being from me and all their friends at the daycare, they were focused less on what they were getting and more on what they were doing to have fun at the party.
I would like to see parents adopt a no-gift rule at birthday parties, and just throw parties as a way to celebrate their child's life by having some of his friends over for a good time. And by a good time, I don't mean ponies, magicians, clowns, or other expensive entertainment. At my parties we had Pla-Doh, bubble-soap, squirt guns, jump-ropes, Legos, balloons, tag, hide-and-go-seek, and trips to a nearby playground.
We all had a great time, I have a collection of precious pictures, and I honestly believe that my daycare kids ended up with celebratory memories far more valuable than whatever pieces of overpriced plastic junk their friends might have bought for them.