After my four-year-old’s last birthday party, she became the worst version of herself. As an older toddler, but still technically a toddler nonetheless, I expect tantrums and meltdowns at random, especially in stores. But it felt like for weeks, every time we left the house she expected a toy. Or a pair of unicorn sunglasses, a random floppy hat, sparkly sneakers she didn’t need, or even a few spare dollars right out of my wallet.
I’ll admit my kids are a (little) spoiled. My husband and I work hard and are both guilty at times of being a little too (ahem) generous. We treat to unexpected ice cream cones and surprise them with stickers or small toys as a reward for excellent behavior. But this obsession with stuff was excessive even for her and it didn’t take a genius to figure out the source of my daughter’s sudden, unrelenting brattiness: she was having a birthday hangover.
With three sets of grandparents, a slew of doting aunts and uncles, and of course the aforementioned spoiling parents, my daughter didn’t really need any birthday gifts outside of the stack we all provided. But on the day of her party, another pile was amassed, in it more toys, books, puzzles, and crafts than we’d even get a chance to enjoy within the next month. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated the gifts tremendously. It was clear that her friends (or at least, their parents) put thought into what my daughter might like and picked out really sweet, useful gifts that she did love.
But now our house was overrun with a fresh slew of toys, and we hadn’t offloaded anything else. Also, there was the issue of a newly minted obsession with receiving. “I want more princess dresses!” was the line that set me over the edge as I stood in my four-year-old’s closet hanging the silky frocks of Belle, Cinderella, Elsa (x2), and so on in rainbow order from left to right. This kid had got to be kidding.
I hadn’t even gotten around to penning thank-you notes to all the children’s parents for attending the party and bringing lovely gifts, and my child was demanding even more. I looked around at her room with its three dollhouses, full dresser and closet, baskets and bins full of half-loved-then-tossed-aside plastic crap, and thought, Enough!
I took a step back and re-evaluated. What is the purpose of all these gifts, anyway? Sure, they’re tokens of affection and yes, our culture intricately connects aging with gifting, but still. In a time when most parents feel the mandate (rightfully so) to invite their child’s entire class at school to every birthday party, shopping for each child can be really stressful for those on a tight budget. We don’t need any more stuff, and in fact the more we got, the worse my daughter was acting. So, wouldn’t it be better to just eliminate the problem?
And furthermore, about those pesky thank-you notes. I don’t want to do it anymore! On top of an already packed schedule and stressed to the max, the thought of wasting more paper on a string of thank-you’s was enough to make me give up on birthday parties altogether. Instead, I settled for the decision that next time, we’ll be asking for no presents at all.
Of course, I’m guilty of seeing “no gifts please” on an invitation and bringing one anyway. I would love to say that I felt strong enough in my conviction of doing no gift parties from here on out, but I had a lurking thought that some might feel compelled to bring something anyway, and then others would regret having honored our request.
It was around this time that I came across an article about the increasingly popular “fiver party,” wherein all guests are asked to bring nothing more than a $5 bill for the birthday child. This was genius! First, it’s better for the parents of the child’s friends: easing the burden and stress of a trip to the store and a lofty gift purchase for every single kid in the dang class. The fiver party creates less waste (gift wrap and all its associated landfill responsibility is an issue that doesn’t sit well with us to begin with…) and means you won’t have a huge toy dump headed into your home every birthday.
But especially for the birthday child, the fiver party is an amazing opportunity. It allows them to learn about budgeting and saving. She can pool all her $5 bills to one grand total and go pick out a single, special gift she’ll truly enjoy, she can break it up and buy a few smaller things she’s been after, or she can save it and use it later. Any seeds of financial responsibility we can start to plant now are a good thing, if you ask me.
My husband and I decided for all the reasons above that the perfect solution was to write clearly on all future invites, “Your presence is your present! No gifts over a $5 bill, please.” This allows guests the choice to bring nothing, $1, or $5 for the child. Those who feel really compelled to break the no gifts rule might even toss a book or a small toy on top, but I feel confident we’ll be cutting way down on the waste, clutter, and (most importantly) brattiness that ensues after a big birthday party.
I want my kids to feel loved and celebrated, and they deserve toys to explore and expand their imaginations. But the days of a huge influx of items coming at them at once are over. I’m not anti-materialism, but we need to instill limits and teach our kids to value and appreciate what they’re given. When they get too much at once, it’s just not possible. Don’t judge me if I cave on one more princess dress, though. After all, that’s what moms are for.