July 28, 2007

Aspiring to be "Mommie Dearest."

Here's a NYT article about how parents are giving birthday parties without presents for their kids:
In part to teach philanthropy and altruism, and in part as a defense against swarms of random plastic objects destined to clutter every square foot of their living space, a number of families are experimenting with gift-free birthday parties, suggesting that guests donate money or specified items to the charity of the child’s choice instead....

Bill Doherty, who helped create Birthdays Without Pressure, a Web site opposed to expensive, competitive parties in the Nickelodeon set, said the no-gift notion was “great, especially if the child is involved in choosing the charity,” but cautioned that “it could become another source of competition.”

In Randolph, N.J., Jack Knapp’s family has a five-year tradition of redirecting birthday benefits: They have collected dress-up clothes for a girl with cancer, items for the pediatric emergency room at Morristown Memorial Hospital and groceries for the Interfaith Food Pantry.

After seeing her two older siblings treated like heroes when they dropped off their haul, the youngest, Emily, recently told her mother, Mindy Knapp, that she wants gifts for her 4th birthday next month to go to the neonatal unit. Not that she can define neonatal.

“She said, ‘Could we give stuff to the babies at the hospital?’ Mrs. Knapp said. “Now they wouldn’t think of doing it any other way.”

Mrs. Knapp said her children’s grandparents “always support whatever cause the kids are into,” but also insist on giving them gifts, noting, “Otherwise it would be like a scene from ‘Mommie Dearest.’ ”
I was wondering if they were ever going to get around to mentioning "Mommie Dearest." It seems to be only the grandparents who remember the time when we delighted in loathing the mother who would give a birthday party and then whisk away all the presents to be sent to less fortunate children.

Now, parents are proud of their resemblance to that crazed vision of parenthood!

I eagerly await a NYT article about the way the superparents of today are schooling their kids in the rigors of housework.


Jennifer said...
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Jennifer said...

I always like shopping for birthday gifts for my son's friends. It's a good opportunity for him to go through the toy section and have to think about somebody else.

I guess I can see the concept here, but it seems rather facist. Let your kid's friends bring what they want to your party!

If you want to teach altruism, make a point of involving your kids in passing on toys and clothes to others. Include your kids in volunteering. This just seems like a way for parents to feel like they're doing something good without having to get their hands dirty or give up anything themselves.

Jennifer said...

Oh! And let's not forget the all important chance to beam look at how good and enlightened we are!

Bissage said...

Does this mean little kids are now getting those same obnoxious solicitation phone calls from the Retired Police Chiefs Association?

Kathy said...

My kids don't have presents at their birthday parties, but we don't ask for charitable donations either. They get *lots* of presents from relatives, and I just don't have the space or the inclination to keep all the toys they would get from friends. Also, I don't want anyone to decline the invitation because buying one more birthday party gift is just too much of a strain on the budget, and in our social circle for some that would be a real possibility.

I just put a polite note on the party invitation saying "Please don't bring a gift. Your presence is gift enough." And it is.

Now, if we didn't have an extended family that showered them in gifts, I might think differently, and I certainly don't mind attending other parties where the birthday child receives gifts. We just prefer not to do that at our parties.

SteveR said...

That scene scares me now that I've had three kids.

Bissage said...

Nobody should think this “no gifts” idea is going to gain any traction.

Just wait until the American Wrapping Paper Manufacturers Association finds out about it!

MAN (shrouded in fedora and trenchcoat): Pssssssst. Hey, kid.

KID: Who, me?

MAN: Yeah, you. C'mere.

KID: Wha', . . . what do you want?

MAN: I hears ya' gotta birthday comin' up. Dat right?

KID: Um, yes, sir.

MAN: And I hears ya' gonna get lotsa nice presents from alls ya' friends. Dat right?

KID: No, sir. Everyone's donating money to the charity of my choice.

MAN: Eh, eh. No days ain't, if ya' knows whad I'm tellin' ya, see.

KID: But my mom said I have to be a good person and that means no presents.

MAN: You lets me worry 'bout dat. But right now you go on homes an' tell dat mudder of yours you wants lotsa nicely wrapped presents.

KID: Gee, thanks mister! [runs home]

PatCA said...

Teaching altruism has its place. So does safety. But I feel like the haute monde is a bit obsessed with both: I'm tired of one charity concert or walk-a-thon after the other, as well as the Bloombergian nannies of the world watching our every step (put on your helmet before you leave this house!).

I don't understand the why. Is it our long period of affluence, our denial of real threats, like jihadism (maybe it is 1939 all over again)?

David said...

In these "no gift" parties, there are still gifts being given. Specifically, the parents are giving *themselves* a gift by taking the opportunity to pat themselves on the back about their wonderfulness.

Theo Boehm said...

As the parent of two boys, 10 and 13, we have spent the last dozen years up to our ankles in plastic junkies.  I'm not sorry about it, because that's the way most kids are raised.  Who wants them to feel weird?  And, yes, a lot of those junkies came from birthday presents.

So, while we have gone the typical suburban kid birthday party route over the years, both our boys have real altruistic and generous streaks.  When our youngest turned eight, it was his idea that all the presents from other kids be in the form of donations to Heifer International, a truly wonderful organization that supplies farm animals to poor people in the Third World.

He got the idea from a presentation at our Church.  We said nothing about it, other than it seemed like a good charity and a nice idea.  A couple of weeks later our son had organized all his friends who were invited to his birthday party to chip in and buy a water buffalo, a goat, and some chickens for poor farmers in Africa.  The parents were all fine with the idea of putting money in an envelope instead of a trip to the mall.  And everyone was charmed that the idea came from the kids themselves.

Of course our son got birthday presents from the family, so he wasn't exactly deprived, but we were all spared the ritual exchange of plastic gee-gaws.  We have not made charity a "tradition" at birthdays or Christmas, largely because I, for one, cannot stand the odor of sanctimony evidenced, for example, by the Times piece.  But if such generosity comes naturally and easily, who can deny it?  We like to think one reason it comes easily is the Christian upbringing we have given our children, but no matter what the tradition or source, it can never harm to provide children with a structure to help them grow in decency and morality.

It's a commonplace that children are cruel and selfish.  This is hard to ignore whether you believe in Original Sin, or Karma, or are simply not oblivious.  But it is also true that children, given ordinary guidance, can be caring and generous.   So, cynical sophisticates as we may be with our thoughts of Mommie Dearest, we should remember that simple generosity of spirit and pure hearts do exist among children, at least, and which we would do well to nourish.

knoxwhirled said...

suggesting that guests donate money or specified items to the charity of the child’s choice instead....

How ridiculous. It's like, thanks for the suggestion, but I like to decide for myself when and who to donate money to. Reminds me of a family member who so disapproves of Barbie she won't let her daughter have one. These are parents who fall under the "It's all about ME" category....

knoxwhirled said...

p.s. I'd rather read James Patterson than watch "Mommie Dearest"

bearing said...

I'm going to come down on the side of the "no-gifts is ok" thing. Maybe not for the same reasons as the parents in the article though.

We have 3 kids and hope for more; our oldest is about to be 7. Our birthday party style is not to invite a horde of children, but to invite a few families -- our child's best friends plus their siblings and parents, who are also our friends -- for cake and ice cream, maybe grilling out if the weather's good. The families decided together, a long time ago, to stop buying birthday gifts for each others' children, because we've got about a dozen kids among us and it just seemed ridiculous. The thing that makes it a party is cake and candles, and sometimes something fun and different like squirt guns or party hats. The kids run around, the parents hang out and have a beer, everybody's happy.

The children sometimes have asked to give birthday gifts to each other, spending their own money or giving some small treasure. We haven't stopped them from doing that, of course.

I hear that birthday parties have gone crazy lately, what with pony rides and twenty-dollar favors and balloon clowns and who knows what else, perhaps meant to assuage modern parents' feelings of inadequacy and guilt. No thanks...

bearing said...

I guess I should add that if you're having the kind of party where you have to mail invitations, I do think it's rude to specify anything at all regarding gifts.

I have yet to have that kind of party for any of my kids, and I hope it's a long long time before they want one. So far I've just called people up and said "Come on over on Saturday. Bring a fruit salad or something."

My son's seventh birthday is next week, and he has requested grilled cheese sandwiches, homemade tomato soup, and blueberry coffee cake. I think I can manage that.

oldirishpig said...

First, let's not forget, this is really about the parents ("Look at how well I'm raising my child!"). Second, here comes the next generation of smug, self-righteous control-freaks.

Theo Boehm said...

So it's ridiculous to donate to the charity our son chose for his birthday instead of buying him a present he doesn't want? 

I'm sorry, but in our case it came from our son himself.  Personally, I could care less what form his presents took, but he is old enough that, to not make it about ourselves, my wife and I try to honor his requests if they are reasonable.

While we're not made out of money ourselves, we do live among the haute bourgeoisie. It was nice to see kids of this class understand that there are poor people out there, and that they have plenty enough.  Our kids understand that, too, even though we may not live in the $980,000 mini-mansion down the street.

The point of my story is that generosity came from the kids themselves, the only parental input being the knowledge of the existence of the charity.  And the parents were all fine with it.

I often grumble about the high cost of living here, but one good thing is that most people in this town recognize they've done well and are willing to give something back, and to encourage their kids to do the same.

As for no-gifts birthdays, it seems that as they are getting older, the kids really don't want any more stuff. The last couple of birthdays have been, at the kids' request, sleepovers with no gifts, other than midnight pillow fights and a pancake breakfast in the morning.

Christy said...

No spawn myself, but just having helped my nephew clear out the junk behind and under his bed so we could hang the "Tennessee Titans" curtains I'd made, I'm in sympathy with the "no gifts" parents. Nevvy (a word I know because I read lots of Victorian and Regency novels in paperback) really likes the curtains, btw.

Jennifer said...

Theo - I don't think anybody is criticizing your child's choice. Frankly, I think it's admirable.

What turns me off is the same thing you complained of - the odor of sanctimony that goes along with the parents who are making this haughty choice themselves. I have no problem with parents who politely decline gifts. After all, it's really the party that is fun for the child. Most of the presents are quickly forgotten.

I think that what you've done is teach your child true altruism and that shows. I know that I try to impart the same to my children in a few ways. I refuse to sneak toys out of here while the children sleep. They understand that we are giving them to children who need them more than they do, and I think that's important.

Also, we choose to buy and eat meat that comes from humanely raised animals and my son understands that. And, despite the fact that there are some things he would like to get at the grocery store, he chooses to eat meat and cheese, etc... that comes from "farmers who are nice to their animals". But, at the same time, he understands that when he is at a friend's house or party that he does like the Romans do. I refuse to have a sanctimonious child lecturing people about tortured animal treats.

I'm not sure where I was going with this other than to say I really don't think anyone's criticism here is referring to your story, Theo.

Palladian said...

Tina! Bring me the ax!

Jean Brodie said...
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Bissage said...

MAN (shrouded in fedora and trenchcoat): Pssssssst. Hey, Jean. Dat’s a good thing you’re doin’ there wit’ da wrappin’ paper and all. Makes da kid happy, like. Keeps up da good work, wills ya’, dollface? T’anks.

Theo Boehm said...

Jennifer--Thanks for that.  I shouldn't get so defensive, but it looked like some comments were drifting into the "no hypocrites telling me what to do" zone, and I just wanted to point out that there exists natural human generosity of spirit that can and should be encouraged.  I also make no brief for the perfection of our child raising, because, God knows, it's real life where nothing ever quite goes the way you want.

Your point about humanely raised animals resonates around our house.  My oldest is a real carnivore, and would eat steak every night if he could.  His younger brother is more squeamish about meat, and, as an inveterate reader of supermarket labels, he is very concerned about everything that goes into his food, cruelty among them.  We have avoided most dinner table fights about this, but I suppose there will be more tussles between them about this as they get older—not that we don't have enough tussles already!

Jennifer said...

LOL Theo! Oh, the memories that brings back. I suspect my brother's childhood fondness for veal was at least in part a fondness for giggling at my self-righteous lectures.

Edgehopper said...

If you want to have a birthday party and suggest to guests that gifts aren't necessary, that's fine. But asking friends to give charitable donations in lieu of presents is rude, and not behavior to be encouraged. You don't get to demand that people give to a charity of your choice as a birthday present, and there's nothing admirable about begging on someone else's behalf.

Susan said...

Talk of kids giving up their gifts for others brings to mind a story. When my mother was elderly, frail and ailing she came to live with me and we used to talk every night about all kinds of things including her childhood. One night she was telling me about a Christmas when she had pointed out to her mom a doll she loved at a nearby store. On Christmas morning, there it was on the mantle. But in the tradition of her family (a really bad tradition), gifts were laid about, untagged, and her sister Rachel grabbed the doll making it hers. My mother was crushed and to make it worse, said her sister never really liked the doll that much. So here was my mother, truly the sweetest woman that ever lived, in her late 80’s and unbeknownst to anyone but now me, still harboring this little resentment over a gift that she felt had been rightly hers but that had been given to someone else.

Andrew said...

Ann, you've got it backwards.

Our eldest invited several dozen people to her birthday party. That would have meant several dozen gifts. In our consumer age, really, how many of those gifts would have been useful? Instead, she agreed to a no-gift party and we gave her an iPod instead.

Now consider that we have 3 children. Do we really want 60 or 70 toys coming in each year?

And yes, donating to charity is a good thing.

It's win-win-win all around. Our house is cleaner, our daughter has something she really wanted, the parents are saved buying a wrapping presents.

Bissage said...

MAN (shrouded in fedora and trenchcoat): Andrew, lemme ‘splain somethin’ to you.

You’re a nice guy. I can tell. An’ you loves your kids. Dat’s nice. But your eldest was really hopin’ for lotsa nicely wrapped presents.

Ya see, dare’s nuttin’ quite so special as getting’ a present all wrapped up wit’ pretty paper an’ all.

Ribbons and bows is nice, too, but it’s da paper dat makes for da memories dat last a lifetime.

All I’m askin’ is dat ya t’ink about it a little.

An’ den maybe our next conversation can be as pleasant as da one we’z havin' right now.

lurker2209 said...

The ridiculous aspect to my mind is not the pile of presents but the idea of inviting 44 people over for a child's birthday party!
Growing up, it was typical to invite 3 to 5 close friends over for a slumber party and have cake, ice cream, open the presents and watch movies in sleeping bags on the living room floor.

Making a huge production of a child's party, even if it is a production designed to also benefit someone else, seems to only instill a false sense of self-importance. It's only a birthday after all. You have one every year!

Theo Boehm said...

Being rude consists of causing other people pain.

A polite person tries to accommodate the feelings of others.

While there are guidelines for this in the history of civilized behavior and politesse, categorical statements accompanied by hard words are, in themselves, rude.

We may not "get to demand" behavior from others, but we may inquire of our close friends and fellow Church members whose children were to be guests, whether they were comfortable with the course the children themselves wanted to follow.  Everyone was already familiar with the charity, and everyone was charmed and very agreeable to support what the children wanted.  Nearly everyone involved had substantial six-figure incomes, so $15 for a birthday present did not represent any hardship.  Everyone felt that the exercise was a good one for the children.  They agreed with Andrew that "donating to charity is a good thing."

All these things are, however, special cases.  We are fortunate to live in a close-knit community, where we are personal friends with all the parents of our children's friends.  In more alienated circumstances, I would not consider doing what we did.

One of the distinct charms of Boston is the warm, family feeling almost palpable in many of the suburbs.  The schools tend to be good, the divorce rate very low by national standards, religious affiliation common, and the parents involved with the kids to a surprising degree.  I know, because I taught high school in a similar well-off suburb in California.  Relative prosperity and stable populations are two of the elements that help create this situation.  Overall, Massachusetts is, in my opinion, one of the best places for children in the country.

So, being in this warm, close-knit environment among friends, I did not feel the slightest hesitation to support my son's wish for what he wanted for his birthday party.  And neither, I will say categorically, did anyone else.

Gahrie said...

Where's Eliot Ness when you need him?

From Inwood said...

Prof A

I'm with you. The children pictured are not happy-looking.

And why stop at birthdays? Tell the kid next time he/she wants the latest fashionista piece, or a gazillion-speed bike, or some electronic/tech item, that you’ve got him/her something used, um, pre-owned from Catholic Charities or the Salvation Army, all the right brand name goods & that you’re subtracting the price of the charity item from the cost of the fashionista or tech item & sending the remainder to some worthy cause.

And parents, use the same logic for those luxury items you don’t need. Buy a Chevy rather than a Caddie or a Rolls & donate the difference. Creature comforts! What kind of message are you sending to your kids when there’s all that starvation in the world? And those vacations you give yourselves. The Greenbrier @ $1,000 per day.

hdhouse said...

Why not let the advantaged kid try it one year. If he gets the warm and fuzzies from doing something good for another kid who he/she has never met who has gotten the lump of coal in life then he may choose to continue. If he says, like Sloanasaurus would, "tough shit..fuck 'em" then don't waste your time any further.

Drive though Memphis sometime and stop at St. Jude. Take the tour. All kids should. All parents should. Yes it might be "guilt" or a lot of other things but it is a lesson learned not lost.

Also there is a practical matter of space. I have a new born granddaughter living in a comfortable 2 bedroom in Brooklyn. Storage is a real and constant issue. Clothes are traded and given freely to neighbors, toys are never discarded, just given or donated...It is a space problem that prompts it and a practicality issue of what goes around comes around...and since when is the good feeling you get when you give a bad thing?

Pogo said...

The charity-giving at a child's birhtday could be done well, as Theo has described. Anonymity of giving is required, however, lest it merely become another mechanism to demonstrate one's largesse and status. This story highlights the error of showing off.

Moreover, giving to one's own commuity is far better than distance philanthropy, at least far more successful. Donations to Darfur may end up merely buying fuel and weapons. Money to the local Dorothy Day house means someone you can see with your own eyes is given shelter, and a message.

The key issue, undiscussed, but the elephant in the room, is that charity involves deciding who among the poor are most deserving of your donation, that key question yet unresolved over the worthy vs. the unworthy poor... (the worthy poor engender "the good feeling you get" more readily).

Bissage said...

MAN (shrouded in fedora and trenchcoat): Pssssssst. Hey, Pogo, dats nice to keep it close to home. Smart, too.

But just so’s ya know, poor people gots pride same’s udder folks. When ya gives ‘em da charity, sometimes it makes ‘em feel kinda lowdown, an’ all.

But it don’t gots ta be dat way. Next time ya do a good deed, wrap it up in some nice wrappin’ paper. Maybe somethin’ pretty wit’ lottsa nice patterns and colors, an’ all. Or maybe some pictures of animals or flowers. You can dress it up wit’ ribbons and a bow. Dat way, da recipient’s gettin’ a present like day’s somebody special and notta bum.

Don’t forget ta include da gift card, signed by everybody.

Wrappin’ paper: it’ll turn dat frown upside down.

Pogo said...

Quite right.
Charity breeds contempt.

1charlie2 said...

Why do I have the urge to slap these parents ? My reaction is actually quite visceral, and I'm not sure of it's origin.

I have two boys, both pre-teen. Since they've been old enough to tote the bags, we've been saving McDonald's Happy-Meal toys still sealed in their little cellophane coats until we get a bag of them.

(Okay, I'm a lousy parent who feeds his kids McD's once or twice a week. So sue me)

After we get two bags of them (don't even think of not having one for each boy to carry), we take them to the local hospital with the pediatric onco center. It's become enough of a 'tradition' that the boys are recognized.

(Dad ? Mom ? Nah, the staff in the volunteer center doesn't know them from Adam or Eve. But so what ?)

The toy donation was Mom's idea, not the boys. But they've taken to it like a duck to water.

A local radio personality hosts the Children's Miracle Network. Our boys save up change to donate, and again, the host recognizes them each time (not Mom and Dad, the boys).

And at school (private, Catholic), both want to have the largest collections in the food drive, etc.

So yeah, they kinda know about charity.

But. . .

They're kids, for God's sake! They're supposed to get toys and crap at birthdays and stuff. Let 'em be kids.

I don't impoverish myself buying them junk, but between retired grandparents with plenty of money, and attending a private Catholic school where the rest of the parents have a much higher SES than we do, they get lots of crap. So what. The little schemers have already figured out that Mom and Dad don't have the money for that (insert expensive toy here), but their grandparents might. And truly, their grandparents don't over-extend themselves buying for the kids. So once we bought our house and moved out of our tiny apartment, I stopped trying to curtail my in-laws spending.

I do sympathize with those with "a houseful of junk." At our apartment, I enforced a "it must fit into their toybox" rule with my in-laws.

Now ? Our kids' stuff is all over our house, and it grows at night when no one is looking. We just get brutal at spring cleaning each year, donating (with their help) the boys' old toys as well as tossing mom's and dad's junk, and the kids participate enthusiastically since by that time they can barely navigate their rooms, and they know they'll get more later :)