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April 01, 2010

Navigating the birthday present conundrum

Birthday ring I was pretty comfortable with my “No gifts, please”/Birthdays Without Pressure approach until last week when my newly-four-year-old son said of the friends coming to his playdate, “But I want them to bring presents!”

Am I an evil mommy for pushing low consumerism on my kid? Or am I just feeling the sting of letting him rummage through the recycling bin and find catalogs to drool over? And of getting gifts for other kids’ parties? I’m struggling now to find a way to be consistent or just comfortable on this issue of birthday presents.

I haven’t read Annie Leonard’s book yet, but the title says a lot: The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession With Stuff Is Trashing The Planet, Our Communities, And Our Health - And A Vision For Change.  I know age four is too young for me to push an agenda on my kid, but I do want to stick to my values.

At our planned birthday playdate, we were going to have a cake (that we’d made together, from scratch) but no gimmicks or giveaways. Just play with friends. As I’ve written before, I just want my son to see birthdays as a time where he feels special and happy, not as something that has to come wrapped in a box with a pricetag.

He’d already opened his birthday gifts from us and from his grandparents the night before, and when he commented about his friends bringing gifts, I was a little stunned.

I didn’t want him to be surprised, so I said something to the effect of, “Oh, I think they might bring cards or something they’ve made, but I don’t think people will have presents. We just want to play with them and celebrate with them.” He got pretty sad then, and he got sad again a little later after the playdate. While people were here, though, he had a great time; gifts never came up.

Still, I question what to do next time and also how to handle other parties from here on out.

From an anti-consumerist perspective, I want my son to value people over things. The desire to “have” unnecessary junk is not something I want him to hurt from, not as long as I have some say in the matter. He might be growing up economically privileged, but that doesn’t mean he has to think he can have whatever he wants or that his desires are more important than a lot of other people’s real needs. Besides, we just don’t need any more stuff in our house.

From an environmental perspective, I don’t want people spending money on virgin plastic that cost a lot in pollution to create and that will never disappear.

From a pedagogical and Waldorf-y perspective, I want most of my son’s experiences to be with natural materials – wood, silk, wool, cotton. Sure, we have some synthetic items lying around, but I really don’t want or need any more. This is an aesthetic issue, too. I love our wooden play kitchen; it’s beautiful to look at, and plastic just isn’t, in my book.

There are plenty more reasons to go “no gifts.” But do they really matter to a child who just wants to be like everyone else? Maybe if – even when invitations didn’t have this instruction – I only took cards or “you’ve donated a chicken” gifts to other kids’ parties … maybe that would send my son a more consistent message so that he didn’t feel like he was being denied something. Even if I haven’t made a big deal of giving gifts, he knows we do it, and it’s reasonable to think he’d expect the same and feel left out when it didn’t come.

Until now, I’ve figured it was my right to set the terms on the experience I want my son to have at his birthdays, but I’m not going to tell people how to deal with stuff with their kids. Part of me wishes everyone would go no gifts, but tough cookies for me. I just buy stuff I feel decent about. And I’ve hoped he wouldn’t feel the desire for the same treatment. I see now that he does.

It is nice when people we know have given us things. We don’t refuse it, and we try to model graciousness (though admittedly, I kind of suck with timely thank you notes). I don’t shy away from reminding my son who gave him which toy for months, years after the fact. I just like that these gifts are special and unique, not expected and practically mandatory as they seem to be without the no gifts instruction.

I don’t want to lecture my son about my philosophy when he’s so young, and I don’t want him to feel like I’m depriving him of something that’s expected for other kids.

I guess I can at least get started on those thank you notes to Grandma.

Original to DC Metro Moms Blog.

Jessica Claire/Claire Jess writes about life on the alternative-mainstream divide at Crunchy-Chewy Mama.



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