Specifying Gifts: Party Invite Faux Pas, or Conscious Parent Protocol?

by Red Pill Mama · 7 comments

in Advertising+Media,Character,General,Toys+Products

Anastasia (faithful reader, commentor and Red Pill Parent) brought up a really interesting point after reading my It’s Time to Fall Out of Love With Cheap post.  She writes:

It’s difficult to control children’s possessions when well-meaning family and friends give gifts that you wouldn’t buy for your children (i.e., cheap plastic).

Not only cheap plastic, but as thinking Red Pill Parents, many of us understand the ramifications and underlying messages in branded or character-based toys, for instance, or dislike many popular toys that might serve to reinforce some gender stereotyping we’re not keen on buying in to — or any number of other things.  But most of all, maybe we just don’t want our kids getting so much more stuff that they don’t need, won’t really appreciate, or won’t really benefit from — and which just reinforces the whole consumerism/stuff mentality — that it’s good to just have more stuff!  Not to mention that we as parents will either be a) stepping around all that stuff, b) picking up that stuff or c) nagging our kids to pick up that stuff.

Which brings me to the question begged by Anastasia’s post: is it OK to let potential gift-givers know what is and is not OK for your kids?

The first birthday party I ever threw was a huge eye opener for me.  Or maybe a slap in the face would be a better analogy.  Or maybe a slap in the eye, combined with a piano falling on my head.  Anyway, my son was turning 3, and my daughter 5, and I started out just inviting a few people, but then I realized that so-and-so knows so-and-so, and they might feel slighted by not being invited, and she’s got a big brother and he’s got a little sister, and how do I deal with that, and finally I just said f&%# it, I’ll just invite every darn kid I know and we’ll have one big fabulous mob.  Well, I ended up with about 30 kids.  No biggie, it was a home party in the back yard, no meal was served, and it was fabulous (except for that part about being so busy you never have a chance to just hang out with your guests).  But as people arrived and the gifts started piling up in the dining room, I started to feel a little queasy.  I figured the kids would bring a gift for the child they knew, but generous and sweet as all these families were (and me being a complete birthday party novice), I was surprised to discover that even if they didn’t know both of my children, they bought them each a gift.  And so the pile grew: it was outrageous.  Thirty kids attended that party; some came with siblings, but some didn’t, and almost every family brought two gifts.  At the end of the party, I was horrified.  Do you think I’m crazy at being horrified at such an outpouring of generosity?  Maybe, but here’s what I was thinking:

#1: My kids are going to think it’s always supposed to be like this!

#2: What in god’s name is in all those bags???

Despite cringing through the hours of gift-opening that ensued and trying to figure out where to put everything, it all turned out OK.  I learned the very valuable lesson that other parents don’t necessarily share my views (or much of conventional parenting wisdom) on what’s appropriate, or beneficial, for kids, yet at the same time, I was absolutely bowled over by their thoughtfulness and generosity.  Thankfully, despite this experience, neither of my kids has ever said, “Is that it?” after their subsequent and far less lucrative birthday celebrations, and if there was anything truly heinous opened after that first party, it most likely — very mysteriously — disappeared. (Note to self: ask Mom where the annual three laundry baskets full of Christmas gifts from Grandma & Grandpa went, ’cause they sure as hell didn’t end up in our rooms.)  So <whew> crisis averted.  But even since then, there have still been some sub-optimal additions to our household in the toy department.  So what can a well-meaning Red Pill Parent do, who just wants what they fervently believe to be best for their kids, but who does not wish to offend or appear to be completely psychotic?

I thought of a couple of ideas.  One would be asking that gifts be experiences, rather than things.  Like, a free pass or ticket to a bowling alley, a puppet show performance, musical performance or museum; a single horseback riding lesson, that sort of thing.  (A little pricier in some cases, but maybe parents could share a gift experience.)  That way, your child comes away with learning experiences (delightfully spread out over time, vs. all crammed into one day) vs. stuff. Would this really be OK, or would it be presumptuous and greedy?  Would it be OK to just say: “We prefer no branded or character merchandise, nothing plastic or noisy, and please no weapons.”?

Or, to spin it more positively, would it be OK to say: “Our child loves art supplies, dress-up pieces, building and creative toys, puzzles, books and nature discovery tools” for instance, as a way of saying what you do want, instead of what you don’t want?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions.  I have pondered them for years, but have always ended up chickening out.  As a parent frequently on the receiving end of invitations, I think I would welcome implicit suggestions, and would certainly appreciate the boldness and vigilance of a parent who attempts to ‘steer’ my gift-purchasing toward something that really suits the party-throwing family.  But that’s just me.  What do you think?

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Anastasia January 21, 2010 at 11:18 pm

“We prefer no branded or character merchandise, nothing plastic or noisy, and please no weapons.”

I wish! Excellent post. We are always trying to figure out the best way to go about it. I have shared your sentiments–feeling grateful and overwhelmed by our friends’ and families’ generosity, and a bit scared to find out what the shiny packages they have so happily brought hold inside.

As our kids get older, our friendships with other parents solidify, and our experience throwing birthday parties grows, I’ve picked up a few tips:

1. It’s hard, but I try to invite families that we (the adults) are friendly with in addition to our kids being friends. If you ever have a conversation with me, I will talk to you about the evils of marketing to children, how much I generally dislike branding and character based toys (save for a few exceptions, which I don’t mind at all), and how I feel about plastic, shiny, noisy toys. Most parents will (thoughtfully, and graciously) choose gifts that they think will be appropriate.
2. When it comes to our close families, my husband and I have no qualms about letting them know that we a) don’t have the space for huge toys, that we b) are hyper aware of marketing ploys targeted at children, and that c) we strongly prefer wood over plastic. We try to be reasonable–I hardly expect my mother in law to shop online for a wooden tool box as opposed to buying the Handy Manny one at Toys R Us. But when she offered me the choice of shopping for my daughter’s Christmas presents myself and having her “reimburse” me, I jumped at it. People make an effort, and that’s all I can ask for in the end.
3. Try as we might, we still end up being more materialistic than we’d like (OK, it’s all me. I love stuff. I looooove it). But we have purge rules: if we haven’t used/worn it for one fall, winter, spring, and summer, out it goes. After every Christmas and birthday, my son and I go through his room and look for old/broken/unwanted toys, and we donate them if they are in good condition, or toss them if they’re not. He actually looks forward to it, and I hope to teach my daughter the same.
4. Our family has never done this, but I have attended birthdays where the parents ask us to refrain from bringing gifts (and oops–my husband and I brought one anyway. But it was wooden!).

My husband is a bit of a pack rat, and I am way into purging. I feel refreshed, cleansed, and ready to take on the world after I have ridden myself of needless things.

Unfortunately, that just makes room to buy more! ;)

Red Pill Papa January 24, 2010 at 3:45 am

For Olivia’s 3rd Birthday, we asked our guests to make a donation to Charley’s Fund, a not-for-profit working to find a cure for Duchennes Muscular Dystrophy. We felt that the lessons in this ‘selfless’ birthday gift would be more valuable than any of the individual gifts that she would receive.

Prior to her 5th birthday, we went through her toys and asked her to separate all of the toys that she no longer played with, so that we could donate them in order to make room for the new toys she would be receiving.

Some people that I know ask their child to ‘trade-in’ an old toy for a new toy. This keeps the toy shelf from growing out of control and teaches a child to a) not become too attached to objects and b) make decisions.


Jenny L January 25, 2010 at 8:41 am

For our first daughter’s first birthday we asked that people donate to a specific charity in lieu of bringing a present. This worked out fine for the most part. My mom was offended that we would suggest GRANDMA could not buy a present. *sigh* .

I have now given up since the daughter is now 4 and knows that presents are brought to parties.

The most recent party showed me another intresting trend. She had a princess and pirates party and now owns all the possible playsets and costumes created in that vein. (The pirate lego set almost beats out the princess playmobil one…)

As for family – my brother requested a list he said “I only wish to know one or two things they want.” Well the 4 year old really wanted a scooter. What did her uncle buy her? A UNICORN hobby horse.

Do not get me started on the fact that our second daughter needs no new toys considering what booty the first has already accumulated.

Diane February 3, 2010 at 3:24 pm

All of these posts have brought back some great memories. I started out parenting very wooden/educational/artistic toy insistent. And for the most part, I stayed that way. However, I found over time that my sons made up imaginative and creative play with their (ugh!) Pokemon and Digimon collections. Noisy toys always break quickly or their batteries run out and when the kids are little, no juice equals broken in mom speak. The “good” toys always lasted and were well-loved.
I also hated the sheer volume of stuff. I remember one Christmas my daughter hid under the dining room table and refused to open any more gifts. We came up with a number of solutions. One was the ‘confiscation’ closet–where toys that were left out went to die. Another was to not open gifts during a birthday party–we just kept the activities going until the parents showed up to pick up their kids. Then we gave the birthday kid a few of the gifts and put the rest away. We wrote generic thank you cards to everyone. The leftover gifts came out one at a time on long car rides, or after some great behavior that deserved a reward. We also saved some of the grandparents Christmas gifts for their birthdays when they were older.
The best news is the birthday party days don’t last forever–soon there won’t be friend gifts to worry about and you’ll be wistfully looking at birthday party pictures wondering where the years went.

Louisa February 7, 2010 at 11:03 am

I may be cruel, but any presents I can intercept get vetted heavily. If they are plastic and crap, I give them away. Unfortunately, most get through the net and go directly to both children.

So, I set up a system, whereby I have half of their toys in a box out of the way and the other half available for them to play with. We rotate the boxes, but leave it long enough for them to have conveniently forgotten what was in the other box. Lots of things disappear to charity shops that way. the girls don’t seem really bothered, they actually don’t feel real affection for the plastic stuff anyway!!! They can take it or leave it.

I threw out all my eldest girl’s (7) Barbies. She had accumulated twelve of the bloody things through gifts over the years and I found it gross. I gave them to the charity shop when we moved house along with all the other plastic crap I could safely get away with.

Now I ask my parents to buy presents from a wooden catalogue which I make sure gets sent direct to them every year, I tell them I want my children to have ‘educational’ toys – and what I really mean is wooden or handcrafted/handsewn. One year I asked for money from everyone to put towards a bike – it does work, you just have to be forceful about it ;)

Lou x

Heather A February 22, 2010 at 3:49 pm

I don’t like the junk either even if my kids do. I absolutely love the idea to ask for experiences over stuff. Even a single movie ticket would be a great gift. You are totally onto something with that. This would teach them from an early age that what’s collected in your head stays with you forever…well…not as long as the plastic toys would remain in the land fill, but for a long time. I’m going to design some birthday invitations around this idea. Thanks for the very thoughtful posts.

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