Wishing You a Happy and Ethical Birthday

We were having an animated and excited conversation about the looming birthday of my youngest child. She was about to turn five and we were talking, as a family, about how soon the birthday was and what sort of celebration we might have. Her face lit up and she got very excited thinking about all of her good friends from pre-school and the yummy food she wanted. When asked to think about what sort of cake she wanted, she grabbed the pencils and paper and drew a dozen cake decorating ideas.

The theme was set as a flower party, the guest list was written and the cake decided upon. We would invite her friends to our backyard and Dad would try his hand at balloon twisting and basic juggling for entertainment.

And then we asked, ‘And what would you like for your birthday’.

`A party,’ she said.

`Yes, yes a party, we agreed.

‘But what would you like for your birthday. What would you like to get?’ we said.

`A party, a flower party,’ was her reply.

And there in that moment, I was taught a lesson by my 4 ½ year old. What she would like for her birthday is a party. There is no distinction in her mind between a physical gift and the gift of giving her a party.

Her much more sophisticated seven year old sister set her straight.

`No, what present do you want? What can we buy that we can wrap up? What do you want so you can keep it and play with it? What toys?!’

No childish innocence of a party just being about fun and games remain in my older daughter’s mind. It’s not just about having fun it’s also about gifts, toys and getting stuff. And that prompted me to wonder what do birthday parties, and the gifts, really mean? What are we teaching our children by the types of parties we have?

As each birthday rolls around, I fight an inner battle between my belief that the best `thing’ I can give my child is my time and love. And another opposing belief that I’d like to give them presents as great and exciting as I used to get as a kid.  I’ll get them a present to enjoy opening on the day but it in no way represents all I feel for that child and is not the very biggest and best gift I can afford to give them. It is a gift to see the pleasure on their face and a joy to give it. But in searching for the right gift to give them, I feel a certain pressure to provide the wonderful childhood memories I have of tearing open wrapping paper; of ripping apart the glossy paper to find exactly the ‘right’ type of doll or skate or toy fad that I requested. And after they were opened, I’d line them all up on my bed to inspect the many and varied gifts I’d gotten.

I don’t buy toys for my children unless it is their birthday or Christmas time. I like to think I’m generous about supplying lots of creative items for them to make things and explore. And I give them gifts of experiencing shows or music or a day at the museum. But I can’t recall ever having bought them a doll or game simply to amuse them. And yet, even with this restraint, I find our rooms are full of plastic knick-knacks – a lost shoe from a Barbie doll, a toy car that a friend forgot to take home, a mountain of accessories that belong in the dolls house, and a substantial library of DVDs for hours of their viewing pleasure.

And where do these things come from? From others…from the generous bearers of gifts at birthday parties and Christmas. And I thank everyone for them. I’m sure my kids do too or they’d be scratching about with a stick in the backyard as their only toy if buying the fun stuff was left up to their boring mother.

But our recent party conversation has prompted me to ask: what is the meaning of giving a gift to a child? Some might say it is to bring the child some fun, to give them entertainment, or even as a sign of affection. Or do we give gifts because it is the done thing at birthdays?

My elder daughter (yes the one set her sister straight about the inclusion of toys at a party) had her seventh birthday a couple of months ago. This year, in lieu of the party that we’d had to mark every other day of her birth, we took her for a fabulous day at a theme park. Our immediate family all had a great time on the rollercoasters and rides and enjoying junk food treats. We had hours and hours of action and laughing and excitement. But without a party, without a public celebration and without invitations to remind some of the event, I did notice a lot fewer gifts.

Grandparents, aunts and of course, us, gave her a special gift or two each. But her friends from school and family friends, who normally would have come with gifts in hand at any party we arranged, didn’t give anything. I don’t see this as a bad thing but it was slightly hurtful that they didn’t send a card. They didn’t call her on the day or make any type of fuss of her birthday. So, what does this say about our ‘reasons’ for gifts?

I tell myself that perhaps all those other people didn’t know it was her birthday. Without the party invitation stuck on the fridge how else would any busy mother of her friends (or mine) recall it. But I can’t help feel that gift giving (or card giving or remembering the day) has nothing to do with the person. It has to do with the fact that there is a party attached to the event. And if there’s a party that means presents and cards and a dutiful rendition of Happy Birthday to You.

But what are the ethics of asking people to come to a party and NOT bring a gift? Can
this be done for a child’s party? One friend asked only for feathers to add to her two year olds’ collection. The grandparents found it extremely hard not to give a traditional gift of a toy and I must admit it did feel strange to have a discarded magpie feather as our only gift.

What about giving a charitable gift to others for which they receive ‘nothing’?

We gave my father-in-law, a man who has everything, or at least the means to buy it, a goat for a gift. The goat was not for him but it went to a needy family in a developing country. The fifty dollars we would normally spend on him to buy an unwanted coffee table book or an unnecessary addition to his wine collection was spent on someone else. He got a card with a picture of a goat and was supposed to get good feelings about receiving such a thoughtful and charitable gift. It is an understatement to say that he was not impressed.

He never mentioned it to our face but everyone else in the family heard his mumblings about the ridiculous goat he’d gotten from us. Where’s the ‘real’ gift was an almost audible subtext. But even I can not imagine giving my children a goat for charity and nothing else.

I asked one friend with two children how she has handled the question of gifts and

‘Well, we started with the very best of intentions,’ she said.

‘For each of the girls’ first birthdays, we told family and friends that we thought our daughters had everything that was important. So please, in lieu of a gift or toy, please donate the amount you would have spent to a couple of charities we specified, or a charity of their choice.

‘My family just ignored that suggestion. They didn’t think such a thing would apply to them. It didn’t go down well. My husband’s family didn’t ignore it but they chose instead to not give a gift nor to donate to charity. It was a bit of a disaster. And now the girls are older it’s much harder to decide what they will and won’t receive from others, especially from their friends at school.’

As a parent I don’t expect there to be a magic solution to this conundrum. Instead, I can only hope to teach my child the values I admire and to hold the type of parties and give the type of gifts I would like to see more of. I refuse (to the growing dismay of my brand-aware child) to buy gifts that are plastic junk that don’t inspire creativity. Our gifts may be small in comparison to others but that’s something we can talk about together.

There is very little research or statistics on the topic of children’s birthday gifts and parties. From the noticeable growth in specialist party shops and the increasing number of professionals who can be hired to do all the ‘work’ of children’s parties, I deduce that not everyone feels the way I do about small and simple celebrations.

The only guidelines I could come up with for myself are basic:

Have the type of parties you would like your children to be invited to.

Buy others the type of gifts you would like to receive.

Make cards to show time and effort went into them.

Give small special gifts that may have sentiment or meaning.

Buy gifts from ethical shops such as Oxfam, Community Aid Abroad or other ethical traders.

And, my big fallback for a gift idea is always books.

So, without taking all the joy out of turning five, I’m going to make my little girls’ flower party the loveliest I can create. I’m sure our memories of the day will last longer than any flashy top or doll that could be so easily bought. And however you wish to negotiate the minefield of party-hosting, gift-giving and meaningful celebrations, I wish you all many Happy Birthdays!

Further reading: The Logic of the Gift, Toward an Ethic of Generosity, collated by Alan D Schrift. A look at this question from many perspectives: gender and feminist theory, philosophy, anthropology and economics.

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