I attended a five-year-old’s birthday party yesterday with my son. Talk about chaos. This kid had twenty friends round, so naturally he received twenty presents, too. Or actually it was a bit more than that, since several people had apparently thought that a little box of Lego was not enough, and had added an additional gift.
As the kid unwrapped one after another of these fabulous Lego sets and other toys (most of them in the price range of 20-35 euros) I just started to feel sick to my stomach. It really didn’t feel right that this little kid was swamped in all those toys. I couldn’t help but think about all the little kids of this world who pretty much never receive a single present from anyone. And then to watch this one kid getting all these presents, in addition to the ones he had probably already received from his parents and relatives. The gifts given at this party alone must have been worth at least 400 euros, probably more. When was the child even going to have the time to play with all of them? Where would he keep these toys? Would they need to get a bigger house?
I worry about how spoiled my own kids are going to be, and this in spite of the fact that they have never received such piles of presents. The last birthday they probably had about eight or nine presents each. (There might have been some clothes thrown in but as far as children are concerned, clothes don’t count.) I tried to concentrate the presents to the things they really wanted instead of just having them get random things they’d never even play with. Even so, it felt like a lot of presents. I don’t want to teach them that everything is theirs just for the asking. I don’t want to drown their ability to dream in a stream of possessions, and yet I feel like I’m heading that way.
Yesterday I read about a Finnish man who was brought up to be charitable. As an adult, this man worked really hard to help others in need. He gave, and gave, and in return he felt peaceful and happy, since he could make a difference in these people’s lives.
Once in Romania, this man asked the poor children what they would ask for if they could have anything in the world. The kids said they would love nothing better than having their own loaf of bread. Just one loaf of bread. That was the most wonderful thing they could think of. The next day, this man came back with 130 loafs of bread, one for each child. I don’t have to tell you how happy he made these kids.
Do our children ever receive lessons like these? Do we ever show them that instead of only taking, and writing to Santa Claus for more, do we ever model giving, even if it means that we will have to settle for less? And I don’t just mean giving a birthday present that the parents paid for and that will most likely be replaced by a reciprocal gift later on. I mean really giving of their own, in order to help, not expecting anything in return. How many adults even know how to do this? I know I’m not that great at it.
I know that this party wasn’t really that bad. I’ve watched My Super Sweet 16. But that’s the thing that bothers me. This was the normal party of a five-year-old boy with middle-class parents and lots of friends with parents from similar backgrounds. I know the kid’s mother and she’s a very nice, sweet, loving person. She only wanted to throw a great party for her son. She invited all of the kid’s friends, since she didn’t want anyone feeling left out. I bet she was kicking herself when she found out that everybody could make it to the party. She definitely seemed exhausted trying to control the ruckus.
You can’t blame the parents for wanting their kid to have a great birthday. You can’t blame the kid for wanting to have presents and to invite his friends to celebrate his big day. So who can you blame?
I blame the consumerist culture that has turned birthdays into exercises in madness. In my childhood in the 80s, this kind of party was unheard of. You had a few of your best friends over, you ate and enjoyed cookies and the cake that mom had baked (and it wasn’t shaped like any cartoon figure), drank some juice made from concentrate and then you played party games and everyone had a great time. You received a few, inexpensive presents that you felt thrilled to have. It was the thought that counted the most. Simple.
Giving the child the “birthday party of his dreams” might teach him that everything is measured in money. Love is measured by presents. Success is measured in the number of people who turn up. The mom’s ability is measured in the decorations and the treats provided. Who gets the most presents, who has the most friends, who has the best cake? Oscar Wilde defined a cynic as a person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. We are raising children who fit this description only too well.
Most of the kids seemed to enjoy the party, but my kid didn’t. He was fazed by all those kids running amok, the ear-piercing noise and the fact that it was all over so quickly. No one even had a chance to properly look at the new toys. My kid enjoyed a party we recently attended a lot more, where there were only a few guests, everyone played outside, and there was a sensible amount of snacks and treats. The gifts were inexpensive but received with great enthusiasm. Everyone had a great time. Kind of like the parties in my childhood.
I would suggest a survival plan for all the parents who are tired of this madness. I know I’m not the only one. How about the next time when your child has a birthday, you do something really simple. Inexpensive but fun. Have the party in a park, and have everyone bring something nice to eat. Only small presents allowed, or even better, several kids can get one big present. Play some games, play some music, or even just let the children play. They know how.
Perhaps with the money saved you then can donate some money or presents to those who don’t get to celebrate birthdays. Doing that, you will give the child a very special gift: the gift of values.