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Mom to Mom Monday: A present-free birthday party

Posted by Becca on 9/30/2013 to Mom Madness

Mom To Mom: A Present Free Birthday Party

We live in a very rich, very materialistic society. Even our poor here in the US usually have it much better than those in poverty in the rest of the world. We are blessed, and rich beyond our understanding, and most of us don't even see it. I don't consider myself rich at all. Some months we're living paycheck to paycheck and just trusting God that He'll provide what we need if one of our cars suddenly needs to be fixed or the refrigerator stops working. Sometimes, I feel very poor, and say so when I'm frustrated about the state of our savings account. But then, I see stories of kids in third world countries whose parents cant even afford food or basic medicine and I look at my closet full of clothes that I don't wear anymore, and the cupboards full of food, and a faucet that gives me clean, potable water anytime I want it, and I shake my head in shame. I am not poor. I am rich. In fact I, with my little ranch house and college loans, and private school teacher's salary, am in the top 1% of the world's richest people. I'm so very blessed, and half the time I'm too busy worrying about money or complaining that I don't have what I “need” to realize it.

I look at my daughter's room awash in more toys and comforts than she'll ever need and I feel ashamed. I'd like to blame others for the amounts of possessions she owns, but that wouldn't be fair because I'm just as much to blame. I'm the one who bought her every single Disney Princess Barbie. I'm the one that added to her already overflowing doll crib with even more babies. I'm the one that makes her dress-up clothing at her every request. That, plus, overflowing generosity of her loved ones certainly hasn't helped the overwhelming amount of things my daughter owns either. I have tried to staunch the superfluous flow of toys that are always coming, but I can only control what I buy her, not what others give her for birthday parties, Christmas, Easter, Halloween, etc. …which reminds me--there are definitely way too many occasions where retailers convince us that we need to show our love by handing over more of our money for unnecessary junk. Just saying.

toys,gifts,presents I don't think we should apologize for living in an affluent country (and I say affluent on a global scale, as I have already made it clear that I am not wealthy by American standards). I do, however, think we need to beware of excess and the idea pounded into our head by advertisers every time we are on the internet or watching television that we need things to make our lives more fulfilling. And that said, we also need to beware of passing this mentality on to our kids. Instead, wouldn't it be nice if we taught them to have only what they actually need? Wouldn't it be great if my daughter's doll crib housed 5 dolls at most rather than the 50 or so she's amassed in her short life? What if she learned that family celebrations, birthday parties, and holidays are not a time where she gets more stuff but a time where she appreciates those around her? What if we used the money we poured into presents for the kids in our lives to help those who haven't got a decent pair of shoes or clean water to drink? If it were up to me, my daughter would own one or two boxfuls of consciously bought, wooden, handmade, and eco-conscious toys. She would also have all the Disney Princess dolls since that is my one guilty toy pleasure. Believe it or not, this would decrease her toys by quite a large percentage. Our culture and the way we focus on spending and owning is very hard to escape. I confess, I have not escaped it. I admit that I am a shameless slave to materialism. I'm like an untrained dog every time I walk into a clothing store, toy store, or even the grocery store because I have not yet learned fully how to stop the “Gimmee” monster from rearing its ugly head and winning. …and I hate that.

The present-free idea

It was because the thoughts I've just expressed were rattling around in my brain ever since my daughter's first birthday party and Christmas that I decided (after a shameful four years) that this birthday would be different--if only slightly. I discussed it with Bunny and she consented to a somewhat present-less birthday party. The compromise, though, was that all of the guests and Bunny got presents--the same present, in fact. We conceptualized this idea back about a month before her brother was born (since I knew I'd have to start putting it into motion before I was in a post-partum haze) and ten weeks after his birth, all our planning came to fruition in a present-free party. And it was wonderful. I found nice, reusable grocery/gift bags from the Disney store with Bunny's favorite characters from Disney Junior, and we filled the bags with a book, some stickers, a coloring book, some crayons, a reusable cup, and a craft--all of which fell along the theme she'd chosen. There was no candy or cheap plastic do-hickeys from the dollar store, just a handful of nice things that each kid could have and use. Granted, this is still materialistic, but I felt much better about it than about Bunny getting tons of gifts while her friends sat around and watched. Bunny loved the gift bag idea because she still got a present and because she loves to give presents. Her friends loved it because they got presents too which, in my mind, took the narcissism away from the guest of honor because all of them were treated equally. I loved it because the celebration wasn't pointed at presents anymore, but the fellowship of Bunny and her friends in a simple celebration of her life. I also loved it because it emphasized giving on Bunny's end of things. I can imagine that the parents of her guests loved one less thing on their “To Do” list since they were asked not to bring presents and didn't have to squeeze extra room into the budget or the calendar. Overall the party was fun and simple with an emphasis that was replaced on playing and mutual enjoyment rather than presents. The kids ate, ran around outside, climbed the playscape on the playground, and ultimately ended up in a little circle on the grass coloring together.

Now, Bunny didn't have a fully present-free birthday, just a present-free party. I don't have the guts to ask family members not to give her presents as I understand the joy that they get from giving her gifts. And of course, we bought her presents--but I really limited myself this time--no big pile of packages for us to wade through later meaning more things for her to lose interest in and/or hoard unnecessarily. We bought her one large, meaningful present, and two small, educational presents (a dollhouse, a child-sized broom and dustpan, and a book of alphabet stickers, to be exact).

Have I tackled materialism? No, most certainly not. Have I decided we shall never have a party with presents again? No, not that either, though I'm close. But I feel we've taken a key step in prioritizing what's really important in our household. Stuff should not have an emphasis. Ever. Not toys, not clothing, not even extra kitchen gadgets or lawn tools. Anything is good in moderation but when we start having so much stuff that entire basements and storage facilities are taken up by the things we aren't using, that's a problem. There's a scripture in the Bible that I feel sums up this idea nicely: James 2:5 says:

“Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?1

Whether or not you're a Christian or you ascribe to the teachings of the Bible, I think there's an important lesson here: the poor have learned how to really appreciate the important things in life, in this case, their faith; while the rich are so consumed by the business of owning and acquiring stuff that they miss the point and don't see what matters. I have another illustration as well: there is a beautiful series of photos by Gabriele Galimberti taken of children in different cultures and social classes around the world with their favorite toys. Some children sit in huts on a mat on the floor happily clutching one, small toy. Others are perched like royalty in a room much like my daughter's, surrounded by a plethora of their favorite playthings. As he discussed the experience of meeting these people and shooting these photographs, he said something I found quite poignant:

“The richest children were more possessive. At the beginning, they wouldn't want me to touch their toys, and I would need more time before they would let me play with them. In poor countries, it was much easier. Even if they only had two or three toys, they didn't really care. In Africa, the kids would mostly play with their friends outside.”

Hopefully, some day soon, I'll have the time and the courage to go through Bunny's toys with her and cut their number at least in half. As it stands, I'm going to work really hard to keep Asher's possessions from likewise growing at the alarming rate as hers have. Honestly, I fear that giving them so many things really does them a disservice and I regret not taking action on this realization sooner.