Oh No—Not Another Book!

Is it time to let my kids get real birthday presents? Nope.

See a Magnum Photos gallery celebrating the good old days of reading on paper. 

I wrote my first piece for this Family column, four years ago, about my son Eli’s birthday party book swap. Instead of presents, we ask the kids who come to Eli’s and our younger son Simon’s parties to bring a new book, wrapped up, which they think another kid their age would like. At the end of the party, each child chooses a book from the pile and goes home with something to read (plus a lollipop or a Superball or some such). For Eli and Simon, we now make a side deal ahead of time. They get to choose three or four friends who will bring them normal, not earnest and goody-goody, gifts, the kind that everyone else gets. I bring extra books for the kids who bring the presents.

My husband, Paul, and I started the book swap when Eli was 3. He recently turned 10, and Simon will be 7 next month. Over the years, the kids have not exactly embraced the book swap. Nor do they tolerate it as a mildly irritating but harmless parental quirk. They hate it. Every year their protests grow louder. The hard part for them is articulating why. They are old enough to know that greed is a hard position to defend. So they’ve taken another tactic. They just don’t want to be “different,” they say. Why, oh why, are we making them stand out this way?

The hard part for us has become: What’s the answer? Have we staked out this bit of moralistic turf because somehow it represents our family values in a way that nothing else quite does? Are we trying to open our kids’ minds to nonconformity? Is that a worthy goal, and is this a good way to pursue it?

A few weeks before Eli’s party this year, we wrestled over these issues. In sending out the invitation, I wanted to explain the book swap. Eli started to howl (along with his brother, who was defending his own interests). “IT’S NOT FAIR!” the kids yelled over and over. (This being the default phrase for any source of distress. It has an infinite set of meanings, many of them having nothing to do with injustice.) Eli flopped on his bed. “No one else has to do this. Why do I have to?”

I confess that I left Paul to handle this, while I lurked outside the bedroom door. Paul quietly explained that this was our family’s way of drawing a line against consumption and excess. Our kids don’t want for anything. They are comfortably middle-class Americans. They are surrounded by stuff. Eli loves baseball cards: He has three big binders full of them. His grandparents and uncles and aunts would give him birthday presents. So would we. Why does he also need wrapped objects from a dozen or more of his friends?

Of course, the phrasing is itself loaded. Eli and Simon can’t convince themselves that they need a dozen presents. The defense of the ritual of birthday parents, which some of my friends have spiritedly made to me, is that frivolity and abundance should be a deliciously unself-conscious part of growing up. These moments shouldn’t be justified; they should simply be reveled in. Forcing kids to account for their birthday loot is cruel, viewed this way. It turns what should be bright delight into something stingy and utilitarian.

I see that, but I also think my kids know plenty about abundance. During Hanukkah, Simon and I went to a party at which there was a cornucopia of gelt (chocolate coins), hundreds of pieces spilling over an entire table. For a moment, I watched him halt in disbelief. Then he grabbed handfuls. It was certainly a moment of sheer delight. So OK, he had this moment (and he showered Eli in gelt when he got home). How many times do my kids truly feel that giddy pleasure? Isn’t the danger in our culture that they’ll become too accustomed to such fleeting rapture, rather than not enough?

Eli had another argument to make, though. Why can’t I be like everyone else? This one made Paul roll his eyes. He wants our kids to have some spine. He wants them to be able to stand apart, at least once in a while. The book swap was a test of that. And only a small one!

And yet Eli was in tears. We started to feel slightly ogre-ish (or at least I did). We decided not to break but to bend. Paul told Eli we were trying to express a family value of anti-consumption, and of the importance of giving—giving books out, rather than only receiving. Could he come up with another way?

This is where I would like to report a solution. But we didn’t really find one. We talked about giving away half the presents. But that seemed rude. We talked about asking Eli’s grandparents to donate money to a soup kitchen where he’d volunteered, the idea being that his friends would give him presents this year, so his family wouldn’t. But it turned out that the grandparents had already bought their presents. So Paul and I offered to make the donation in lieu of a gift. Except that what Eli really wanted was a camera. Which his friends weren’t going to get him.

That night, we let the whole thing lie. We’d all think and reconvene. Eli went to bed, mollified. This, I think, is the best moral of this family drama: When your kid is shrieking over a parental ruling, table it.

A week or so later, with Eli’s party approaching, I went into his room to kiss him good night and asked him to remind me what we’d decided.

“Umm, weren’t you going to give money to the soup kitchen?” he said.

“We can do that,” I answered. “But I thought you really wanted a camera.”

Eli screwed up his face in thought. He put his chin in his hand. “What about giving half the presents away?” he asked.

I screwed up my face, too. “Hmm. I don’t think that’s so nice. Do you?”

He sighed. “No,” he said. “I guess, why would people give presents if I’m going to give them away. I guess it’s kind of … [sigh] pointless.”

Drama subsided into anticlimax. At the party, we did the book swap. Eli said not one more word about it, either of protest or acceptance. When we gave the books out, as far as I could tell, the kids took them happily enough and without mocking Eli for his family’s tote-bag ways. He went home with five presents (one sympathetic friend gave him three), including a lava lamp, a Swiss army knife, and a rope ladder. Plus, from us, a camera. (He got to pick the color. It’s green.) I don’t feel sorry for him.

At the same time, I’m not sure the book swap must remain with us forever. Paul says that the most important thing wasn’t that Eli had to articulate his reasons for protest but that we had to articulate ours for launching this boat. We wanted our kids to experience this expression of our values, but we hadn’t done enough to explain why. This amounted to inflicting something on them. In the end, the decision about the gifts vs. the books didn’t matter as much as talking it through. A lesson for us.