How Can You Deny Your Kid Plastic Crap?

Readers throw the book at me over Eli’s book swap.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

The e-mail rained upon me in response to my update about the book swap we do at my kids’ birthday parties, in lieu of presents. Some wrote in outrage. Others offered their own solutions to the birthday party consumption binge.

First, the critics: “Please put away your agenda for your kids’ birthdays,” writes Dana, a reader from West Hartford, Conn. “If you want to do a book swap, perhaps you should do it on YOUR birthday, not theirs.” Another reader, Nadya, makes the same suggestion. It’s a thought, but then I would have to host a party for myself. No thanks.

Dana continues:

There are many, many ways to teach values to children and to encourage reading, but birthday celebrations are not political events and, like weddings, should be tailored to the preferences of the honored participants, not to their family members. Birthdays are supposed to be FUN and you’re taking the fun out of it for your kids. … My father used to do wackadoo stuff like this, which was both painful and embarrassing. Although I dearly love him, I don’t look back and think that he was doing the right thing at the time. I didn’t appreciate it then and I don’t see the benefit of it now (and I’m 51 years old and have raised two kids of my own, so if I was ever going to start appreciating this, it would have happened by now).

Dustin, who lives in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., believes that I am overthinking the whole thing. “It sounds stupid to accuse anyone of too much effort, but I sometimes feel like we’re raising children like laboratory experiments—trying to control every variable in an effort to raise perfect specimens. It’s laudable that you want your kids to have spine and to avoid excessive consumerism, but do you need to make their birthdays into elaborate thought experiments to do it? Wouldn’t a lesson in having spine be more poignant if it arose naturally in a kid’s life? Do you really have to actively contrive scenarios to make your kids different?”

More along this line from Dion, who said my piece “enraged” him. “I was raised fundamentalist way before it became popular, and I suffered through this sort of character building nonsense many times. Here are some questions: Why make the statement in such a public way? Given the many private ways this could be addressed, why pick one that’s guaranteed to make your kids feel like freaks in from of their friends? … I cannot say what your motivations might be. I do know that when my mother inflicted various moral exercises on me, the answer was clear: It was for the show and the bragging rights.” I hope that’s not my own motivation, and I’ve actually gotten kind of sheepish about the swaps. Then again, I did write about them, so not sheepish enough, maybe.

Another reader asks: “Have you asked the parents if their kids read and liked the books they received? I hope I don’t sound aggressive, I just know that if I was one of the kids, chances are I would probably leave with Twilight and it would go straight to the Goodwill pile.”

For the record, some readers sympathized with me. I especially appreciated this note from Tom, who lives in Houston: “Just a note of heartfelt thanks for sharing your family’s struggles to cultivate contentment and nonconformist values in your children. I have tried to do the same with my daughter, but as you well know, there is a serious lack of good role models or even conversational partners on this issue. I feel especially stunted having grown up in poverty, and then finding myself catapulted to the top 5% of earners in the country thanks to the ‘good fortune’ of excelling at standardized exams and attending an elite law school. My daughter is now 12, and seems to have adjusted to most of her dad’s quirks, but it’s sometimes hard not to feel like the Grinch when refusing to give my daughter something—not because I can’t (like my parents) but because I won’t for her own good.”

And now for the suggestions about better alternative birthday giving. Shamik proposes replacing the books with Legos. Another reader, who actually likes Twilight, stuck with books but proposed a different method, based on a swap that she runs at her college each semester. “We ask everyone to bring their old books that they don’t want. We put them all on a table and people browse through, picking out ones they want. Part of the point of it is getting new stuff to read without spending any money, and the other part is cleaning out your closet so you don’t have so much stuff you’re not using. People really like it. Don’t know if it’s a great idea for a birthday party, though.” Actually, I’ve gone the “lightly used” route for some of our parties, and I don’t think it bothers the kids.

Another reader, Colin, suggests this compromise: Birthdays are for receiving. Half-birthdays are for giving. “Birthdays are for enjoyment. We’ll try to encourage people to give books as presents, but the occasional toy (’piece of plastic crap’ to my wife and me) will sneak through, and that’s fine. Let the kid enjoy it. But half-birthdays are the reverse —they are for giving. Volunteering, donating of gently used books/clothes/toys, doing something important for others.” He hasn’t tried it yet but is planning to this year.

And an idea from Beth, who lives in Ohio: “My husband and I (who both share your concerns about overconsumption and excess) hit upon a system that works well for us in our small, very middle-class town: Most years, we hold family-only birthday parties (attended by four grandparents, an aunt and uncle and two cousins). But for specific ages—5, 10, 13 and 16—our kids are also allowed to have a friends-only party (usually a slumber party at our house, even for our sons).”

Ted thinks there’s an easy solution: “Why don’t you have your kids pick out toys in an equal number to the presents they receive to donate to a homeless shelter? … That will give them a much better appreciation for giving to others (in lieu of what you’re teaching them now: my parents suck.) … Who does it help that 10 more toys stay on the shelf at Target for a few more minutes? Why not teach them that they have been blessed (oops—sorry … four letter word for liberals) and they, by their own choosing, would do well to use their own abundance to help other kids.”

John, another veteran parent, tells a story of a birthday alternative gone awry. When his daughter was 5, he and his wife talked to her about how little use she got from the presents she’d gotten at her last birthday. “She was open to a do-gooder type of party,” he said. Asked for a good cause to support, she picked the David Suzuki Foundation. John continues:

“She drew a handmade invitation and we scanned it and printed out the custom invites with a request for her guests to do a few chores for their moms and dads in exchange for some small change and bring the money (less than $10 please) to donate at the party. Most of the parents didn’t get it or couldn’t be bothered, we got a stack of $10 cheques in addition to a complete set of the usual crappy toys-r-us plastic objects.  Ah well, live and learn and don’t fight convention too hard, eh?”

The story ends well: John’s daughter sent in her donation, and Mr. Suzuki invited her to appear on stage with him at an event nearby, which the local paper picked up, with a front-page photo.

I would end on that sweet note, except I have to include this one-line email from Samuel:

“I look forward to your children discovering ayn rand in their rebellious stage.”


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