Monday, April 25, 2011

Sugar and plastic

Elli just finished attending quite a run of birthday parties.  The norm around here is for kids to have birthday parties at a business designed around hosting such things - generally 1.5 to 2 hours of 15 - 30 kids eating junk food and running around plastic indoor playgrounds like maniacs.  At the end every kid is presented with a bagful of plastic toys, stickers and knickknacks (also known as junk) and sent home high on sugar and excitement.  The price tag is pretty severe as the parents of the birthday kid end up tagged for $500 but they do end up with ~20 presents for their kid worth something like $20 each so they can count it as not overly expensive... if what they wanted to do with their $500 is buy a mountain of toys that surely will mostly be ignored.  I hate it all!

I can't see the reasoning behind such a ridiculous explosion of spending for so little return.  These kids are not desperate for a toy to play with so suddenly be inundated with them is going to mean that most of the gifts will be very nearly worthless to them - likely even a negative because they will clutter up their place for awhile until everyone is willing to trash them.  The constant stream of birthday parties that children attend is incredible and to accept all the invitations is to be forever running to the store and buying gifts the recipient doesn't need but which must be given to avoid much ill will.  What is just as bad is the waste that goes on to feed the kids at this event.  Every bit of food served means another disposable plate and fork in the trash and every kid goes through 1-2 disposable cups.  Napkins are pitched without ever being used and water is doled out in recyclable containers that mostly go straight into the dump too.  Most of this is in the name of safety of course - anything that goes near a child is contaminated and must be thrown out right away to maintain the illusion that no passing on of germs can occur.

The food itself is yet another problem.  There are often some bright spots like trays of fruit slices but by and large the main fare is fast food pizza, chips, sugared drinks and cake.  I understand that cake is a tradition but I very much question the necessity of a Barbie / Cars / Hannah Montana / Ninja birthday cake containing 50% icing purchased at the local grocery store for a fortune.  There are plenty of foods that kids will eat that don't fall between toxic and bad but they don't often make an appearance.  I would think that this is mostly the parents at fault rather than the businesses though; they could easily bring healthy snacks instead of crap but healthy probably takes more work and runs a higher risk of kids complaining.

I think this is one of those situations where I really need to apply Ghandi's maxim of "Be the change you want to see in the world".  Elli's parties so far have been small at home affairs with just 4 friends at most.  Even then the number of presents all at once is too much for her to really appreciate; I can hardly imagine dealing with 8 times as much.  We managed to serve pretty decent food and homemade cupcakes so we are doing well on that front but we did end up sending all the attendees home with a stack of princess themed accessories.  I should probably just try to be realistic in that I have no chance of getting people to serve vegetables instead of cake nor any ability to prevent the tide of unneeded presents.  I can try to have small events, serve good food and not give out junk to the kids as they leave without causing too much fuss though so I suspect that is the only real course available to me.  I figure the kids may complain that they didn't get their customary loot bag but their parents are probably just as happy to not have to cart home and eventually get rid of my dollar store treasures.


  1. I suspect the reason you see little value of the gifts is that you also don't see much value in the recognition that you are "older". Life is about measuring accomplishments and satisfaction and growing a year older is a pretty terrible accomplishment.

    From a little kid's perspective, however, the gifts have meaning despite fleeting. They let a kid feel important for a day and boost self-esteem. Futhermore, and particularly for family, watching appreciation on the kid's face is actually quite gratifying (at least I value it). Doing something like spreading the gifts over a full year would take away that pleasure.

    Whether you feel that has a fair return-value is another story... personally I think the $500 a party runs is better spent on other things. I also think that these birthdays are a huge waste of money, but I think I'm outvoted in these matters.

  2. I actually see fairly little value in gifts at any time but I recognize that this is a personal quirk and I don't have any issue with others enjoying gifts. The issue is that a gift given for a particular reason by itself can be very impactful but a huge stack of generic stuff given without much thought all at once is a terrible investment.

    Me buying my wife flowers on a day when she has been driven crazy by something or other: Good.

    A kid getting 20 different generic presents on a single day: Total waste.

    Every kit at a party getting a pile of dollar store trash: Total waste.

  3. Are they total wastes though? Getting one reasonably good $2 chocolate bar is good, but I'm usually happier with 40 5-cent candies. A pile of generic presents has quantity which, sure, has less actual value and durability, but has a nice pleasing effect of _stuff_.

  4. I hate socially mandated presents. As a wise man once said, you haven't given me a gift. You've given me an obligation.

  5. You mentioned flowers so I can't resist.

    Turns out that flowers are perhaps the worst "climate" purchase one can make. They are either air freighted from Colombia (very bad for climate) or hothoused (equally bad due to energy use). If you can, go for flowers in-season, purchase potted flowers, or chocolate and a back rub.

    Sky, I'm with you unquestionably on this birthday stuff. A few presents, manageable fun and games at home (or a community centre, park, public pool etc), and love.

    I disagree strongly that presents provide any kind of self esteem. In my experience, that comes from: 1) General mental makeup 2) Place of belonging and safety 3) Opportunities to apply skills and expertise in useful ways. I suspect that the strong feelings brought on by getting gifts and retail therapy don't contribute meaningfully to lasting happiness unless it is a factor in building specific relationships or habits (ex. a baseball glove and then time spent playing with your children.... or an x-box for t hat matter, for those gamer parents).

  6. I don't think I could get away with chocolate and a back rub. It is well established that I give back rubs on command and we have lots of chocolate in the house already - consumption is limited by desire, not availability.

    I don't personally buy flowers because of a lack of creativity but rather because Wendy likes them better than nearly any other gift. While I prefer to be environmentally conscious I give what the receiver wants to receive and simply give less often if the gift is problematic for some reason.



  7. I'm going to a birthday party this weekend for someone who will pretty much have no clue that they are even receiving gifts. It's all very frustrating.

    I'm pretty sure that if you want to mark birthdays as special occasions then getting a cake and singing to them will have about the same "special day" effect as a gang of feral children driven wild by birthday hype. Also, getting a small number of presents is probably exactly as great as getting a large number of presents. Toys and games are fun for children and I'm not going to say presents aren't nice, but I don't want to teach children that the best thing in the world is *MORE THINGS!*.