My friend — I’ll call her Grace — threw a lovely at-home birthday party for her five-year-old. It was one of the best parties I’ve attended, and it ended unforgettably.
As the little guests arrived (all girls in this case), they were led to a table with crayons, markers, and stickers scattered liberally about. Each girl was handed a plain gift bag to decorate. The girls giggled, stole glances at each other’s work, and admired their own. “Hold on to your bags,” Grace told them. “You’ll need them for the scavenger hunt.”
After Grace read the first clue, the girls darted towards the mailbox, where, to their delight, shiny new pencils awaited (along with the next clue). The girls then flocked to the back yard. Treasure #2 was in the gazebo. The scavenger hunt continued, until their bags were full of trinkets — pencils, Play-Doh, headbands, candy necklaces, books — which they examined excitedly.
Also, there was dancing, games, burgers off the grill, cake, and ice cream.
When it was time to go, we grabbed my daughter’s decorated bag of goodies. I was saying good-bye to Grace when a child approached and asked, “Where are the goody bags?” Grace looked confused; the child was holding her bag. She smiled graciously. “It looks like you’ve got yours, sweetie! It’s in your hand.”
The child: “Oh, no . . . not this. I mean, the one you get . . . at the end . . .”
Ahh, the real goodie bag. Because a personally decorated bag of quality scavenger hunt loot didn’t count. Because a fun, thoughtfully planned group activity that doubled as a take-home gift for little guests didn’t count. A true goody bag needs to be revealed at the last minute to be legitimate.
Is anyone else troubled by this situation?
I’d argue it’s not just a “situation,” but a bigger problem.
I don’t mean to judge children. When every birthday party you attend ends in goody bags, why wouldn’t you come to expect them?
Neither do I mean to judge parents. My children say and do all kinds of boneheaded things, and when they do, I pray other parents will cut us slack because life is a process, and we are still learning here.
But the goody bag thing irks me. It irks Nina Badzin, too. In her piece for Brain, Child, she recalls a Build-A-Bear party where kids asked for favors. They couldn’t see that the bear they’d just built was the favor. In Melissa Sher’s recent rant for HuffPost, she tells of a boy who demanded his goody bag while his mom watched. I think the goody bag thing irks a lot of moms, who tend not to talk about it for fear doing so makes us sound like grinches and ogres.
Some people reading this right now might be thinking: Just what kind of killjoy are you?
Not so! I love celebrations and hospitality. I love children.
Some might say: What’s the harm in giving children a token of appreciation on another child’s special day?
I say: The party is sufficient. To celebrate the birthday child, we get to enjoy food, fun, and interaction. The harm is when we start to believe those good things are not enough.
Some would say: It’s good for the birthday child to give gifts. This teaches that even on their birthday, it’s not all about them.
That’s a nice thought. But I don’t buy it. I think people do it because it’s increasingly expected in our commercialized culture. Parents and kids wish to avoid awkwardness. Parents don’t want their child to feel embarrassed. There are 364 other days of the year for children to practice generosity in longer-lasting ways. Parents need to make authentic — yet sometimes unpopular — choices. Won’t our kids need to do that sometimes? Maybe we could model it. If that means cutting out goody bags, why not?
Some would say: Party favors don’t need to be extravagant. They cost a pittance.
I say, birthday costs add up quickly. For many, favors are a burden. What goodies are “good enough?” Will kids like them as much as so-and-so’s? Suddenly, we’re playing the comparison game, over things that will end in the trash.
Some would say: We don’t give cheap items that end in the trash. We bake batches of homemade treats and do handmade crafts.
Well. That is impressive. Unnecessary, but impressive.
Some would say: Party favors are a graceful way to signal to children the party is coming to an end. Children don’t want to leave. Party favors help minimize frustration and tantrums.
I say: Puh-leeze. There are limits to hospitality, and that is learned over time in the School of Life. Children don’t need to be coaxed into leaving parties with gifts. Parenting is hard. Leaving a party with a kicking, screaming, crying child is a bummer but comes with the territory sometimes. Call me an idealist, but perhaps in the absence of more stuff, kids will focus more on what they did at the party rather than what they left with?
I realize there are worse things in the world than goody bags. Some of them are absolutely darling, like these:
And these cute Lego numbers:
There are even “green” favors that generate minimal waste, like this one!
If you love goody bags, carry on! Your options are endless. The children (including my own) will love you for it.
But if you find yourself irked by the cost, the logistics, or the mere idea of goody bags?
There is a simpler approach, and I’m here to tell you that it is enough. When your little guests are leaving, crouch down. Smile. Look them in the eye. Shake their hand or give them a hug. Tell them in a heartfelt way:
Thank you for coming. I’m so glad you were here to celebrate this day with us.