Happy birthday, dear Visa

How come a $5 present is no longer good enough for a 6-year-old?


Prescott Carlson

I just received my credit card statement today, and good news! I earned enough miles from my charges this month to fly around the world for free—twice. The bad news is that none of the items on the statement still reside in my house. They were all birthday presents for my son’s friends.

It seems in the holiday season of 1998, every one of the parents in my son’s class got together over coffee and came to the unanimous decision to have unprotected sex. Merry Christmas indeed. All I know is, this past month my kid’s backpack overflowed with officially licensed character birthday party invitations on a daily basis. He was handed more cards than a man with a neck brace in a room full of personal injury attorneys.

I thought, "Hey, is my kid popular OR WHAT?" My wife brought me down to earth when she explained the school’s policy that dictates giving invites to the entire class. When did this start? When I was young, I was allowed to invite five friends and that was it. We learned rejection at an early age.

My wife, of course, thinks this is all great, and my son loves parties. I, on the other hand, have only one thought: "How many gifts do we need to buy for these ankle biters?" I seem to recall birthday parties where I received Matchbox cars and baseball cards and was happy as a clam.

I asked her, "What do we have to spend, $5 each?" I can hear you snickering at how clueless I am. Apparently, I could get by for no less than a plastic piece of junk that requires 16 batteries and just so happens to have a Spider-Man decal on it, boosting the price to $67.

Keeping up with Puff Daddy

It seems the new etiquette dictates that the value of the gift is directly tied to the extravagance of the party, and parents these days are throwing bashes for their little tykes that make Puff Daddy’s soirees look modest.

The list of accoutrements at recent parties my son attended have included: the renting out of entire rec centers, amusement parks and water parks, ponies, a magician (weird), a clown (scary), a clown magician (double weird and scary), a rock band and—I’m not making this up—two monkeys. If they made non-alcoholic Cristal, I’m sure it would have been served. My cronies and I had parties that consisted of pin the tail on the donkey, a large pizza and a goodie bag containing a plastic car the size of my toenail, a noisemaker and a stale Tootsie Roll.

Speaking of goodie bags, I know where the Oscar producers get their ideas for the elaborate gift baskets they give to the winners—they take a look at their kids’ party favors. Is a Nokia cell phone or a spa certificate really appropriate for a 6-year-old?

Lessons of excess

I may make light of all this, but on another level I find the trickling down to our 6-year-olds of our society’s excess and adoration of consumerism rather disturbing. We’re setting a bar for our children’s expectations that someday we will not be able to surmount. Every day, the media bombards them with the idea that multimillion dollar homes on each coast, a fleet of cars and 6.1-carat pink diamond rings are the normal American lifestyle.

We want our gadgets smaller so we can carry more of them, and our McDonald’s bigger so we can consume more of it. Mass consumerism and excess have become the norm. Jimmy Carter said in the 1970s that "too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption." He was right.

I’m not advocating that you shed all of your worldly possessions and get thee to a nunnery. But part of the magic of childhood is being able to find joy in the simplest of pleasures, as witnessed when our young tot has more fun with the box than the gift that came in it. Why take that away from them? Why force a wellspring of glut and competitiveness on them at such a young age?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to start planning the venue for my son’s seventh birthday next year. NASA doesn’t just let you book the space shuttle at the last minute, you know.

Prescott Carlson is the co-creator and editor of The Imperfect Parent (www.imperfectparent.com), and lives in West Dundee with his wife and two sons. He calls dibs on the corner piece of birthday cake.

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