The death of the gift bag: Why these moms are under pressure to give their kids party gifts
For over a decade, I have been immersed in the culture of children’s birthday parties, sometimes attending three in a weekend. No doubt my kids came home with a bag full of plastic trinkets that I knew would end up in a landfill.
My kids often tear open their gift bags in the car with excitement and forget their treasures in the back seat until I throw it away a few days later. They find more interesting trinkets that go into the living room and add to the general chaos of life, then a day or two later break or get forgotten and quickly thrown in the trash.
I have always felt guilty about throwing these toys away after a few days. I know how harmful they are to the environment, and I know a parent who spends limited time and money on these goodies to keep my kids happy. However, I feel I have no choice because my children are usually not interested in playing with gift bags for more than a few minutes, and they are usually of such poor quality that I won’t donate them just to disappoint another child.
Eventually, I got fed up. I couldn’t control what other parents did, but I decided to stop participating in the gift bag culture. Planning birthday parties that required keeping a dozen or more young children safe, happy and busy had become both time-consuming and expensive. I decided that stacking candy bags on top of everything else I was already doing wasn’t worth it. Plus, I thought, I’ve already thrown a great party for our little guests, complete with pizza, cake, and non-stop entertainment. Am I really obligated to send them home with gifts too?
When it came time to throw my son’s 6th birthday party, I decided to break the rules and not let the kids go home with gift bags. I told my son that the party was a gift from us to his friends. At first, he protested, but after I outlined all the activities I had planned and assured him we would still have plenty of cake, he agreed.
The party was great and as the kids were leaving, a few asked me where their gift bags were. I told them that the wooden figures they had painted at the party were their goodies and that they could take the ones from the cake home too. None of them cared. One guy literally shrugged and walked away, completely unbothered by the heavy-handed news that I didn’t think there would be a gift bag.
Before leaving with the kids, one parent asked me shyly if I had forgotten to give her son a gift bag. “I didn’t forget,” I told her. “I’ve decided to stop offering gift bags.” She got a surprised look on her face, then whispered conspiratorially, “I didn’t know that was an option.” I hope I’ll stir up a general revolt against gift bags among my kids’ peers.
While that didn’t happen, and gift bags are still an important part of children’s culture, I’m by no means the only one who has done away with them. “I hate them,” says Katie Carrick, whose children are 6, 4 and 11 months old. “What’s the point of it? It’s usually just more ‘stuff’ that my kids will fight over for no reason, throw away after it breaks almost instantly, or I’ll have to throw away because they’re all over my house and car. Can we all …… not?
Some parents object to gift bags because they think giving gifts to guests will distract from the child who has a birthday. Melina Bricker, a mother of five, says birthday parties are about “celebrating someone’s life, their growth …… and showing them that they are special in a world of many, many people,” and adding that this is especially difficult in large families. Giving gifts to others may reduce the celebration of the guest of honor. In addition, Bricker says, “I never want my children to come to an event, family or celebration with the expectation of receiving a gift. I like the idea of them giving to someone throughout the day without thinking about what they might get in return.”
Rachel Zients Schinderman, whose children are ages 12 and 16, agrees. Schinderman said she never expected to get a gift bag when her children went to a party, so she decided not to give them gifts either. “They’ve been treated and had a fun party,” she said. “They don’t need to expect to get anything as guests.”
The cost of gift bags is also a concern for many families, Bricker says, adding that handing out gift bags “sets an unfair precedent for families who are already struggling to afford birthday parties. Even small things can add up quickly.” While Bricker doesn’t believe anyone has to “live our lives within the financial constraints of other families,” she does believe that wealthier families should consider the expectations they create for other families who may struggle to afford to host birthday parties. The additional cost of gift bags.
Kate Bollinger, whose children are ages 12, 10 and 6, wondered if gift bags were really appropriate for children. “Gift bags seem to be designed to impress other parents,” she says, noting that there is often “superiority” in the contents of gift bags. She added that children are perfectly capable of having fun without new trinkets. “I think gift bags show that children lack the confidence to enjoy their time together without something new. In my experience, all kids want at a birthday party is to eat cake and then run around like a bunch of pheasants.” When it comes to her own children, she notes that they don’t “appreciate” anything they get from the gift bags and often never even use many of the items in them. “However, they do remember how much fun they had running around at the party drinking high sugar,” she says.
Of the families who have given up gift bags, some still send their young guests home with something from the party. Leah Charney, whose son is 6, says she hands out not toys but edible items and doesn’t eat candy. Many of our friends struggle with food during school breaks,” she says, so she hands out items such as storable milk, fig bars, juice boxes, fruit and assorted dried fruit. charney says she sometimes adds a small, consumable toy, such as bubbles, but she tries to offer only “things we really want to receive.” Charney notes that even if her friends weren’t facing food insecurity, “they’d be happier without more plastic crap.”
Schinderman says that while she “hates [s] gift bags,” she is “in favor of giving kids something …… rather than something small that will never be seen or used again. ” Instead, when her children were young, she gave their friends something they could play with at parties. For example, when she hosted a Star Wars-themed party, all the kids were given lightsabers. For a train-themed party, all the kids got conductor hats. This approach “adds to the fun of the party,” Schinderman says, adding that she likes to watch the kids play with these things rather than catch them on their way out the door.
Camille-Yvette Welsch, whose children are 12 and 9, plans activities that allow guests to take home something. One year party guests made a bubble painting and took it home. Another year, she organized a rubber duck race. Children competed to catch rubber ducks and take one home. According to Welsch, the children left this way “both as party souvenirs and as party activists. Another benefit, Welsch adds, is that she doesn’t have to “do two damn things – come up with the activity and take something home. It’s a bundle of activities.”
Sarah Netter, whose son is 9, said she couldn’t give up the gift bag because she didn’t want to disappoint her son and his friends, who were looking forward to receiving it. “But I tried to make it useful or edible,” she added. netter’s gift bag included chalk, bubbles and oreos.
Most parents who are anti-gift bag senders know that the parents who send the gift bags mean well. “I know it’s a way to say thank you for attending the party and usually provide a gift for the child being celebrated, but I don’t need or want a gift bag,” Carrick said.