The Problem with Pirate Treasure: Should Party Presents Be Money?
At our house, there’s a birthday coming down the pipe. For months now, the birthday-boy-to-be has been telling everyone that he’s five-and-three-quarters (!!).
You know what this means. The Birthday Party Planning Machine is speeding ahead full throttle.
Photo courtesy of Calsidyrose
You want to get a whole roomful of parents worked up and foaming at the mouth? Talk birthday parties.
Gone, it seems, are the jolly old days when eight kids got thrown in a basement rec room with boiled hot dogs and three balloons, and LIKED it. Pity.
Today, birthday parties are a political minefield of choices about inclusion and consumerism and identity and obligation. And they get pricey fast. Not to mention require the organizational skills of an event-planning ninja.
Birthday parties are an industry now: with rented venues and entertainment and activities for hire. They have themes, and de rigeur loot bags, and in the elementary-school years there’s a trend toward huge gaggles of children converging on the chosen space. Expecting Fun with a capital F.
Yeh. As a mother, the whole prospect gives me a bit of a capital F, myself. Ahem.
In other words, they give me hives.
But, let’s face it, birthday parties are not about me. They’re about the kids.
And my kid? His enthusiasm about his birthday party is a beautiful thing. So I suck it up and muddle through playing the part of Birthday Party Planning Machine every year. I even – kinda – like it. Because his excitement is catching and his delight palpable.
He’d like a pirate theme. He’d like a pinata. Can do, kiddo.
He’d like a skull & crossbones cake. I’m thinking this one: I used fondant for the first time for my daughter’s third birthday last fall and the result was relatively cute and civilized.
Photo courtesy of Meringue Bakeshop
He’d like to have the shindig at our house, because our new place has a huge backyard, and so I am petitioning all the gods for decent mid-April weather and calling that easy-peasy. And cheap. Pirates don’t mind a bit of mud, after all, right? Especially if they’re hunting for treasure?
He’d also like to invite his whole kindergarten class.
Sure, it’s a grand idea. Nobody gets left out, which suits the messages we’re trying to impart at this age.
But fifteen tiny pirates means a whole lotta loot.
My children usually get one big present from us for their birthdays. They also have three sets of generous grandparents, plus aunts and uncles and family friends who tend to send something their way. They’re lucky.
Even if they never had a single birthday party, they’d be rolling in about ten brand new toys every time the calendar turned. That’s a lot of new stuff. A lot of packaging. A lot of wrapping paper in the wastebin. And a lot of sensory overload: even Mr. Five-and-three-quarters (!!) got overwhelmed after about Present Number Eight last Christmas.
Add in fifteen extra party toys on top of that and you’ve got a lot of excess on every front, in a life where we’re ostensibly trying to minimize excess.
What’s a Birthday Party Planning Machine to do?
Last week, a post on money guru Gail Vaz Oxlade’s site raised the issue of birthday invitations that come with a link to a site where you both RSVP and offer a credit card donation, part of which goes to charity and part to fund a present of the child’s choice.
The response in the comments was varied, but the level of vitriol took me by surprise. Some people are straight-up Capital O Offended by the idea.
And me, I’m puzzled.
I get not wanting to be asked for your credit card, sure. There’s something about it that reeks of transaction rather than relationships.
Let’s be honest. The presents part of parties is a more or less obligatory form of social grooming anyway. The present stands in as a symbol of the giver’s fondness for the recipient. The origins of the practice go WAAAAY back to a time when the gifts – which were usually handmade, practical, and often consumable – served to offset some of the expense and burden of actually throwing the shindig. It’s a social practice based in scarcity.
So in a world grappling with excess, does more excess do anything to actually foster the sort of equitable redistribution that gift-giving once served? Or is it possible to redirect some of the excess to places in society where scarcity is still a very real challenge?
And is that offensive? What do you think? If gifts are a symbolic exchange, does openly converting them to the vulgarity of money make you uncomfortable?
Last spring, we attended the party of a five-year-old friend who asked for donations to the local Humane Society instead of gifts. We gave her a card and a ten-dollar bill. I didn’t need to run around town for a gift, or worry that she already had whatever we chose, or fret over whether Plastic Toy A really properly represented this little girl and our feelings for her. A card. A picture inside, drawn specifically for her. And ten bucks to go towards the cats and dogs she happens to adore.
I didn’t think it was offensive. I thought it was awesome. And so did my young pirate.
Until I read the post, we had thought we might go this route.
A treasure box at the door to collect (small) donations of coins, if people were willing to play along. No credit cards. The kids could help scoop and tally them up at the end, and we’d make sure both kids and parents knew where the gifts were going. A picture of all the little pirates would accompany the donation. Chocolate coins for take-home loot bags, for my kids and all the guests. And the birthday boy’d still get to rip open his pile of family gifts when the festivities were all over.
Now I’m not sure. The Birthday Party Planning Machine has ground to an uncertain halt. I don’t want to offend people, seriously. I just want the kids to have fun and my birthday party hives to go away.
What do you think we should do?
How would you word the invitation to cause the least kerfuffle? And would you ever consider asking for donations instead of presents? Why or why not?