When I was a kid, I remember being asked as soon as the month of December hit, “What do you want me to tell people to get you for your birthday?” No one asked me directly, but they all asked my mother or grandmother. I knew not to go wild and not to get too specific with my birthday wish lists. This allowed my family to say to any distant aunts or family friends, “Oh, Dresden is into puppets” instead of “Dresden really wants a Kermit and Piggy Muppet set.”
Except one year I refused to go broad. I wanted one thing and one thing only, and I was certain if I let enough people know that SOMEONE would come through. I had to have the Peaches N Cream Barbie. Had to, had to, had to, had to, HAD TO. After seeing the commercial for the doll, I knew I needed to see the magic of the peach stole for myself.
When my birthday and Christmas rolled around (two events that are back to back), I hit the jackpot: three (THREE!!!!!!!) Peaches N Cream Barbie dolls and one Crystal Barbie. There was a gasp every time I opened a gift and another doll was revealed. As if I would be upset, as if I had not fantasized about and hoped for this very moment. Family wondered what on earth I would do with three of the same dolls and assumed I would want to return some of them. Ha. Nope. It was one of the best orchestrated moments of gift-receiving I have ever experienced.
I might have been ahead of my time with my calculated birthday wish lists, but when I read about the newest trend in birthday parties, something felt off. According to the New York Post, the next big thing is:
“Parents setting up gift registries before their kids’ birthdays, holidays or other special occasions such as bar or bat mitzvahs, First Communions, even graduation from elementary school.”
Yup, you read that right. Before a birthday party, some kids are not just making a list and crossing their fingers, but they’re now digitally adding the item to a wish list to facilitate a smooth purchase process.
While I can look at this trend and see how it would be handy to know what kids are interested in and to ensure duplicates of toys aren’t purchased, it does remove one of the coolest parts of gift receiving: the surprise.
While I had every hope that someone would come through with my dream doll as a gift, I never really knew for certain that it would happen until I was ripping through the green and red foil wrapping. And that Crystal Barbie, the one I didn’t ask for at all? She ended up becoming my absolute favorite doll that year.
We’ve started making plans for my son W’s sixth birthday. When I asked him what would be something special to do this year, he simply responded, “Can we go to the movies?” We sure can! We discussed the possibility of inviting a few of his friends and suddenly the idea of a movie birthday party sounded like the best idea ever.
The other night I ran into the parents of two of the kids W wanted to invite to the movies, and I figured I had better check in with them to find out their availability. After we talked for a bit, one of the parents turned to W and asked him, “What do you want us to get you for your birthday?” I absolutely understood why she would ask the question, but it still took me by surprise. If they were going to get W a gift, didn’t they want it to be a secret?
W, who is not used to being asked such a thing either, stumbled around a bit for an answer before responding, “Shorts, maybe?” The mom pressed on and asked him what kind of toys he was into these days. She wanted to make sure they got him a gift he would enjoy.
My hope is that by not having a wish list or advanced knowledge of what he is about to receive, W will not only experience the element of surprise, but also the fine art of graceful gift-receiving. There could also be a moment where he doesn’t receive a gift at all. Knowing how to act in these moments is part of growing up, because guess what: you can’t always get what you want.
Last year we invited his entire class to a playground play-date birthday party. We lucked out with it being the first great weather day in ages, and all the kids wanted to do was revisit all of the playground equipment that had been neglected during the winter. I didn’t even think to have a gift policy on the very casual email invite I sent out. As far as I was concerned, having lots of kids to run around with would be his gift.
What I was firm about was that if there were gifts given at his party, I did not want W to open them until we were at home. This made me unpopular for a moment with W and even with some of his friends who seemed to love the show of watching gifts get opened. My reasoning was simple: someone may not have brought a gift, someone may have brought the same gift, W may not be able to stop himself from blurting out an opinion about the gift, or another kid may feel inadequate because of gift stuff. Over-thinking things? Probably, but after living in poverty for a few years, you might be surprised how you approach things that involve money.
Just last month, Babble’s Suzanne Jannese wrote about parents who have been asking for actual donations towards gifts before birthday parties. “What used to be a small event held at your home with a few games and some cookies and chips has become some ridiculous competitive machine that costs far too much money and takes up far too much time and energy to organize.” Jannese feels the “true meaning of the celebration gets lost in the production of it all.”
Starting a birthday registry for your child could make things very easy and convenient, but take a moment and think about that. Is that what you want gifts to be in their life? What about thoughtful or meaningful? When you allow your child to only receive items they want, they are missing out on an entire world of gifts that the giver may want to share. The art of gift giving is a bit of a dance and it involves consideration from the giver and appreciation from the receiver. Can our kids learn this when they get everything they want?More On