"But I want 25 presents! I don't care. I hate book swaps. I'm NOT having one. Nobody else has to." Eli fixed his glare on me, wisely. He knows I'm the weak member of the austerity cult. Viewed with an iota of perspective, it is indisputable that no child needs or should receive 25 birthday presents. On the other hand, the kids Eli knows generally do. When your kids grow up with a norm that you find distasteful, but that isn't harmful or evil, how do you draw a radically different line?
I muttered something to Eli about how we would talk more about his party later. Paul started the kids moving toward bed. I did the dishes and mulled.
My sense was that 6-year-olds are old enough to have a say in matters that affect them; they're not old enough to rewrite the rules. Letting Eli receive a present from every kid who came to his party felt out of joint, and not only for aesthetic reasons. When my kids receive more than one present at a time, they can barely take note of what they've been given. The act of tearing open boxes overwhelms their curiosity about what's inside. They always want more, more, MORE! It's a binge, and it can't be good for them.
At first, though, the alternatives seemed lacking as well. We could tell Eli that he would have to donate some of his presents to a charity, but that felt rude to the kids who'd given the gifts. We could also tell Eli that he could keep the presents and in exchange we'd give money to an organization for needy kids—a sort of birthday tithe. But while that's a great idea for a bar- or bat mitzvah, it seems pretty abstract for a kindergartner, especially one whose net worth is a handful of change.
A semiclean kitchen later, I had a proposal. We'd have the book swap. But we'd also let Eli choose five friends who would each give him a present. We would supply books on these kids' behalf, so we wouldn't have to ask any parents to ante up twice and there'd be enough to go around.
I sold this idea to Paul first. Then we tag-teamed Eli. He went for it, if grudgingly. In the invitations describing the book swap, we'd explained that we were trying to avoid a post-holiday second deluge of plastic. (Eli's birthday is in January.) In the e-mail to the parents of the five present-givers, we told them to go nuts. They were happy to play along. "We'll make it sure it's BIG and made of PLASTIC," one mom wrote. Another said she was all for the book swap but wasn't sorry to hear that we'd caved a bit.
At the birthday party, there were books for everyone. There was also a sizable pile of satisfyingly large, beautifully wrapped boxes for Eli. He didn't feel like a martyr for his parents cause: The gifts included a toy gun, a bow-and-arrow set, and a Batman action figure that goes pow-pow! Batman's first knockout was our sense of moral victory. But we'll be back next year.