Parents who preach parsimony lost the upper hand long ago—especially when it comes to birthday parties. Last month, the Washington Post Magazine reported at length about the Great Zucchini, a local children's entertainer who charges $300 to amuse kids for 35 minutes. When he got tired of doing eight shows a weekend, the Great Zucchini raised his price from $175 a pop in hopes of winnowing his clientele—to no avail. The sky seems to be the limit for upper-middle-class parents who prefer to do just about anything other than organize pin the tail on the donkey. "If you did that, you'd be talked about," said one mother in northwest D.C., where my family lives. When comments like that abound, it's easy to get outraged. And so the Spartan backlash begins.
My husband Paul and I don't measure up as real purists. He can't go into a toy store without bringing home a new board game, and I'm far too willing to dole out dessert. But there are certain core Spartan practices that we have adopted and acquired an undeserved sense of moral superiority about. No sugared cereal. No soda. No TV or DVDs during the week. No weapons or gazillion plastic action figures (or at least, as few as we can manage). Which brings me to our son Eli's birthday.
Three years ago, I called a friend in the midst of planning the party for Eli's third birthday to bemoan all the plastic bounty that he was about to receive. My friend lives in central Vermont (a hotbed of Spartanism) and she had a solution: a book swap. Ask each child to bring a book instead of a gift, she suggested, and they can exchange the books with each other and Eli at the end of the party. Everyone goes home happy. Eli would be too young to know the difference. "Plus, this way, you don't have to do goodie bags if you don't want to," she added. That clinched it. I hate goodie bags.
We did a book swap at Eli's 3rd birthday party and at his 4th and 5th ones, too. Over time, we've refined our technique (here are some pointers for the curious). No kid has ever taunted Eli for being deprived, though a few parents have expressed doubt about our great wisdom. ("Doesn't he feel like he's being cheated?" they ask, with a scandalized glance in Eli's direction.) We breezily assured them that Eli wasn't suffering. He didn't seem to be. He didn't even complain.
Until this year. At 5 going on 6, Eli has enough birthday parties under his belt to have wised up. He has seen the loot. In the last few months, when the subject of his birthday came up, he firmly announced that he was "getting my presents."
While Eli has grown disenchanted with the book swap, Paul and I have grown fonder of it. As the piles of broken plastic somehow continue to accumulate in our household, the book swap has become one of the central tenets of our Spartan cult of two. Still, we've read enough parenting books to know that forcing a book swap on Eli could trigger a mutiny. A week or two before his birthday party, we were talking after dinner about what to put in the invitation to his 23 classmates and a few other friends. (The prevailing party ethos at our public elementary school is to invite the whole class.) Looking at Eli with my best here-goes-nothing gaze, I delicately broached the book swap.
"No, No, No, NO," Eli said. "NO BOOK SWAP!" He took a wide stance, furrowed his brow, and looked up at us. I looked at Paul. He was scowling back. The rumble was on.
"Why not?" I asked, stupidly.
"Because I WANT PRESENTS," Eli answered, in a good imitation of the TV brats he gets to watch on the weekend.
"You don't need 25 presents," Paul said. "You just had Hanukkah. You got a present every night." (When the Spartan ethos clashes with Jewish insecurity over Christmas, it loses out.)
"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.