Many years ago, I had the privilege of spending a year in Colorado Springs (USA) working for an organisation called Young Life. I can hand-on-my-heart say that it was one of the best and most transformative years for me – I loved my work with high school kids and adored working as a camp counsellor. I also got to meet and learn from some pretty incredible people – one of which was a man by the name of Andy Fletcher. Andy and I first bonded over a common love of chocolate, and then over a common love of spending time with and working with kids. And high school kids LOVED Andy. Whenever I saw him, he had been cornered by a group of kids who were fiercely debating something or other with him.
I think one of the things I enjoyed about Andy’s style of teaching was that he always gave prizes for the best QUESTION, not the best answer. He believed that teaching kids to think for themselves was far more important than spoon-feeding them the answers, and enjoyed nothing more than a healthy debate, even if their views were different from his own. He continually provoked thinking and questioning with those he was with. And it’s exactly that I want to do today.
To be honest, I blame my MIF (Mad Irish Friend) Fiona for this dilemma – because it was her that first raised the issue of children’s birthday parties, and birthday parties in general. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.
Fiona had a massive 40th birthday celebration last year, and instead of gifts, asked each guest to donate money to The Lunchbox Fund (an organisation that feeds a jaw-dropping THIRTEEN THOUSAND South African children each and every day). In itself, it’s not a brand new concept to request donations instead of birthday gifts – but I still feel it was amazingly generous of her. And then we got to talking about my Simpler Life journey, and how I was downscaling quite dramatically on my daughters’ birthday parties. And how I had steadfastly refused to provide party packs at the end of the Bella’s 3rd birthday party because it seemed so excessive.
“It’s ALL excessive!” said Fiona in her beautiful Irish accent. “All of it! We have a birthday party every second weekend at my children’s school – I’m forever buying gifts that the children don’t really need because most of them come from well-off families!”
I have to admit it hadn’t ever crossed my mind! True, I have often bemoaned the fact that children’s books and toys are so expensive, and with 20 children in Bella’s nursery school class, that works out to 19 parties and 19 gifts for her class alone – excluding family and friends’ birthday parties. If you average on spending a very conservative R100 a gift – that’s almost R2,000 right there.
“But what do you suggest?” I asked, thinking of my daughters’ horrified faces if they were to be told there would be no presents at their future birthday parties,
“I don’t know,” she replied. “But it’s really too much. Maybe everybody contributes a set amount and the parents choose one thing to buy with the money – something the child really needs or wants? Instead of lots of little things they might not even play with or use?”
I have to admit. I liked it.
Strangely enough, my eldest daughter (10) did too. Then again, she is wise beyond her years and generous to a fault. HER suggestion was that when children are old enough to understand the concept of abundance and how privileged they really are, they should be given the option of having their friends bring gifts, but ones that can be donated.
“They can bring Blessing Bags, mom!” she exclaimed. “Plastic bags that are filled with clean socks, underpants, some food and maybe a blanket. Whatever they can afford or want to give. After the party, we can load them into the boot of your car and hand them out whenever we see someone that needs it.”
“But wouldn’t you miss having presents for yourself?” I asked.
“Yes,” she smiled. “But I’ll get over it. Besides, you and Dad can give me EXTRA because I’m such a great kid!”
Another friend suggested getting everyone to buy books as birthday gifts for younger children, so that they can still have the experience of opening loads of presents after their party. The birthday/girl can then read each and every book before later donating them to a school or charity. Should they prefer to keep any of the books, they can replace them with books from their own collection so that the numbers even out in the end.
Yet another idea is for friends to bring tins of dog food for the SPCA. Or second-hand clothing to donate to a shelter. Or blankets for this year’s Blanket Drive. And not just for children’s parties, but for adult birthdays too. Because, if I’m REALLY honest, I have to wrack my brains for ideas on what people can get me for my birthdays. For me, it’s always been wanting to celebrate the day with those that mean the most to me, so in ACTUAL fact, their presence far outweighs their presents.
As I said, I don’t have all the answers – I am just sitting with the question, chewing it over in my mind and seeing how it fits into my quest for A Simpler Life. The bottom line is that while we are in the privileged position of needing to declutter, there are so many others are not as fortunate. Are we really teaching our children that birthday parties are about creating memories and spending time with people we love, or have they become synonymous with getting more “stuff”? (And please note that I’m not suggesting your children don’t receive birthday gifts at all – far from it! It’s more about how to handle the whole concept of gifts at their birthday parties.)
Needless to say, I’d really value your thoughts and ideas on this one!