How much is too much?

In her comment on yesterday’s post, bj wondered:

"Is 300 really that unreasonable? I feel like I’m supporting personal performance. And I’d spend that much on ballet tickets, so what’s the big deal for an entertainer? I mean if we’re talking 300 ($3000) would be steep for me."

A while back, I read a book that talked about how not to overindulge kids.  (Their framework sounds similar to the one Jody mentioned last week, but the title doesn’t sound familiar.)  They offered a list of questions for determining whether something was overindulgence, which I found useful:

1)  Can you afford it?

If you can’t afford something, it’s overindulgence to buy it for your kids.  This sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s routinely violated at all income levels, from poor single moms skipping meals to buy their kids designer clothers to upper-income families taking out home equity loans to pay for summer camp. 

2)  Whose needs are being met by the spending?

The authors of this book (which I really wish I could remember) argued that in many cases, overindulgence is the result of parents meeting their own needs — to provide what they missed as a child, or to keep up with the Jones — rather than meeting kids’ needs.

The nameless mom quoted in the Great Zucchini article is clearly worried about her own reputation, not her kids:

"It’s an insane, indulgent thing to do," she said. "You could just have a party where you all played pin the tail on the donkey or musical chairs or something. But that is just not done in this part of D.C. If you did that, you would be talked about."

3)  Does the spending cause the child to miss out on an important developmental task?

Even if you’re rolling in money, you still want your children to develop the concepts of sharing, deferred gratification, etc.  No one wants to raise Veruca Salt.  Two people I know have recently commented that because their relatives always bring gifts when they visit, their kids have taken to greeting guests with "what did you bring for me?" 


On a related note, Maggie emailed me and shared with me a letter that she recently sent to her extended family.  I quote it with her permission:

"Having spent a good deal of this last month digging out from Christmas, [husband] and I have decided that we need to do something about the volume of toys that the kids have. Times are very different than they were when we were kids – toys are relatively cheap and we can all afford to buy lots of them. We all like buying stuff for kids. And birthdays/Christmases come around pretty darn quickly….
So I’m not asking you all to do anything radical, like not give birthday gifts entirely. I am, however, asking that you exercise some more restraint than you might if I didn’t write today!
Bottom line: It is OK to buy [child] *one* hot wheels car or *one* star wars figure for a gift. I will not think that you are cheap even though I know that one hot wheels costs about $1.99 – I will be grateful that the volume of plastic in my house is that much smaller, he will be happy to have something to open, and we can probably find space to store it in an existing storage bin. Likewise, it would be wonderful for [child] to get one T-shirt or one board book for her birthday – she won’t miss the other 3 or 4 little things that usually come along, and the one will be that much more important to her because it won’t get lost in the rush. And if you want to get something bigger, that’s fine too – I’m just asking you not to give big things where small will do, or give 4 things where 1 will do."

That’s exactly right, and I wish I had read it before yesterday’s party.  T and I considered saying "no gifts, please" on the invitation, but decided against it, because we knew that D would be disappointed not getting presents.   But I am overwhelmed by the volume of stuff that he got, and honestly surprised at the number of people who gave two or three items.  (At the same time, I have to admit that I’m also wondering if the parents of D’s friends are going to think we’re cheap for giving a small card game as a birthday present.)

17 Responses to “How much is too much?”

  1. hypatia cade Says:

    jo(e) had a series of posts on the birthday parties at their house (which I can’t find back now) that was really a fun comment on materialism, except it’s what really happens in her house.
    Apparently it goes something like: Send invitations.
    Plan messy low-prep outdoor activities (e.g. sledding, water balloons, jumping in leaf piles, slip’n slide).
    Throw Candy out the windows.
    Send everyone home.
    And everyone loves it. I think I might try it when I have kids. If you can find the post it’s worth reading.

  2. Susan Says:

    I’m debating putting a note on my daughter’s (coming-up-4th) birthday party invites requesting recycled gifts: surely we all have enough toys/books/stuff in the house that’s not getting used that we could just rotate some of it around. Her birthday is close enough to Earth Day that we could do an environmental theme. Somehow, she’s already gotten it in her head that birthdays are a time for passing along one of her possessions that she’s not using much that she thinks her friend would like. She’s still young enough that she and her friends don’t seem to have very focused expectations for parties.
    So far, our own parties have been truly minimalist: invite people over, make food, hang around. No activities, no games, just hanging out. But this year, she’s been to a string of parties at gyms and rec centers so I’m curious whether her expectations will begin to shape, or whether our little minimal parties will just be our family way. We’ll see.

  3. Moxie Says:

    Hmmm. Recycled gifts. Interesting idea, Susan. For the past three years we’ve put “No gifts, please” on the invitations. But then the day before his last (3rd) party last year he said, “And people will bring me presents!” so excitedly. 4-5 people did bring him presents, so it worked out, but I’m kind of afraid of having no one bring him a present and I’m also afraid of having everyone bring him a present.
    My FIL never once had a birthday party growing up. This is told as (one small piece of a huge load of) evidence that his mother was a horrible person, but I’m realizing she may have been cruel but she sure knew how to conserve her energy.

  4. amy Says:

    We did no presents for the last birthday and will do it again, partly because we don’t have the storage, partly because she doesn’t need 20 new toys, partly because she was 2 and wouldn’t have missed anything, partly because we didn’t want to start the arms race. I think we’ll keep it up, and the basic line will be “parties are for cake and ice cream and playing with friends; you get presents from family.” If I worried about what other mothers thought of me I’d be in a continual state of panic. Luckily I don’t think they’re all that interested.
    I don’t actually remember getting birthday presents from friends. I remember the parties, but not presents. Usually they were pretty small, too — “best friends” sort of parties. Sleepovers, backyard camping, and once a fancy dinner party I made for a few friends.

  5. PIAW Says:

    My kids are now in their teens. This post brings back memories of when they were little.
    Having grown up in India I found American consumerism / materialism quite challenging. From my own experience I knew it was possible to have a healthy, stimulated childhood without so much stuff. At the same time I was troubled by how much stuff my kids seemed to need (and waste) and how little awareness they had about what it took so they could have so much. The sense of entitlement bothered me.
    I tried to teach them not to be impuslive about purchasing decisions and to ask themselves three questions as they tried to decide if they wanted to buy something –
    1. Do I need it?
    2. Can I afford it?
    3. Is it worth the money?
    Once they were about 10 year old or so, a monthly allowance worked really well. It gave them control over what to buy, when to buy it, and helped them decide what items were not as “must-have” as they thought :-)
    In addition we told them that we would match their savings. For every $45 they wpuld give us to deposit in their bank accounts, we would add $5.

  6. Jennifer Says:

    I’m profoundly uneasy about how much stuff we have when compared with how much I had as a child. Toys that would have been amazing for a birthday present from parents are now stocking fillers.
    And yet… Have you read (or seen) About a Boy? The kid in that book really suffered within his peer group because his mother was so anti-consumerist. And no matter how much I hate it, I don’t want my kids suffering just for the sake of ideology. Certainly for the 3 year old birthday party, it’s about the parents, but one day it’s about the kids too. A hard balance to strike that hopefully I will recognise when the time comes.

  7. The MOM Says:

    A very timely post, as we’ve been struggling recently with how much we give our daughter and when we give it. As a blended family, we celebrate both Christmas and Hannukah. In addition, since we travel a lot, we had family and friends giving us holiday gifts beginning in early December, and ending in early January. It got to the point where our daughter was asking us during the second week of January what gift she would get that day. In order to control the chaos, we make a point of cleaning out her toy chest before every gift-getting occasion — she gets to choose the toys that she doesn’t play with anymore, and we “give” them to other kids. (It helps that just before we did this the first time, she watched an episode of Caillou where he learned about the benefits of getting rid of old toys during a neighborhood yard sale.)
    For our daughter’s second and third birthdays, we did say “no gifts, please” on the invitations, and it worked out well, because family and very close friends brought a couple of things, but we weren’t overwhelmed by stuff. Maggie is right, though, that toys are relatively inexpensive, and sometimes we give multiple things in order not to appear “cheap” — I usually aim for a certain (low) dollar amount in gifts that I give, but for a recent birthday party we attended, in order to come close to that dollar amount, we wound up buying a game, two puzzles, and a book. I think Maggie has the right idea with family, and I’m considering adopting that for my own purposes…now if only there is a way to do that with other parents in our preschool.

  8. Sandy Says:

    One idea that I really like is getting your family to give gift memberships for the family for local museums, zoos, etc. – it is usually a charitable contribution for them (my dad just loves that), and it lets us do educational, active things for a lot less $. My kids are now getting into magazine subscriptions, too – they love getting mail every month.
    A friend of mine did a part where they requested stuff for a nearby domestic violence shelter – it helped the kids feel like they were doing something, but some of the parents were annoyed at having to contribute to a “cause” not of their choice. And they felt compelled to bring presents for the birthday child, even with a “no gift” request. People are weird.

  9. Maggie Says:

    Just a follow up on the email I sent to my family – I come from a family of 6 kids and my husband is one of three with a mom who shops as a hobby. And I have a couple of cousins living in the area, all of whom have kids that are my kids’ ages (and we all spend birthdays and holidays together, even when there is no official ‘friends’ party). Even trying to do the “just family” gift route at birthdays and Christmas results in WAY too much.
    When we did my son’s last “big” birthday party (i.e. 4 friends + family, which resulted in 17 kids and about 20 adults), I asked everyone to bring a (one) hot wheels or matchbox car, because we would get him a track for him for his birthday, and then everyone could play together as the activity. It worked pretty well, but people did feel the compulsion to get up to an “acceptable” spending level, so they also got matchbox car storage cases, little add-ons for the track, multiple cars, etc. The next time that we have a ‘friends included’ birthday party (next October), I’m going to put something similar to the email above into the invitation – particularly the “I won’t think you’re cheap” part. And if they don’t like it or are offended by it, well, we’ve got plenty of family kids who’ll still come to the party!
    The way I try to deal with it in buying gifts for other kids is to always buy one nice book. At least they’re (usually) biodegradable. :)

  10. lyssa Says:

    all this reminds me of a personal story. one year, my cousins wanted to buy my children, who were 1 and 3, a roller coaster. (yes, there is such a thing as an indoor roller coaster that you can put inside your house. i had no idea) we didn’t want one for many reasons and finally asked they not give it to us. my family was upset at the way we handled it, but there really wasn’t a way to graciously decline the gift.

  11. Karen Says:

    We tried the “no gifts” approach for my daughter’s 3rd birthday. We added a “in lieu of gifts, please consider donating a book or toy to” line to the invitation, where books or toys were donated to her pre-school. She had attended so many classmates birthday parties where we had brought a gift, had wrapped it up, signed a card, etc., that she was very disappointed when the time came for her gifts.
    We are stepping things down a notch and will focus on building classmates’ book collections for their birthday parties. Of course decluttering the house from the toy mountain has helped us reach this decision.

  12. Danigirl Says:

    Very interesting thoughts, and timely for me right now. Tomorrow is my 2yo’s birthday, and his brother will turn 4 in March.
    I would love to specify “no gifts please” but my husband would have a fit. He’s a kid at heart, and loves the toys as much as the boys do. Our little house is full of toys that don’t get played with, and while we’re never deprived in other areas for buying toys, we have more than we’ll ever need with another round of presents due to arrive in 6 weeks.
    Thanks for bringing this up…

  13. Mieke Says:

    On Jonas’s invitation I asked for “no toys please. Just a book or a donation made in his name to or Second Harvest”. Eventually he will be very proud to see how much money has been donated to these charities in his name. I got the idea from a friend of ours whose kid loves to tell people that the Sierra Club (she’s wild about animals has gotten X amount of dollars in her name).
    Jonas had a small birthday party by Los Angles standards. 8 kids. We made bug boxes. Played pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey (try doing that with 30 kids) and bingo. We barbequed (bugers, dogs, and my famous salads) and ate cake (which we made) and there were juice boxes (a big treat in this house). Jonas had a terrific time. You can see it all on my blog of course (around January 19th). The bug boxes were a huge hit- I heard from a few of the parents their kids were still playing with them and had brought them into school for show-and-tell.
    The last two parties that I attended had 30 children and utter chaos. It was overwhelming for the children and unpleasant for me. There is no way I would ever do that. The parents hired Spiderman to drive up in his Spiderman car, they had a bouncy castle, and catered food for 40 (including the parents). They spent at least $600. The other was at a sports arena and C-R-A-Z-Y. It’s just not my style and I don’t care if people talk. I am not inviting children I do not know, or that Jonas barely knows just because they are in his class. I know who his friends are – and that’s who will be invited. We had a great time, we spoiled him with love and attention, the day was relaxing and fun. That’s the way it should be -not all this crazy keeping up with Jones – what will people think of me ridiculousness.

  14. dave s Says:

    I can’t stand to let any discussion of kid birthday parties go by without recommending Birthday at Buddy’s, at Outer Life:

  15. Alice Says:

    Among my pre-school crowd, book exchange parties are popular. Each child brings a wrapped, new book. As they enter the party, they leave the wrapped book in a special bin. At the end of the party (after the requisite magician, gymnastics, or whatever) the bin in placed in the middle of the crowd, and each child picks out a book to open and take home.
    The kids generally also have a “family birthday party” where they are showered with presents, so there is little resistance from the birthday child to the idea of a book exchange party.
    Of course, on the way home from the first book exchange party she went to, my daughter asked “where’s my goodie bag?” And I answered “your book is your goodie.” And she said, rather grumpily, “This is not a goodie bag.”
    I actually never did a book exchange for my child. I wrote “please bring a can or box of food for the food pantry instead of a gift.” Most people ended up bringing both a food donation and a gift. But my daughter and her friends were very pleased by the big pile of food, which we brought straight to our church.

  16. Lisa V Says:

    My children only get a birthday party every other year. The year they get a party they don’t receive a gift from us. The party is the gift. It’s usually food, stupid games we have made up, maybe a craft, and send the little buggers home. No goodie bags. One year a daughter had Napolean Dynamite party and so everyone got a button with Napolean on it. Another year we had a purple party. Everyone took home a baggie of purple Kool Aid play dough and cookie cutter. Low key, low cost. The year they don’t have a party we have “family birthday.” They get a good gift from us, one friend to spend the night, and a meal out of their choice. The biggest problem? All the mothers who keep track of when kid’s birthdays are and are convinced that their kid wasn’t invited to a party the year my kid didn’t have one. Nuts.

  17. Raising WEG Says:

    Birthday Parties

    There have been eight birthday parties among the kids’ friends since last August. Two were four-year old parties, six were five-year old parties. One five-year old birthday girl had a bowling party, another hosted a craft party at the local

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