- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Fifty-two presents, limousine rides and hired help. No, we’re not talking weddings here. Just run-of-the-mill children’s birthday parties in the 21st century. “It’s a kind of ‘weddification’ of childhood,” says Bill Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota. “Seven-year-olds get picked up in limousines.” The question is, how do you top that for the 8th birthday party?

You don’t, says Mr. Doherty, co-founder of Birthdays Without Pressure, a group that encourages a simplification of birthday parties, including gatherings with no gifts and no goody bags.

“You can keep it simple and fun, but you have to articulate your values to children or they will feel resentful,” he says. “Deprivation is a subjective experience.”

It’s not as if children today - even if the parents succeed in pulling off no-gift parties - are lacking stuff. Most are showered with gifts from grandparents, parents and other family members and end up celebrating their birthday several times: at home, at school, with friends, with relatives.

“That’s the difference. When I was growing up, we didn’t get gifts throughout the year,” says Lisa Kothari, founder of Peppers and Pollywogs, a children’s party-planning Web site. “Today, kids get gifts all the time.”

If no gifts at birthday parties, then what?

Ms. Kothari suggests offering the birthday child and a couple of friends an experience - such as rock climbing or a visit to an amusement park - rather than an elaborate party.

Another solution is to suggest that fellow parents bring books for a book exchange instead of gifts or give gifts that can be donated to a charity.

“It helps if you can get the birthday child excited about the charity,” Ms. Kothari says, adding that a visit to the designated charity - the local Humane Society or children’s hospital, perhaps - can help the child feel engaged and gratified.

Mr. Doherty, however, says the charity solution can be a problem.

“Philanthropy can create that same kind of competition among parents that presents and elaborate parties do,” he says, adding that parents might start comparing charity bounties. “The question becomes ‘How much did you raise?’”

He favors the no-gift solution.

If fighting off consumerism and the overindulgence of children are top goals, aren’t no-gift birthday parties mere needles in a haystack as large as the global economy itself?

Yes, says Susan Linn, child therapist and associate director of the Media Center of Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston.

“Birthday presents aren’t the real problem,” says Ms. Linn, author of “The Case for Make-Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World.”

“It’s the day-to-day commercialism that is so over-the-top,” she says, adding that millions of dollars are spent every year on getting youngsters hooked on buying things for satisfaction.

“[We’re creating] children who depend on acquisition to have happiness,” she says.

Still, she applauds parents who want to simplify birthday parties by inviting fewer guests (instead of a whole school class), hosting it in a park (instead of commercial establishments) and doing art projects, such as decorating a T-shirt (instead of present and goody-bag exchanges).

The question is, how do you get other parents aboard the no-gift party train? Merely saying “no gifts” on the invitation is not enough, Ms. Kothari says.

“Ninety-nine percent of people will bring something anyway,” she says. “Some people just think it’s plain rude to say ‘no-gifts.’”

That’s why Mr. Doherty takes it a step further by suggesting parents follow up “no gifts” on the invitation by “any presents will be given to charity.”

That probably sounds harsh to the pro-gift faction, whose argument goes something like this: “It’s your kid’s birthday party, not yours.”

Yet no-gift parties are not about deprivation, Mr. Doherty reiterates. It’s merely an attempt to reduce stress and pressure on parents and children.

While convincing your child of the benefits of no-gifts parties, though, don’t go negative, he cautions. Negative campaigning will get you nowhere.

“Don’t say ‘We’re cutting back,’” he says. “Americans don’t like to cut back.”

And, apparently, neither do little Americans.

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