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Jun 3 2013

Birthday Parties: Is Asking for Donations Instead of Gifts Too Preachy?

By at 10:03 am

lego set with falg“Partying all night” now means the yearly ritual where my husband, my son, and I open his birthday gifts after the last cranky guest has left for the evening. (This year, my night-owl daughter may well join us.) Hey, it’s the closest thing we Jewish families have to Christmas.

Amid fallen streamers and crumpled napkins, we paw at tissue paper to discover sets of Legos, puzzles that beep mysteriously, rickety railroad sets. With delight, Josh and Sam extract the toys, even ones we already have (in their view, there’s no such thing as too many Imperial Star Destroyers) and squeeze them into the mounds of crap climbing every inch of our wall space. When they move on to the next gift I quietly salvage the packaging and pocket the gift receipt, mapping out my return route for Monday. If it doesn’t have a gift receipt, I’m even more determined to try. Refund or bust!

Bottom line: despite two or three true gems (not necessarily pricey–3-D chalk was the highlight of summer), we wind up with duplicates, ill-fitting clothes, or shoddy sets I don’t dare re-gift. And I spend the next day (okay, week) on increasingly fruitless trips to Target’s customer service desk. For our kids’ joint party this summer (their birthdays fall two weeks apart), I’m sorely tempted to amend the invitation requesting donations to a charity instead of gifts, maybe one that helps families in need. My high school friend Michelle did just that for her daughter’s 1st birthday party in Florida.

“Our house barely has room for another toy, and besides, most of the time she is just happy playing with a box,” Michelle told me. “We want to make sure we teach her the importance of giving back from an early age.” At the party she set up a table for the requested donations to a local women’s center, along with a framed explanation of the center and how the gifts would help.

“It worked out really well,” she said. “I’m so excited to deliver everything!” Doing good means feeling good, especially as new websites and apps make “parties with a purpose” easier and more meaningful. The site Jolkona.org lets you create a direct-impact campaign that’s linked to a special occasion like a party, tracking donations as progress toward your goal and providing proof of impact, like a photo of girls studying books for a course you’ve funded.

Of course, Josh bitterly opposes my idea to amend the invitations. He says it’s preachy, confusing, smacks of condescension, and will rub our friends the wrong way, like we’re shaming them if they don’t jump on our bandwagon. Also, he claims it’s ineffectual: people will bring gifts despite the most emphatic requests to the contrary because “no one wants to be the a-hole who shows up empty-handed.” (Remember the episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where Larry David obligingly showed up to a party sans gift, only to suffer rebuke for taking the request at face value?). Plus, Sam loves giving gifts to friends as much as I love shopping for them. On party days, he proudly marches up driveways clutching gifts that were selected with care, if wrapped with haste, after I’ve nudged the parents for ideas.

And when our turn comes around, I love the spectacle of gifts piled on our couch, all shiny and beribboned. At the end of our bender we’re not just surrounded with knotted Mylar and plastic parts, we’re surrounded by friendship and love. Every time we play with a gift we like, we speak fondly of the friend who brought it.

Now that his special day is on the horizon, Sam has issued us his wish list of a telescope, the LEGO Star Wars Rancor Pit and a T-shirt with letters on it. And I have to go the retail route for all: “Don’t make the shirt, Mommy. It’s my birthday so you have to buy it. And I want all the letters, not just S-A-M.” Ideally he could have his cake and eat it too: the gifts he really wants (though I could probably pass off a duct-taped paper towel roll as a telescope) and the joy of giving, on this day, to those who need it most. But I shudder to imagine my kids’ disappointment at not seeing any gifts accrue; or worse, at my carting them off.

“I won’t make my daughter collect donations rather than gifts every year,” Michelle told me, “but I do want all of her parties to have some form of charity involved.”

Will the effort to live and give with purpose backfire, or is it a chance worth taking?

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