The look on my son’s face said it all. He opened up the shopping bag and peered inside. “What are theeeeeeeese?” he snarled as he inspected the goods.
“Oh, you found my stash for your goody bags! I got some cool stuff, right?”
In my infinite wisdom, I had taken a “creative” route for my son’s birthday goody bags. Instead of stuffing them with candy and plying his already-sugared-up guests with even more sugar, I thought, wouldn’t it be adorable to stuff the bags with cute school supplies? Everyone loves a fun pencil! And who doesn’t need an extra pair of dice, right??
Wrong. Very wrong. Evidently, my inspired idea was GARBAGE, as far as my son was concerned. He gazed at me with an expression that could only be described as abject disgust. “These are the WORST, Mommy! Why did you have to buy the WORST goody bag thingies? No candy? No treats?”
His air of despondency was all melodrama, but his tears were real, and I very much felt the sting of his disappointment. Didn’t I know that candy should NEVER EVER be substituted for anything, anywhere, anytime? And even if there was a worthy substitute, surely a brightly colored pencil was not even a contender! Sigh. I felt lame and un-cool and extremely irritable because I had spent far too long looking for said supplies. I glanced over at my husband for moral support, but all he could do was mouth, “I told you we should have bought the baseball cards.”
I still remember my oldest’s first birthday. He had never had cake before; rarely a sweet had passed over his lips. We gave him a bite or two, but nothing more. We were worried about the sugar and the processed ingredients and fostering an early taste for unhealthy food. We had assiduously tried to protect him from all the things we were told were “bad” for kids—sugar, television, BPAs, and the rest. I nursed him past his first year and made (ahem—some of) his food. We used cloth diapers and organic products for his hair and body and skin. He didn’t watch television until he was almost 3, at the point where we actually thought it was more detrimental for him to be culturally isolated than it was for him to sit down and watch 20 minutes of the darn tube.
With our eldest child, we also refused to buy clothes with superheroes emblazoned on them. We were not fans of the superhero narratives, what with their intrinsic violence and aggression, and good guys/bad guys, lack-of-grayscale stories. And why did we have to introduce “bad guys” to our 3-year-old anyway? We also rejected buying clothes with cartoon characters on them (OK, so a few had been handed down to us and we let them slide) on the grounds that we didn’t want to “commodify” him or turn him into a walking advertisement for whatever show was popular at the moment.
There was even a point in our first child’s preschool career when my husband and I thought about advocating for no cake at birthday parties. There were just so many parties and so much cake (and don’t even ask for our opinion on the mounds and mounds of pizza our children were ingesting—and continue to ingest, for that matter). What was the point of feeding our very young children—who didn’t ask for the sugar or need it—processed junk? We could offer them a bowl of fruit instead, we reasoned, and they would probably be just as happy. (Note: We gave that a try, and let’s just say our initial subjects roundly rejected the idea.)
When I think about all of the policies we’ve experimented with over the years, my head starts to spin. We did our best to make the best decisions for us and for our children at the time, and some worked really well and others, not so much. We’ve kept with a few protocols, but dropped a few along the way, too. Needless to say, our family today, with four children, looks and feels different than it did those years ago when we first started out. These days, our kids watch TV (in moderation, mostly), they play on screens (also in moderation, mostly), and yes, they wear superhero gear.
It’s not all bad though, I promise! We still do care very much about nutrition and screen time and unnecessary exposure to inappropriate games and characters and story lines. We care about sugar overload and candy obsessions and processed food addictions, too. But, I will admit that the chaos of life has compelled us to change our expectations somewhat and to try and maintain some wider perspective. Whether out of convenience or expediency or sheer survivalism, we’re more selective when it comes to choosing our battles.
Which brings me back to my son’s birthday party this week, and the ridiculous goody bag scenario that ensued. I had acquiesced when it came to ordering pizza (for simplicity’s sake). I had conceded to having a cake. (See note re: cake, above. Also, my kid has a dairy allergy and really, really wanted a cake he could eat. Sold.). I had one teency opportunity to impart a healthy choice upon this gathering. So, I seized it. Hence, goody bags filled with school supplies instead of candy.
Well, in case you are wondering, the party went without a hitch. My son had a blast, with the minor exception of a few bumps and bruises mid-celebration, all totally par for the course. And as we had hoped, he completely forgot all about the goody bags. That is, until the end of the party, when he ran up to me, with a tear in his eye. As it turns out, my birthday boy was crying about the goody bags, but not for the reason you might expect. Nope. His older brother had stolen his goody bag away from him and he desperately wanted it back.
I stood there and shook my head for a moment, laughing silently to myself. Then I took my son’s hand in mine and made my way over to the next negotiation of the night.