Happy Consumer Day to You

“You're an experienced parent,” my sister said when I answered the phone, “so tell me what I should do.”

I love when she presents an open invitation to opine. “What's wrong?” I was eager to hear the dilemma and impart my advice because it actually was being solicited. How often does that happen?

I nudged the cordless phone between my ear and my shoulder and started folding laundry while my sister explained the gist of her parenting problem, which was this:

Her 7-year-old daughter attended a birthday party, where the gift she gave to the birthday girl was criticized by two little partygoers on the grounds it was insufficient.

“They actually told my daughter that the birthday girl would not like her present,” my sister fumed, “but of course, this is because the rest of the gifts at this party were the kinds of things you'd expect to find in a Christmas catalog from Neiman's.”

I was excited to hear about my sister's parenting experience — not because I wasn't equally horrified by the rude and belittling behavior my niece had endured — but because I love venting about this particular cultural trend.

At last, an excuse to tell someone why I loathe children's birthday parties.

Birthday parties — once the epitome of creative fun designed to celebrate childhood milestones of growth and development — have become just exercises in excess to train an entire generation of materialistic uber-consumers.

Pin the tail on the donkey?

Musical chairs?

Scavenger hunts?

Be serious. These days, a birthday party may involve a limousine, a theatrical cast and even pyrotechnics.

“What next,” my sister and I lamented, “a kiddy gift registry?”

Well, yes, actually.

It turns out the information age — which really should be called “the-information-that-will-get-you-to-spend-money age” — has wrought a cyber-service called www.IBirthdayparty.com, an online birthday-party planning site that enables the use of high-tech tools to “make party planning simple.”

Parents can go online to select the location for a child's birthday party, choosing among destinations such as amusement parks, educational sites (museums and zoos mostly) or chains geared toward children and families. The website also has downloads for invitations and party themes. (Why devise your own when you can use someone else's ideas?)

You even can send “e-vitations” and track responses online with a “real-time list of everyone who has responded to your invitation at any time.”

Call me crazy, but at our house, we choose a location for the party like this: “Should we have it in the basement or the back yard?”

Tracking RSVPs? This is something we do on our fingers.

IBirthdayparty.com's boldest feature, however, is the birthday gift registry, a “wish list” children can create so guests “avoid duplicate and unwanted gifts.” (There's no such thing as an “unwanted” gift at our house. Even if the person who receives a gift doesn't want it, someone else will snap it up.)

The gift registry means moms, dads and children no longer must trek to the local toy store looking for the perfect gift for a special friend, considering one who likes Legos or another who enjoys board games. In fact, there's no need to think about the friend at all. Instead, we can just check the “wish list” and fulfill the birthday girl or boy's specific demands.

Even without a registry, this is the gift-giving spirit that last year caused me to conclude we had hosted enough parties. Our daughter Amy, upon reaching the age of 8, received so many gifts — and gifts of such exceptional expense — that I felt uncomfortable.

It wasn't just the caliber of gifts Amy received, though. It also was the way the girls screamed and squealed when she opened certain packages — as if she had won the big showcase on “The Price Is Right” — and the fact that only some of the gifts elicited such a response, while other guests' presents got barely a notice.

I knew I had reached my cultural saturation point when I sheepishly handed out our goody bags and wondered if parents would think we had skimped. (These days, it's not uncommon for Amy to come home from a birthday party with a goody bag that's nicer than the gift she gave the birthday girl.)

Somewhere in the midst of all this largess, a lovely tradition has been lost.

My sister and I chewed on this topic for quite a while (I folded at least three loads of clean laundry), and though we agreed the cultural evolution of children's celebrations speaks volumes about our society, we still hadn't resolved her parenting dilemma: What to do about her daughter's experience at the birthday party?

We batted around her options.

Should she call the parents of the offending partygoers and suggest they conduct a family meeting on manners?

Should she call the mom of the birthday girl to see if the snide comments had reached her daughter?

Should she start giving bigger birthday gifts?

No, no and heck no.

“This is just a teachable moment for my own daughter about what's really important,” my sister concluded. “We gave a lovely, appropriate gift, and we put a lot of thought into it, and that's the message I'm reinforcing at our house.”

Proving that when it comes to gift giving — and parenting — it really is the thought that counts.

(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 19 years and mother of four children from fourth grade to senior year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for the Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at www.marybethhicks.com. This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)

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