Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Educator, Author

Birthday Parties: Gifts, Manners, and Spa Diva Princess Cocktail Limo Parties

Candles spell out the traditional English birt...

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April 12th, 2011 | Author: melissa

This week I’m cross posting from some of my favorite friends in the blogosphere. This post was written by Melissa Wardy, owner of Pigtail Pals. Melissa is a mom and activist who believes that we need to Redefine Girly, putting the  focus on teaching our girls to be brave, confident, adventurous people. In this post she shares some tips on navigating birthdays with young children.

Image from goodreads.com

I get a lot of questions from parents relating to all things birthday….

Can I include a gift wish list with the invitation?

What do I do with the awful sexy doll/kitten heels/bag of makeup/Justin Bieber poster that was given to my child?

What do I do when my kindergartener insists on buying a toy for a party she’s been invited to that is so inappropriate, it is inappropriate to explain to her why it is so inappropriate?

We got invited to a limo diva rockstar princess spa-cocktail-fashion show party, for a five year old.

We celebrate our child’s birthday because it is the day they joined our world, made our family that much more complete, and began the journey of life. We honor one more year of health and happiness under their belt, and look to the coming year to be filled with more learning and exploration. That, of course, is the poetic side of birthdays.
When you’re a mom, you know there is the nitty gritty side of planning a guest list, invites, cake and food, party activities, treat sacks, decorations…..you can make it as simple or as complex as you want. You put a lot of effort into this day, and you want the best day for your child. This can be easily undermined when your child receives gifts that drive you up the wall. Everyone has their different breaking point. For me, it is sexualized dolls. Another friend of mine abhors make-up for little girls. Yet another hates toys with batteries, or toys that are weapons. I hear a lot of people gripe about Moon Sand. And then there is my friend who despises sidewalk chalk for her kids. I know, I think it is weird, too.
To answer your question, I do not think it is polite to include gift suggestions with the invite. You sent out the invite because you wanted that person/family to come celebrate your child. If they do bring a gift, how lovely of them. And yes, the majority of the time they bring a gift, and wasn’t it ever so thoughtful of the party guest, when they responded in a timely manner to the RSVP, to ask what would make a wonderful gift for the birthday boy/girl. So be prepared! A couple of weeks before your child’s party, make a list and  identify toys, learning toys, or books you would like added to your personal collection.
  • Recognize what skills your child will be growing into during the coming year, and be ready to list off a couple of toys that reflect this.
  • Seasonal toys are great: bubbles, playground ball, mould for making ice blocks, or snow paint.
  • For older kiddos, have them help you create a list, and then you’ve also created the opportunity for that talk about what gifts are and are not acceptable for your family.

For my kids, we have small birthday parties, but I try to have a list of 10-12 gifts, and then I share 1-2 ideas per invited family. My group of mommy friends is really awesome at asking what the child would like as a gift, and I just say something simple like, “We are so glad you can join us for the party! To answer your question about a gift for Amelia, she still loves all things oceanography and science related, and of course art supplies for her are always a hit.” This also makes it easier for the shopper, especially if they bring their child along to help shop, they have more to work with should they not be able to find one item suggested.

The other problem with suggesting gifts on the invite is that people may not think the same way you do. Asking for “age appropriate, gender neutral toys” may mean absolutely nothing to them. We have family friends that have no problem with their boys running around with toys guns, and other family friends whose entire house is a shrine to Barbie and the Tinkerbell. Instead I am very direct, and if they ask for gift ideas, I have a list of items at the ready, and can give a couple of suggestions within a $10-20 price point.

To answer your next question, yes, if emailing the party details to your family is acceptable and expected practice within your clan and it is standard to make gift suggestions at that time, then who am I to rile you up. If that is how your extended family gets business done, that’s fine. My family does that at Christmas time because we are scattered across the globe, and it just makes things easier. I also think it is fine to request “No gifts please” and just enjoy a day of fun, and later on exchange a few gifts from family. We have done this in the past, and I know families that do this every year – instead of gifts, ask for teddy bears and books that will be donated to the women’s shelter, school supplies to be donated, pet supplies for the animal shelter, or grocery items for the food pantry. Since kids whose families use the food pantry have birthdays, it would be fun for each guest to bring their own supplies to contribute to a big group of birthday party items, like cake mix, icing, candles, balloons, streamers, and colored plates/napkins. Every kid should get to make a wish on their birthday.

Since birthday parties are really about celebrating the child, not hauling in gifts, an idea that I think is so cool that I learned from a mom from our facebook page is to ask that the attending child make a gift for the host. She said they have received really cool craft projects, very sweet cards, and a few painted rocks for the birthday girl’s garden. I thought that was a great way to teach kids about consumerism, crafting, the nature of giving, and the graciousness of receiving a gift from the heart.

For questions on how and where to shop for a great toy or gift, see this post I wrote, “Toy Shopping Tips”. (hint: independent toy stores and online mommy-owned businesses. Ahem.)

What to do with that gift that drives you up the wall. There is a strong possibility your child will receive a gift that you do not approve of. Amelia has received make-up before that I wasn’t prepared for and wasn’t crazy about, but I let it slide because after a day or two, it was forgotten. Had the gift been a Bratz or Monster High doll, we would have sat down and talked in an age appropriate way about why her dad and I feel these kinds of dolls are inappropriate for children. Of course, it is kind of tricky to explain why something is so inappropriate when a kid this age shouldn’t even be thinking about the inappropriate aspects of the inappropriate toy. “Dressed like a sex worker” and “vapid lifestyle focused on partying and consumer consumption” are just not phrases or ideas I want her to pick up. I know there are parents who just scoop it up and toss it, but that doesn’t allow your child the opportunity to learn or build critical thinking skills (unless your kid is two, then yes, pitch it). Better to explain why the gift won’t be staying in your home, take the child with you to return it, and help them pick out something that is a better choice. Before you head to the store, have a short conversation about what are better choices and what price point you are working with. You might even want to write a list (or draw pictures for pre-readers) of three or four other choices, that way you have a visual cue to use if you need to reference back to the conversation. Put your child in the driver’s seat, and make it about them making a good choice, not you taking away a “bad” toy. That, my friends, is media literacy and critical thinking, and a little bit of budget managing to boot…..Necessary and wonderful skills to give your children.

All of this, by the way, applies to when your child is the shopper, choosing a gift for a party he or she will be attending. Talk about what rules or limits the other family might have, and what the gift your child is choosing tells the recipient about their friendship. Any kid can buy the hottest toy off of the shelf. But your kid is so awesome and such a good friend, he/she knows that the birthday boy/girl plays board games with their family every Friday night, or that he/she loves art and horses. Work from there, and pick a gift that really honors who that child is as a person.

(A tip on teaching young kids about money – I only have ten fingers, so once when I was returning a duplicate gift with Amelia this year, I was trying to explain to her that her gift was $15 so that is what she had to spend. She kept picking items that were $25-30 and I kept running out of fingers. We sat down right in the middle of the store, pulled out paper and a pen from my purse, and wrote down 30 circles. I put an “x” inside 15 of them. It helped to show her that 30 was beyond her $15 limit. Then we went around and picked smaller items, and each $3 or $5 dollar item got that corresponding number of circles colored in, to let her know those were full and she could track her way to her limit. When all was said and done, she ended up with four items for herself, and then took her 2.5yo brother by the hand, showed him the card, and said he had $2 left he could spend on himself. Seriously proud mommy moment for me!)

It is also a good idea to discuss with your child before their party about how to graciously receive a gift, even if upon opening it your kiddo discovers it is something they won’t be allowed to keep, don’t like, or already have. Manners are important, most especially when you have guests in your home. You could even come up with a baseball signal, like an ear tug, or flick of the nose and brush of the shoulder, so that when your child opens it and glances at you with the guidance/approval/holy cow-will-you-let-me-keep-this look, they know you’ll give them the info they want, and he or she can still practice polite manners and smile and say thank you to the giver.

Now….how to have that sticky convo with the repeat offender who insists your child needs the entire collection of Pussy Cat Doll dolls or kitten heels or mini-adult outfit….etc. Here’s what you need to understand – if you are already here and reading this blog, you are probably A) rather clever and B) tuned into the sexualization and gender stereotypes in childhood. I love having you here and that you are reading this blog. But the whole world doesn’t read my blog, or buy my t-shirts. Yet. So the whole world doesn’t know about this stuff like you and I do. So go easy. And as always, act with grace.

  • “Aunt Midge, thank you so much for coming to Ashlyn’s party. Yes, she loved seeing you and enjoyed opening your gift. Actually, since  you brought it up, I wanted you to know that we decided to return Rhinestone Fashionista Barbie for a big floor puzzle. Well, I know you loved Barbie as a girl, but she’s changed a lot over the years from when you were little and you know how conscious we are about raising Ashlyn to be a confident girl. We prefer to stay away from toys that are focused on beauty and shopping. You should see Ashlyn stick her tongue out as she works on the puzzle, it is really quite darling. What’s that? Yes, the jello mould was lovely. Thank you.”
  • “Amy, thanks so much for joining us on Saturday. That skit you did with the kids still has us chuckling. Listen, I actually wanted to discuss something with you, because I know how much you love being Maddie’s auntie and how much she means to you. It’s just that I’ve been doing so much reading about all of this sexualization stuff, like you know, when girls grow up too fast and get taught about looking sexy so young, well, it just has John and I kind of baffled, and we felt the Bratz doll and mini skirt and high heels that Maddie opened fell into that category. I know your gifts in the past are focused on the fun you two have being so girly together, but you are such a great role model for her that it would mean a lot to us if you could focus on her being a little girl. She’s only five, so things like art supplies, dress up clothes, puppets, books,  you know, that is all so great for her. We love how her face lights up every time she sees you, and it felt really good to be able to be honest with you about this.”
  • “Hi Kate. Oh, Elise told Morgan at school that we returned the gift…and oh, well, I’m sorry Morgan’s feelings are hurt by this as certainly that wasn’t our intention. We really appreciated you coming to the party, but Elise and I decided that the Twilight movies series and t-shirt weren’t appropriate for a girl her age. Yes, I know Morgan loves them, but she has older sisters so she is exposed to different things at your house. I think it is so great that Morgan loves monsters, and maybe next time the girls play we can help them set up a haunted house, or make life size monster puppets.”

You will ultimately have to decide how you can approach the person since each relationship is so different. By principal, I feel parents should always act as an advocate for their child. If it will cause holy war with your mother-in-law, realize that family is more important that any plastic crap imported from China. Yes, it is the plastic equivalent of a toxic diet….but I’m not sure it is worth losing friendships or family relations over. And you can always say the dog ate it.

Look, the bottom line is that you are the parent. YOU are the parent. You make the decisions for your child. The popular phrase in the media right now is “Everything in moderation”. Fine. But I don’t see that as helpful or informative. There is very little moderation to the sexualized messages and gender stereotypes in products for our girls. YOU are responsible for raising your girl up correctly, growing her in the most empowering and healthy environment you can create. YOU have every right to say “Hell to the no that crap does not enter this house.” Each family has their different breaking points – you have to decide where you draw the line. A couple of my friends have challenged my stance on the sexy dolls and movie characters. But it is well known how I feel about the sexy dolls and gender stereotypes, and in my house — what Mama says, Mama means. In the nearly five years we’ve lived here and celebrated birthdays with this bunch of gals, they have time and again respected my wishes and given my daughter gifts that reflect her current interests and her curiosity. So much so, in fact, this year during Amelia’s ocean themed party I was moved to tears at the thoughtfulness and creativity my friends put into their gifts, and how proud Amelia’s little friends were that they had found such perfect stuff for my little ocean-loving gal. It was a really, really great day.

Glamour Girl Parties: Are the new “it” thing right now. Usually held at a spa or hair salon or boutique, the girls get vamped up and sometimes sip kiddie cocktails, sometimes travel by limo. Sometimes they drink kiddie cocktails in the limo. The things is, that concept just described my sophomore year of college. Believe you me, you don’t want your seven year old reinacting my sophomore year of college. These parties sexualize our girls in birthday party form, and age compress them with the message that socializing around fizzy special drinks and getting beauty treatments is what women do. Now I love my glass of Pinot and mani pedi just as much as the next girl, BUT, I am 33 years old. When I was seven I was excited to be able to drink a can of Orange Crush. If we let our daughters act 21 when they are in second grade…then what’s left? Where do they go, what boundaries are there left for them to push?
You know what I think would be fun for a seven year old girl party? Have them put on silly crazy dress up costumes, roll out a giant piece of butcher paper, and then have them step in a tray of paint and dance while you blast music. While the paint dries on their newly created mural, they can wash their feet in a big washbin of suds, grab a towel and juice box, and sit down to braid each others hair and paint each others piggy toes. Because you know, they are seven.
Here’s a recent question I got from Shannon on Facebook:
We get home and she hands me an invitation to a “Glamour Girl” Party. “Get your hair styled, make-up, finger nails painted, sing karaoke, dress-up and put on a fashion show for your parents and friends.”
UGH. UGH. UGHGHGHGHGH. Here’s where this stuff gets hard. It’s easy enough to keep it out of my house … but now what?!? So ALL of the other girls in her class go to this and she misses out and has to hear about it the next Monday? :/ That’s no fun.
I’m not thrilled about the whole thing, but it’s really the make-up part that bothers me more than anything.

So … thoughts? Advice? Insight?

What’s more educational … keeping her home and trying to explain the “why” of it … or letting her go and then using it as a teaching tool for explaining my views on these things??

Pigtail Pals answer:
I understand your discomfort. I think if you feel your daughter will be safe and well looked after, you let her go. The the social aspect of the party will have a bigger impact on her than the make-up. Each of us has a different line – for you it is make-up. I respect that. I think this is the kind of moment out of our control as parents that we use to craft into a learning experience. I think before hand you explain to your daughter that what a special occasion it is for her to get to wear make-up and do these fancy, big girl things.

Then you go over good manners for the party, and send her off and tell her to have fun. When you pick her up, help to shape her take-aways about the experience with questions like:
“Was it fun to have to sit still to get your hair/make-up/nails done?”
“Did you want to sit still or wiggle around?”
“What kind of fancy, big girl hair do’s did the other girls get?”
“Were you able to count how many colors of nail polish? How did you choose your color?”
“Who sang the funniest song?”
“What kind of fancy outfits did you wear in the fashion show? Was the dress up the best part, or was the singing the best part?”
“This was a special treat, should we take a picture of you all fancied up? We don’t do this often, it would be fun to remember.”

And you know? She’s probably going to answer, “Mom, Riley got two of the same puzzles and she has two hamsters but her brother was there even though it said NO BOYS and he ate more cake than us but the cake was good and I didn’t want ice cream and Kayla kept hiccuping when she sang and my head kept getting itchy and Riley’s mom was so funny during the fashion show when she taught us to walk and Isabelle tripped on her dress and Riley liked my present.”

Just like a wedding, she’s going to remember the cake and if
the guest of honor liked the gift. Save the make-up fight for another day.

Shannon’s Feedback a Week Later:

Now, Melissa, I have to say, YOU HIT THE NAIL ON THE HEAD with this: “Just like a wedding, she’s going to remember the cake and if the guest of honor liked the gift.”

When I asked her what her favorite part was, she said, without hesitation, “THE CAKE.”

The next comment was, “Mom, she didn’t even open her birthday presents. I wanted to see her open her birthday presents. Do you think she’ll remember to take them with her to open later??”

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