Shifting the Birthday Paradigm
by Traci Skuce
Two weeks before my son’s sixth birthday party, I was speaking to my friend Janet. Janet is a professor at Simon Fraser University who teaches courses in sustainability; she also has 18-month-old twins. I told her that I’d rented the gym at the local rec centre because our house is too small to manage a bevy of excited six-year-olds. It was to be the biggest birthday party (up to this point) in Emile’s life—six kids, one for each year.
We were all looking forward to it although, I admitted to her, I hated the idea of loot bags: cheap, disposable things that would, sooner or later, be a blight on our planet, rather than a joy in any of our hearts. I was still in a quandary of what to do about it.
Janet shared a story of a four-year-old’s party that her children were invited to.
“I could have brought my (university) students down here,” she said. “And we could have had a lively discussion about consumption. Just from that one party.”
Janet’s observations align with my own, but for reasons of ease, or social etiquette and expectations, I have breached my own values on issues of consumption and throw-away toys. I have bought the cheap, last-minute gift from the Dollar Store. I have bought into paper plates and cups.
Emile was horrified when I wrote on the invitations that there were to be no presents. I did assure him that family would still give him gifts, but that a birthday party is more about having fun with friends than it is about opening the presents. “Besides,” I told him. “They can make you cool cards and you can collect their drawings.”
The thing is,” Janet said, “…we have to teach our kids. How do you expect a four-year-old to say no to all those things—colourful paper plates, wrapping paper, cheap plastic toys? You can’t. They’re too seductive. We’re the adults. We have to teach them.”
Janet’s words haunted me as we prepared for the party. I’d already decided to kibosh the presents, but, admittedly, I did worry about how the parents would react to my decision. I knew some people find it difficult to not give a gift, it is so ingrained in birthday party etiquette.
Plus, I struggled with this “loot bag” idea. It is nice to receive a little something to take home and play with, though I was determined to keep my distance from the Dollar Store this year. Finally, I called upon my 13-year-old son, Seamus, who has a talent for origami, to help me out. Seamus folded 12 paper frogs—two for each child—and one “cup” to put them in. “If it comes to it,” he said. “We can have a frog race.”
On the day of the party, I baked a delicious vanilla cake and frosted it with thick chocolate icing. The only other party food I packed was a pineapple—especially treaty for Emile, since I rarely buy them. Even though I entertained the convenience of paper plates, Janet’s words echoed in my mind, so I loaded baskets and bags with reusable cups, cutlery and plates.
At four o’clock, the guests slowly trickled into the party room at the rec centre. The children placed their homemade cards on the birthday table and we went down to the gym where they could run around. Parents and younger siblings stayed on as well.
While the kids enjoyed plasma cars and the trampoline, I spoke to some of the parents about the “no gift” idea. One mother thanked me. “You’ve set a precedent,” she said. “Now my son is okay with no gifts at his party too.”
After the hour in the gym, with their cheeks flush from play, the kids ran back into the room where we celebrated Emile with song and cake. When the cake was finished, Seamus handed around the folded frogs. Both kids and parents were pleased with his fine work.
Everyone left with smiles on their faces and frogs in their pockets. Emile gathered his stack of birthday cards and we stacked cups and cutlery, the last pieces of cake, and headed home. He was happy and contemplative on the ride home. “Thanks for the party, Mom,” he said. “It was really fun.”
“Thank you,” I told him. Because though he may not know it now, reducing the waste from his birthday party was a gift for everyone. Planet included.
Traci Skuce is a writer and mother living in the Comox Valley. She likes living on this Earth and hopes we can all contribute to its well-being.