The goody bags handed out at some children's birthday parties rival the cost of the present the attendee presents.
NEW YORK — Anya Roles, 34, a Manhattan mother of three girls under the age of 5, has seen a range of gifts at children’s birthday parties over the years: personalized lunchboxes and pricey plate sets, costume jewelry galore, princess makeup kits and mountains of small plastic toys.
Largely unremarkable in the blur of any childhood, these items stand out because they were not birthday presents. They were in goody bags.
There was a time when children attending birthday parties received simple favors like a noisemaker or a trinket for winning Pin the Tail on the Donkey. Today they often get bulging bags of toys. These sometimes cost more than the presents brought to the party.
“I heard of a mom who gave out tennis rackets to everyone,” said Peggy Post, the etiquette expert. “Parents feel so much pressure.”
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Online discussion boards for parents are filled with can-you-believe-it tales of American Girl dolls, VIP baseball tickets and cooking kits for all guests. “Once the birthday present I bought for the b-day child was the same exact thing as the goody bag! awkward!” read one post on urbanbaby.com (the gift, the poster said, cost $35).
But the cheap stuff (scented erasers, candy, nail polish, stickers and temporary tattoos) can be equally offensive to parents trying to teach ecological consciousness or simply cutting down on clutter.
When Sarah Swain’s children lug home loot from parties, “I throw it out and then I feel guilty — there goes another giant piece of plastic in the trash — but it’s not like you can give it away,” said Swain, 33, a mother of two and a nursing student who lives near San Francisco. “It’s not useful.”
Even if the content is appreciated, such presents at a young age reinforce the message that “an event is only fun if you get a material award for it,” said Susan Linn, a psychiatry instructor at the Harvard Medical School and the director of the nonprofit Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.
“The rise of the goody bag is part of a larger escalation of the commercialization of children’s birthday parties,” Linn said. “That’s both in terms of brands, but also in terms of competition around the lavishness of parties.”
Dana Rywelski, owner of Doodle Doo’s, a children’s hair salon and gift boutique in Greenwich Village, introduced a goody-bag bar in September with around 100 options, ranging in price from 50 cents to $10. Customers spend an average of $15 on the bags, she said; some of the most popular components are mini Lego collectible figures and tiny plastic balls containing tinier toys called Squinkies.
Despite goody bags’ ubiquity, Post called them “totally optional, not a must” and encouraged parents to band together and “work to tone down the expectations.”
Linn suggested not offering the bags unless children ask for them.
“If everybody is miserable and unhappy, you can rethink it for next year,” she said.
Rather than abandon the custom entirely, some parents are trying to follow it more thoughtfully.
Bettina Smith, a marketing manager who lives in the Financial District and has a 4-year-old girl, said she coordinated her goody bags with the theme of her daughter’s parties. For a Dora party, there were Dora and Diego watches plus candy in Dora bags. For a Rapunzel party, she offered art sets and paper pads because Rapunzel “likes to paint.”
Smith said parents who oppose goody bags could still give guests something to take home by hiring face painters or balloon twisters, or by having children make art projects at the party. She did draw the line, no pun intended, at the three pieces of sidewalk chalk that her daughter was given at a recent party.
“There was no candy or anything to go along with it,” she said.
Swain said she tried to offer items that can be used up, like crayons or clay. She said she admired a friend who offers gift certificates for ice cream and a mother who gave out striped sailor shirts at a party on a ship.
Roles, the Manhattan mother of three girls, has decided to opt out entirely. She does not offer goody bags, has sneaked out of parties to avoid taking them and has thrown bags out rather than risk bringing home anything with lead. For her oldest daughter’s third birthday, she made a donation to the nonprofit Heifer International (which gives livestock to needy families) on guests’ behalf; post-party, she found her gift cards littered all over. Now she has “beautiful” cookies made by a local mother.
“Then kids still get something handed to them because they literally demand it,” Roles said. “It says ‘thank you.’ And that’s all.”