Please, No Gifts – On Being Charitable To Charity Birthdays

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I recently dropped off my kid at a birthday party. I was hoping for a clean getaway, since there in the driveway was another drop-off dad named Chad, who wears moccasins and once even adopted a highway. Nothing good comes from conversations with Chad. But that’s exactly what I risked in calling out to my son, whom I noticed didn’t have a present under his arm. “Don’t worry, dad,” he assured me, “it’s a charity birthday.” With some internet sleuthing, I learned that these are birthday parties where in lieu of gifts, guests are asked to donate to a charity selected by the host. When did these become all the rage?

To be clear, I strongly support the idea behind it. Charity is a virtue after all. But there’s something about its forcible attachment to kid-birthdays that makes me vaguely uneasy, like how I feel immediately after listening to The Alan Parsons Project. I mean, fine if dad wants to forgo a lob wedge for his own birthday, or mom says no thanks to sparkly jewelry on hers, but isn’t this particular check drawn on someone else’s account? Please don’t tell me it’s what seven-year-old Jimmy wants. Here’s what he says when his parents are around:

Me: What would you like for your birthday, Jimmy?

Jimmy (shoulders shrugging): A sustainable habitat for sea turtles.

And here’s what he says when we’re alone:

Me: What would you like for your birthday, Jimmy?

Jimmy (eyes twinkling): A weapons-grade super soaker, with scope and laser-sighting.

Me: What about the sea turtles your mom is always talking about?

Jimmy: **** the turtles.

Note that being anti-donation doesn’t make me pro-gift. It’s not like I’m fond of dropping hard-earned cheddar at glitzy toy stores. Frankly, the last time I set foot in one, Fraggle Rock merchandise was still a hot buy. Nor am I looking to subsidize the local independent toy store. It may be a gift to be simple as your sign says, Geppetto, but it’s also a gift to sell toys that don’t bore you to tears and then fly apart on the ride home. For me it comes down to this: do host parents do this on their own birthdays, the in-lieu-of-gift part? If so, good for them. But I’m betting they don’t. So why drop the hammer on little Jimmy? He’s a boy, for heaven’s sake. That Enya nonsense he listened to in utero was your choice, not his. Ever notice how he never kicked when you played Quadrophenia?  

I have two additional problems with these parties, one from the guest perspective and the other from the host perspective. First, no guest wants to pay a birthday tax, and second, as host you’re not really free to choose your cause. PETA? Now you’re talkin’. Sierra Club? Even better. But try something like Second Chances for Lap Dances, a career-counseling organization that prepares dancers for life after the pole, and see what it does to attendance. (Hint: I wouldn’t order the six-foot sub sandwich.) No sir, you’ll never catch me hosting a charity birthday party.

Well, almost never. One thing would get me to host one for my kid: if I had reason to believe that substantially all the gifts would be of “the whole family can enjoy” variety. The whole family? Nothing on the planet is enjoyed by the whole family, and until children come out of the womb liking Gordon Lightfoot, I’ll avoid products that promise what they can’t deliver. Note the crafty lawyering, not will enjoy but can enjoy. After all, you can enjoy a whack from a ball-peen hammer, but you almost certainly won’t. Like what Chad’s kid brought to my son’s birthday last year – a sunflower seed family growing kit. That Saturday-killer of a gift had Chad written all over it. It doesn’t take a family to grow sunflowers, it just takes one unlucky kid who got seeds for his birthday. The packaging said it all: Iron Bowl this afternoon? Not for you! You’ll be on your hands and knees, digging a trench in the muck. After six nurturing weeks – in short, the remaining college football season – you’ll have a plant that you wouldn’t miss if the UPS delivery truck guy came in hot and took it out.

I embellished a little, but you get the point. If I knew a room-full of Chads would be attending my party, I’d definitely go the donation route. But that doesn’t happen often, so the rule stands: make the donation yourself, and let Jimmy get his super-soaker.