Family Matters

Goody Bag Madness: How to Rein in Kids’ Birthday Party Favors

Kids' goody bags are getting increasingly elaborate. Do we really need these compilations of crap?

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Edgardo Contreras / Getty Images

If you are anything like me as a parent, you may be counting down the years until mandatory birthday parties are a thing of the past.

I’m an admitted Scrooge when it comes to kiddie soirees. I resent them taking up my weekends, so I’ve been known to never even tell my child she’s been invited to a friend’s birthday bash; I just RSVP no. When I say yes, I’m often unnerved by the hefty expenditures associated with kids’ parties these days. The over-the-top aspect starts young: I’ve attended a celebration for a 1-year-old with a costumed Elmo for hire and John Deere tractor rides. The kid was freaked out by the furry fellow in red, while the parents seemed oblivious.

Rare is the birthday party these days that’s a simple home affair: even there, the bar is set increasingly higher as parents hire clowns and mad scientists to put on a show for their darlings. But with a few exceptions for my son’s pool parties, we’ve always held our kids’ birthday celebrations at home. For me, it was a chance to get creative and tap into my child’s interests: when my daughter fell in love with Charlotte’s Web, we invited her friends for a farm-themed party and made pigs out of apples, with cloves serving as eyes, a gumdrop for a snout and a swirl of licorice for the tail. That was the party favor, as I recall — that and a farm animal figurine.

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But I know I’m in the minority. The New York Times wrote recently about the strange social phenomenon of elaborate goody bags. In most places, they consist of a menagerie of plastic trinkets that inevitably gets foisted upon celebrants as the party draws to a close. New York being New York, they’ve got an actual store with a goody-bag bar. Parents prepping for their kids’ parties drop an average of $15 per goody bag at Greenwich Village’s Doodle Doo’s; that could potentially be more than invitees spend on gifts.

I don’t remember goody bags from my childhood; apparently, they’re a modern invention. And they’re not optional, despite what etiquette expert Peggy Post says. Post tells the New York Times that these compilations of crap are “not a must.” That’s like saying birthday cake isn’t essential either.

Because kids are used to getting junk in a bag, they’ve come to expect it. More than once, a child attending one of my kids’ parties has asked where their goody bag is long before the party’s over. This year, following my 7-year-old’s Madeline-themed fiesta (we read the story of the feisty French girl having her appendix removed and acted it out as we went along, looked at pictures of famous paintings to simulate being at the Louvre and dined in “Le Patisserie” — a.k.a. the kitchen table with a vase of flowers plopped in the middle — on a lemon-yellow cake decorated to look like Madeline’s hat), my daughter proudly handed out her goody bags. A mini-fashionista, she’d made them herself out of paper then stuffed them with a pair of fluffy socks (which we’d bought) and a bunch of tchotchkes we’d culled from various nooks and crannies in our home.

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(For the practically minded, The Stir offers a tongue-in-cheek wishlist of the top 10 party favors parents would love their kids to receive: think Band-aids, Kleenex and stain remover.)

We live in Seattle, where the recycling ethic is strong. What’s good for paper and plastic can also be good for party favors, I realized. As far as I could tell, the girls getting the goody bags seemed charmed by the whimsical design. Reduce, reuse, recycle — it can work for goody bags, too.