Monday, January 29, 2007

Kids' Birthday Parties

Photo courtesy of Trishley Gifts

I read a truly extraordinary letter to the editor in the New York Times this past week. It was in response to an article about gift cards by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt that appeared in the January 7 Sunday magazine. In the article they talk about why gift cards are generally bad from an economic point of view.

Most economists would argue that if a gift card is so transparently good for the giver, it is necessarily bad for the recipient: the fact that it can be bought so easily signals to the recipient that the giver didn't put much effort into the gift.

In addition, sale of the cards puts extra money into the pockets of the retailers or card purveyors (about 10% of gift card purchases go unspent).

The letter was from Alice K., a mother in a small town in Massachusetts, who wrote:

I have noticed that children are receiving more and more gift cards for birthdays. It's fun for my son to pick out a gift, but I'm the one who has to take him to Borders or Toys "R" Us. And the item he decides on may cost more than the amount on the card. I see this is an unfortunate off-loading of the gift-buying process to the parent of the recipient. Isn't it enough that I give the party?

Well I hardly know where to begin here. But let's give it a shot, shall we?

1. "It's fun for my son to pick out a gift." This is clearly why the parent(s) of the child who brought a gift card to your birthday party selected it. The mom and/or dad may never have been to your house, and may not even know your child very well or at all. It's tough for them to know what the child has/wants/needs (the reason why so many grandparents send checks). A gift card signals their desire to do right by your child. Would you rather have an undesirable gift (war toys fall in this category for many) that you have to return, hide, or trash, or a gift your child is just not interested in that clogs the toybox or bookshelves and goes unused? If it's fun for your son, why is it an issue for you?

2. "The item he decides on may cost more than the amount on the card." Well, honey, that's why he's the kid and you're the grownup. You can always set clear budget parameters and make it a learning process. (E.g., "Your card has a $15 value. That means that you have to find a gift that costs less than $15. Or, if it costs more than $15, you have to use some of your birthday money from Grandma and Grandpa.")

3. "Isn't it enough that I give the party?" Well why not just include the fee for the event on your invitation? Let me remind you that gifts are optional and that the reason you are giving the party is not to pull in a specified number of perfect birthday gifts for your child, but to create a warm and sociable and fun event for your child with his friends. The gifts are the icing on the cake so to speak. And hey, if there's a gift card you can't use, it creates a great regifting opportunity!

I feel better now.

1 comment: said...

Well, I'm pretty old fashioned when it comes to gift giving, though cards are great when it's for something the recipient would not buy for him or herself.

As for cards as a kiddie gift, I'm not so concerned about the birthday boy's mom as about the gift giver's experience.

When my kids were little and were invited to (about 1,000) birthday parties, it was a chance to talk to my child about his/her friendships, likes and dislikes. I'd quiz my kid mercilessly about the pal for whom the gift was intended, insisting that we really think about the honoree and try to see the gift from his/her view and avoid buying something just because we might want it ourselves.

We would talk about the size of the gift - what could we afford, what would be over-the-top. A gift should be of the right proportion, so to speak.

The we'd go shopping together (yeah, sometimes at the very last minute) and wrap the present together. It was kind of a pain, but it was a way to learn about people and try to think of what would be pleasing to another person. It's probably just my stern Czech mother talking, but why bother giving a gift at all if it involves no thought or effort?