Saturday, May 07, 2005

Curse you, goody bags!

Birthday party season has arrived, with its heady mixture of anticipation, drudgery and angst. I am a birthday party curmudgeon – I cannot stand the things. Organizing a 1.5 hour window in your child’s life takes weeks of strategizing. Once it arrives, you stand around with people you barely know, but who look eerily like you, talking about potty incentives. My general party philosophy is to do as little as possible – turn the responsibilities over to someone else and let them get the pizza, bake the cake, provide entertainment. We had our son’s 6th birthday party at a duckpin bowling alley. Daughter’s 4th will be at the gymnastics gym. This costs more, but saves you from having to make your house presentable before or cleaning up the mess afterward. Since the interior of our house is in an advanced and possible irreversible state of entropic decay, going out is really the only option.

But the worst thing is the goody bags. This requires spending $100 on junk, then making an assembly line to place it in bags displaying a familiar cartoon character/corporate marketing avatar, and dispensing them all at the end of the party. Who invented this custom? In my day there were no goody bags. We made due with cake and ice cream and we turned out all right! But somewhere around the time the two-income household began to predominate and the self-esteem movement emerged, goody bags became the opiate of the 5-year-old set, a consolation prize for all the kids who couldn’t bear the fact that they didn’t get presents. Kind of like everybody on the soccer team getting a trophy.

On a practical level, goody bags are just a bad idea. They hold a child’s interest for about 10 minutes, then the junk is forgotten and piles up in odd niches around the house. Worse, goody bags are a vehicle for all manner of bourgeois social signals, an anxiety generator par excellence. Are you providing high quality, educational junk or more downmarket junk – flash cards or creepy crawlers? Some parents, damn them, put a lot of thought into the goody bags. In recent months I’ve seen actual cloth, drawstring bags, and tiny cardboard boxes with each kids’ name printed on them. I’ve seen pretzel bags and fruit instead of the de rigeur Starbursts and M&Ms. Who has time to put a personal stamp on goody bags? Am I a bad parent because I opted for Yu-Gi-Oh! bags and products made of high fructose corn syrup and flavorings brewed in a chemical plant? Yes. But at least the kids won’t care.