You say it’s your birthday?

An article in the New York Times about parents who suggest (require?) that birthday presents come to their young children in the form of gifts to charity announces the trend in one breath and derides it in the next.  It summons no less an authority than Miss Manners to disapprove of the notion on the grounds that children will learn to hate philanthropy if it deprives them of a pile of wrapped boxes.  Besides (sniff), directing other people’s gift-giving is so tacky.  More, the article seems to go out of its way to portray parents who try this alternative as hippie-dippy tree-huggers, making sure to mention one who carries her baby in a sling and another who provides party favors consisting of organic fruit leather.

Making fun of rich people is great sport; the Nonprofiteer relishes it herself.  But making fun of rich people for being generous rather than stingy (the "John Edwards is rich so he can’t really care about poverty" school of analysis) is just (sniff) tacky.  In any case, both the article and the ordinarily impeccably correct Miss Manners seem to forget that all gift-giving is contingent on cultural expectations.  As children, even privileged Baby Boomers expected attendance at their parties and a card rather than gifts.  If the following generation amended the ritual so it instead resembled Oscar night, complete with goody bags, surely the newest generation can amend it yet again.  If you tell a four-year-old that birthdays are a time for cake, ice cream and doing something nice for other people, that’s how they’ll understand birthdays.  And if they feel at all deprived, it’s no worse than the way diabetic kids feel when excluded from cake and ice cream; and, just like diabetic kids, they’ll get over it. 

Directing gifts may be a bit much, but if so parents can be told, "Ralph isn’t expecting gifts, but he’d be thrilled if you wanted to make a contribution to charity in his name/honor."  That deprives the kid of choosing the charity him/herself, but that’s the only part of the described trend that seems superfluous.  Plenty of time for site visits later. 

The Nonprofiteer can’t remember how she came to think that collecting pennies for UNICEF instead of candy was an exciting way to spend Halloween, but she did, and it’s not because she doesn’t like candy.  Somehow, her parents communicated that this was what we did, and that it was a special thing to do, and that she was special for doing it.  If today’s parents convey that message to their children–that being generous is special and fun–well, horrors!  They might grow up to be nonprofiteers.

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4 Responses to “You say it’s your birthday?”

  1. Edie Canter Says:

    While I’ve never used the “no gifts for my kid” approach to teaching that charity begins at home, I am in favor of sending the message early. Here’s our family effort: my 10-year-old is required to divide her (paltry) allowance evenly among three categories: spending (she can choose to do with it whatever she wants), savings (for college, etc.), and charity. When she acquires money some other way (lemonade stands, mother’s helper work, etc.), she must put at least some of the money into each of the three categories but can make her own choice about how much goes into each. Happily, I see her dividing that money roughly equally, although “spending” gets a bigger cut when she’s trying to save up for something special. Periodically, we sit down and talk about where she wants her charity money to go. Are we ingraining a charitable spirit? We hope so!

  2. Nonprofiteer Says:

    Just making sure that she’s thinking about the needs of others is “ingraining a charitable spirit.” My optimistic view is that most people aren’t naturally selfish–they’re just unaware of how the other half (or other 95%) lives. So bravo on your awareness campaign with your daughter.

  3. Sky Bluesky Says:

    Hey! I think I resent that baby-sling crack. I myself carried my baby (who is not named Apple or Chrysanthemum or Mahatma) in a sling. And even – lord help us – in a Baby Bjorn. And I’m not even the slightest bit hippy-dippy. At least, I wasn’t when I woke up this morning.

    Our little guy’s too young to be aware of charitable giving (he’s two – he doesn’t understand the concept of money beyond “shiny! shiny!”). Your point is spot on, though – this is a way to introduce the concept of charity to a young mind – not a way to cause lifelong resentment by cheating them of toys. It’s all about the presentation. Something to think about.

  4. Nonprofiteer Says:

    It’s not my view that carrying babies in slings condemns parents to hopeless hippy-dippyhood; it’s the view of the New York Times journalist who hoped to make the children-and-charity trend look like something only over-protective over-serious over-privileged parents could or would do. I may be hypersensitive to the manipulation of symbols in journalism–it makes me cringe to see singlet undershirts casually referred to as “wife-beaters”–but because I’m aware of it I can’t help but comment on its occurrence. After all, if I could help commenting I wouldn’t have a blog.

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