Tacky or Brilliant? The Birthday Boy Asked for Cash

As far as I can tell, there are two camps when it comes to kids’ birthday party presents. The “Oh, she already has so much stuff, just bring yourself” camp. And the “Why yes, we would love more Spider-Man crap, you can put it on the dining room table” camp.

And, to be honest, both positions are kinda annoying. (We can get into my own complicated relationship with my kids and gifts later, most of which has less to do with a moral high ground than a fear of clutter in my living room.)

But then, I heard from a friend about a third camp. A weird camp. A brilliant camp? You be the judge.

As reported to me, my friend’s daughter was recently invited to a party hosted by a boy in her class. At the bottom of the invitation it read: “In lieu of gifts, please bring a $5 bill. Kyle* will then use this money to pick out one toy he really wants.”

Um, what?

We moms of Brooklyn were stumped. Was this tacky? Genius? A teaching moment? Utter insanity? Let’s break it down.

In my opinion, the pros are clear: It’s better for all parents involved. Kyle’s mom and dad don’t have to do deal with 20 toys they don’t actually want, many of which are duplicates or poorly made or somehow offensive to a person who used to like Ninjago but has now deemed it “for babies.” And the parents of the guests only have to spend $5 (instead of the standard $20) and don’t have to deal with the self-checkout line at Target.

But is it good for the children? On the one hand, I like that it teaches Kyle the lesson of fewer, better things. Instead of nine million garbage, plastic doodads, isn’t it better to put all $100 into a quality Lego set that will actually be appreciated? And it hammers home the idea that nice stuff costs money and one must be held accountable for one’s spending. (If Kyle has to commit to one purchase, it better be good.)

On the other hand, I can’t really see any redeeming value for the kids who show up to the party, $5 bill in hand. For them, it’s about commodification without any discernible reward. When you take your child to shop for a birthday present, she gets to pick it out, to see the exchange of money and ultimately to wrap and give it to the recipient. (Yes, this still counts if you buy it on Amazon and wrap it while driving to Chuck E. Cheese.) But when you distill gifting down to nothing but cold, hard cash, you teach kids not only that money is the endgame, but also that their creativity or kooky-ass generosity can’t be trusted. I’m reminded of the time my son insisted on buying me giant, gold clip-on earrings for my birthday, or the time a neighborhood child got my daughter Paw Patrol Band-Aids (which she loved!). I wouldn’t have traded these presents for the world.

I would also argue that part of life is getting stuff you don’t want. You open the Hanukkah present from Aunt Rachel. You inspect the hand-knit sweater vest that you would never, in one million years, wear outside of a Halloween party. And you thank her, with a big smile on your face and genuine appreciation for her thoughtfulness and time. Will Kyle learn to do this? Or will he be a…dick?

Clearly, as somebody who has re-gifted presents my children opened and played with, I am not one to judge. And clearly there are opportunities to turn our kids into dicks at just about every turn. But one thing’s for sure: Nobody needs a fiver for our next birthday party.

*I don’t know his real name, but Kyle just felt right.