Toddler to-get lists

Avery Ender's sixth birthday was celebrated with a "Sunday Morning Slumber Party" at Nest, owned by her mother, Jessica Ender. The mom is a believer in registries. "I have three kids under 6 and I have birthday parties coming out of my ears," she says. A registry reduces the time and effort of shopping.
Avery Ender's sixth birthday was celebrated with a "Sunday Morning Slumber Party" at Nest, owned by her mother, Jessica Ender. The mom is a believer in registries. "I have three kids under 6 and I have birthday parties coming out of my ears," she says. A registry reduces the time and effort of shopping.

Are gift registries for little birthday kids a convenience for harried parents - or inexcusably tacky?

Posted: August 02, 2012

As a mother of two young children, Bay Staley is used to the steady stream of kids' birthday party invitations. But one recent invite left her flabbergasted when the parents of a soon-to-be 2-year-old listed information about their toddler's birthday gift registry at a local toy store.

"It was pretty jaw-dropping to me," said Staley, who blogs about parenting and saving money at queenmotherblog.com. "A birthday party should be about spending time with your friends and having fun - not so much expecting to get gifts. Every part about it just seems wrong."

Despite her misgivings, Staley, who lives in Burlington, and her children attended the party - and took along a Mrs. Potato Head toy complete with accessories that was on the preapproved list of goods, some of which were outside her price comfort zone.

"I don't know why I felt pressure to buy something off the registry when I was so 'eww' about it, but I did," she said.

For decades, wedding and baby shower registries have helped couples establish their homes together and collect the necessaries for a newborn. Now birthday boys and girls can specify their penchant for Disney princesses or Star Wars Legos, creating online "wish lists" at Amazon, Target, or Toys R Us or using free Web services such as Bitzue and TheThingsIWant.com, where they can stuff virtual bags with anything they want from practically any online site and then share these requests electronically with family and friends.

In an age when etiquette experts tell brides to keep registry information off a wedding announcement, it can be jarring to see such a request on a toddler invitation. But now that families are perhaps busier than ever, proponents say kids' registries make shopping faster and more convenient, taking the guessing out of the process for well-intentioned but clueless gift-givers. They also can help make sure kids get what they will actually play with instead of unwanted presents that just add to the clutter or create a hassle for parents who have to return them.

"I have a toddler girl and didn't even know where to start for a gift for a friend with a little boy, so I asked if she had an Amazon wish list," said Sarah Bond, a 30-year-old Ardmore mother of two, who is publisher of Main Line Parent magazine. "It seemed like a practical request, but it completely caught her off-guard."

Bond said she appreciates it when fellow parents share gift registries with her at birthday time. "I'd much rather pick from a clear list of [the child's] preferences and favorite things, which his parents have approved of as well," she said.

Philadelphia-area stores are catching on to this trend.

At Rhinoceros Gamery in Jenkintown, children can walk around and fill a basket with board games, craft kits and all the other toys they would like to receive for their birthday. Kids whose eyes are bigger than their bedrooms are asked to whittle down their list by putting stars or smiley-face stickers next to the items they really want, according to owner Kate Pettit.

She said that moms and dads often cull the list further to pick toys that fit with their homes and parenting styles. The shop sometimes provides business cards for parents to include with the party invitations.

"It just creates a much more pleasant birthday experience," Pettit said. "The children get all the things they wanted so they are very happy, and the parents can control what's coming in."

At Nest, a children's boutique and indoor play space in Center City that hosts birthday parties, gift-givers can call ahead to have an item from a registry ordered, wrapped, and waiting for the birthday child. "You really don't have to do anything," said owner and buyer Jessica Ender.

"I have three kids under 6 and I have birthday parties coming out of my ears," Ender added. "It's a lot of work and time-intensive to go out shopping for all these birthday party gifts, so a registry just makes it a really nice way of doing it."

Public relations consultant and author Paige Wolf, 32, of Center City, created a registry for her son's first birthday at Toys R Us. Wolf, who wrote Spit That Out: The Overly Informed Parent's Guide to RaisingChildren in the Age of Environmental Guilt, said she wanted to direct her friends and family toward more eco-friendly gift choices than the usual plastic commercial toys.

"I wanted to open their eyes that there are cool, fun options out there that are better for the environment, safe, and affordable," she said. "I think registries can be a great idea so kids won't get seven of the same Spider-Man figure or Tonka truck."

Other parents and child development experts aren't so sure, finding birthday registries tacky or presumptuous - and some are downright horrified by the idea of a 7-year-old strolling through a store with a scanner or surfing the Web to create a dream-gift list.

"Can you spell 'entitlement?' " asked Gail Madison, director of the Madison School of Etiquette and Protocol in Huntingdon Valley, who teaches etiquette classes for children and teenagers. "From an etiquette perspective, it's absolutely horrible. Gifts are not ever the reason for entertaining. Birthdays should be about fun and friendship and caring about one another and kindness and not about the price of the gift. It's offensive on so many levels."

Registries also perhaps shelter children from the teaching moment of how to be grateful even when faced with the disappointment of receiving yet another copy of Diary of a Wimpy Kid or an itchy hand-knitted scarf.

Indeed, according to Madison, perhaps the most important gift a parent can give a birthday child is the ability to graciously accept whatever they may be fortunate to receive, no matter what's inside the brightly wrapped package.

"Even if it's a pack of playing cards, handwritten thank-you notes are a must," she said. "If the child can't write yet, the parent writes it and the child signs it."

Including registry information on an invitation is an especially big faux pas, Madison said.

Renowned parenting expert and family physician Deborah Gilboa, founder of askDoctorG.com, said there's no denying that children are excited about the cake and presents at their birthday parties.

"Kids are practical," said Gilboa, a mother of four. "But to tell a child that he can get just what he wants teaches him that stuff equals happiness and stuff equals feeling special. I don't think that is the best lesson."

Birthday gift registries also take away from the joy of gift-giving - choosing a heartfelt present and watching the recipient's happiness as it's opened, said Dorothy Thomas, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Council for Relationships in University City.

"Maybe the child needs a size-10 jacket, but you see a bug box that says you've really thought about this kid," Thomas said. Registries take "the creativity and relational part out of giving a gift."

Thomas said this trend is perhaps symptomatic of our modern need to try to exert control over every aspect of our lives. "The illusion that we can actually control all things can creep even into children's birthday parties," she said. "I do think it's a comment on the busy schedule we all try to keep, and it's especially hard for young parents to sort out what's really meaningful for their kids."

Bond said she understands both sides of the issue and would never share her children's Amazon wish lists with anyone outside of her immediate family who didn't ask for gift inspiration. "It's a very fine line," she said. "Parents generally want to teach their children that birthdays are about friendship and celebrating having these people in your life. It's not about your day to get lots of stuff, stuff, stuff."

Gilboa offers one alternative - asking guests to donate a piece of new or used sports equipment to an afterschool program in need or a canned item to a food pantry in lieu of gifts. She then allows her sons to choose a few close friends who they feel comfortable asking to bring "real" presents instead. "We're happy to let them have a party and invite 30 friends, but they can't get 30 gifts," she said.

For her son's second birthday recently, Wolf used an online service that directed gift money to a favorite nonprofit instead.

"Only one person honored that wish," she said. "You would've thought people would've welcomed the opportunity not to have to run out to get another plastic thing at the store. Really, there is only so much stuff that a 2-year-old needs."

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