When my son Ben was in kindergarten, he was thrilled to receive his first birthday invitation of the year, from his friend Zachary. 'We're going to Pump-It-Up!" he cried, naming the local jumpy-house-hot-spot for the under-10 set.
I was thrilled, too. And then I read the fine print. "Zachary is registered at Toys 'R' Us, where a kid can be a kid!"
And, apparently, where a kid can force his classmates to shop from a pre-approved list of goods, most of which were outside my price comfort zone. Not wanting to break parenting protocol, I grudgingly purchased an item off the registry and smiled tightly when Zachary told Ben it was "just what he wanted." (Quelle surprise.)
While I'd never before heard of registering for your child's birthday, I was behind the parenting curve. Within a matter of months, I saw registries for kids everywhere: at the toy store, at the book store, online… suddenly, it was de rigueur not just to invite people to a party, but to give specific suggestions regarding what people -- your guests -- should bring inside those brightly wrapped packages.
Fast forward five years, and my child receives another unusual (to me at least) invitation. In this case, we were asked to donate money to a fund for underprivileged kids, in lieu of presents. Okay, I'm listening. But here's what got me: 50 percent of the money we donated would go to the charity, with the other half going to the birthday boy. So I was stuck: I didn't know if I should match the birthday money with an equal donation, thereby doubling my typical gift budget, or cut the typical amount in half.
Now, I'm not opposed to registries, per se. I understand the point, particularly for wedding registries. After all, my husband and I were the recipients of numerous duplicates and "unusual" gifts at our own nuptials (including three bread makers and a six-pack of barbecue sauce). There were a few guests we wished had adhered a little more closely to the list at Crate & Barrel, but the gifts were all appreciated, and the gift-givers properly thanked. But something about registering your six-year-old's preferences for Barbie dolls and Lego sets rubs me the wrong way.
I've heard the arguments from the proponents: Gift registries allow kids to get what they really desire, they reduce waste because the presents are actually put to use rather than left fallow at the back of a closet, and they cut down on the hassle (and potentially environmentally unfriendly practice) of having to drive to the store and exchange the unwanted Chutes and Ladders game for something more alluring.
But here's what I don't like. Allowing your kids to dictate what gifts they receive for a birthday, Christmas, or other landmark event smacks me as a tad mercenary, even if (or maybe especially if!) half that money is being donated to a charity not of the gift-giver's selection. Gifts should be given without strings attached on either side, otherwise they're not a gift at all. And by asking flat-out for money, you're basically charging admission to your child's event and asking people to put a dollar value on attending. (We gave Steven $20 for his party, but that was at home. Paul's is at the movies, so maybe we should give him $25?)
Giving your guests a list of approved stores or items also leaves no room for the giver's own creativity or preferences. For instance, I made it a point years ago to give books as gifts whenever possible, and avoid electronic/video games and anything it the word "Bratz" in the title. So I'm left with a dilemma if little Clara's list is full of items that don't make my own personal "To Buy" list. Do I compromise my personal values or disappoint the birthday child?
And that's what it really comes down to. Registries teach children that they deserve to get what they want, all the time. To me, registries seem to be just another way to protect our kids from pain or disappointment of any kind, including the traumatic experience of receiving an unwanted copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. In my ideal world, kids need to learn to be grateful and show appreciation for what they receive, whether it's yet another set of Tinker Toys, an itchy pair of pajamas, or a donation to the National Association for Aquatic Snail Salvation (I made that last one up).
Sure, some presents may be less than thrilling to your child, and that's a good thing. It's an opportunity to show him that the focus of the celebration should be on sharing a fun event with your friends, not on the loot that you rake in. It also gives him a chance to be introduced to new interests and adventures he might not have discovered on his own (the unrequested geode kit from Aunt Sally might spark a new love for geology and rock collecting).
So here's my bottom line: If I'm asked what my birthday child might like for a gift, I'll readily present a few broad categories (books, board games, anything with glitter for my daughter). But I'll also teach my child to say "Thanks" graciously and sincerely, no matter what that beribboned box might hold -- even a six-pack of barbecue sauce.