This will tell you a lot about how my brain works (as in obsesses over trivialities): the one thing I worried about when I decided to buy nothing new for the year 2008 was birthdays. Not those of my own family members—I knew I could cover them with homemade and found items (including a few intended Christmas presents that came in the mail after that date)—but other kids’ birthdays.
I have a few friends who have kids M’s age, who also share my environmental values and are also fed up with the amount of stuff their kids have. For those birthdays, I know I can create something that will make both me and the other moms feel good, and hopefully make the kids happy too. Last year two of these kids had birthdays within a week of each other, and I pulled a couple of late nights whipping up drawstring backpacks out of nature-themed material. M decoupaged small sketch books with wildlife pictures cut out of magazines. We added a field guide and a set of colored pencils to each and voila—nature backpacks. As I suspected, the moms loved them, and I was relieved to find out later that while they didn’t produce the thrill upon opening that the big, flashy toys did, the kids enjoyed using them later.
But with kids from M’s class, whose parents I don’t know, I can’t really count on a positive response to non-commercial gifts. At least two of the birthday parties M went to last year M gave the kids the first set of Legos either of them (at age six!) had ever received. All of their other presents were battery-powered and remote-controlled things. Now M has several remote control vehicles (gifts from his uncle), which he takes out to play with maybe once a month. The batteries usually burn out in a matter of minutes, he has to fight with his brothers to keep them away from them and some of them are clearly designed for adults or much older kids and are too complicated for M to dismantle and assemble to change engine components. Did I mention they require zero imagination or creativity? I can’t imagine a nature backpack would go over big in these households.
I had a test of my non-consumer mettle this past weekend, as the birthday party of M’s good buddy from school approached. At first M wanted to get him copy of The Dangerous Book for Boys, which costs more than I usually spend on birthday presents, but M worked out a deal where he would pay half and his dad would pay the other half, thus exempting me from having to figure out a solution to this problem. But as the day approached, M became reluctant to spend $14 of his own money and suggested we get him Legos. I hesitantly offered to make another nature backpack, but M said, "No, C____ only likes cool things." I tried to worm my way out by proposing that C take M to the store Saturday morning before the party to buy the gift, but C pointed out that since we were home Friday anyway (another snow day), I should go get it. I wavered a moment and then resolved to stick to my guns.
Taking a page from No Impact Man’s book, I suggested we give the child the gift of an experience. I gave M the choice between a gift card to either the movie theater or a bowling alley. It could be argued that movies are about as commercial as you can get, and the nearby movie theater is part of a big chain, while the bowling alleys are local businesses, and at least bowling is exercise. But I knew for sure the movie theater had gift cards, but I wasn’t so sure about the bowling alleys. M chose the movies. We drove up to consumer hill after a morning at the Children’s museum. The theater offered cards for $10 or $25. We bought two $10 cards, giving the kid the option of treating his family to a movie or taking a swim in a huge vat of popcorn. C, who took M to the party, reported that the kid was excited for the movie cards (an additional environmental benefit is they required only a tiny square of wrapping paper), so now I can relax…until the next birthday party.