Happy Birthday – a Conservation Microcosm

A recent segment on Colorado Public Radio (http://www.cpr.org/news/story/9-year-old-girl-birthdays-are-about-saving-wild-animals ) captured my attention. It was about a little girl who, for the past 3 years, urged friends coming to her birthday parties to donate money to an animal shelter rather than bring presents. The story revived my fascination in the phenomenon of birthday parties as a reflection of the state of conservation in the United States. During the past 2-3 decades, the hyper-consumptiveness of our society as a whole has been mirrored by the trends of birthday parties. But, at the small scale of a party – as opposed to the abstract whole of society – we can more clearly see the impacts, stresses and struggles that come with ever-increasing consumption. With fresh insights, I revived and slightly adapted the following essay.


Smiling faces, the look of excitement as a present is opened, a celebration of the most recent trip around the sun. Birthdays are happy occasions, and most people have pleasant memories of the parties – our own and others’ – that marked these special days. Birthday parties, especially for children, were traditionally among the purest and most sincere of celebrations. Recently, though, I’ve had numerous conversations with people about the changing nature of these joyous gatherings. Mothers of young children in particular, have expressed anxiety, tension and peer pressure like nothing they’ve experienced since high school because of these trends.


If you are 30 or older (40 or older, as of this slightly updated essay), you probably remember birthday parties as relatively uncomplicated affairs. Until recently, most kids had only 2 or 3 “big” birthday parties – those involving more than the family and a few close friends. Most parties involved a cake, some games (pin the tail on the donkey or a pinata, for instance) and a lot of just “hanging out.” Presents, of course, were a big part of these special occasions, but, overall, there was a qualitative and quantitative difference between gifts of those bygone days and what we see today.


Enter the era of yearly birthday parties for every child at big-box venues, with big box party favors, big-box presents and big decorations befitting a presidential inaugural – all couched in a competitive context that demands bigger and better every year! It’s a different world. Some are happy with it; some are not. The aforementioned mothers – and others – lament the undue stress, cost and consumptiveness of modern parties and are nagged by the thought that it’s just getting worse. A pleasant labor of love has become laborious, and simple goodness is often a casualty of “show me the goods.” So I started looking into this a bit more. I talked with some friends and relatives with kids and consulted the internet to explore the big, bad world of children’s birthday parties.


At first, it seemed strange to me that a large number of people continue to participate in and even host parties that gives them the “hebee gebees,” (a word that, in fact, arose during my extensive heart-to-hearts). But, then, I realized that birthday parties were just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Many other traditional celebrations have gotten rather carried away lately as well. Hallmark events such as Mothers Day and Valentines Day (a friend of mine calls it “Valloween!) and Halloween, for that matter! Easter and Thanksgiving! Let’s not even get started on high school proms and Christmas!


In the 1990s – just as “big birthdays” were taking off, I heard an advertisement on a Washington D.C.-area radio station that promoted big, luxurious homes, appealing to a mother’s wish to gain some control and peace in her life. A boisterous birthday party was in progress, and a child shrieked: “I want my cake now!” The word “now” was uttered with guttural savageness – enough to drive even the strongest mother to seek relief wherever she might find it – the bottle, a vacation or perhaps a big house. Birthday parties, it seems, have become intertwined with and reflective of the value placed on “more, more, more” in many areas of life.


Even in this context, though, why do we participate in and enable these “parties on steroids” even when they become stressful, unenjoyable, costly and wasteful? Is the pressure to “keep up with Joneses” that powerful? Perhaps, but there are other reasons as well, and one is certainly that some people and companies stand to gain as excesses become new norms.


One day, shortly after having been first made aware of the problem of high-stress birthdays, I observed a bunch of kids leaving a birthday party. They emerged with large, decorated bags that made me wonder if they were taking back the presents they had brought. This was my first introduction to “party favor mania.” Most of these party favors were of the plastic variety made in China. Upon learning that this was now becoming the norm for birthday parties across the country, I had a vision of great fleets of freighters crossing the Pacific, laden with plastic soldiers, snakes, Barbies, kazoos and all manner of other miscellanea. This was followed closely by the vision of a land-fill brimming with plastic junk (for that is where most of the party favors soon end up)!


Lest you think this plastic toy operation is of little consequence, do a quick Google-search using key words – “toys, plastic, birthday, China” – and see what comes up!   About 80% of all toys bought in the U.S. are made in China. The economy of many cities in China is primarily centered around plastic toys shipped to the U.S. Just one of these cities – Shantou – exports $400 million worth of toys to the U.S. annually!


It is not much of a stretch to see the progression of consequences. The production and trans-pacific shipment of large amounts of plastic toys takes large amounts of petroleum. The transformation and burning of this petroleum produces huge amounts of toxics, particulates and greenhouse gasses. The cheap plastic toys contribute to our trade deficit with China and to our landfills and are more than just a symbolic stress on the health of our planet. Modern birthday parties are truly a global force!


What if we were to do without the party favors and – for that matter – vastly reduce the expectations for presents and decorations that also end up on the shelf or junk pile? If this were the accepted social norm (and I don’t think most parents would be fundamentally opposed to it) we’d probably be less stressed, save quite a bit of money, promote moderation, and be able to enjoy each other’s company more. We’d reduce pollution and even world conflicts over oil. We’d do our part to lessen the load on landfills. We’d help reduce the trade deficit! Think of it! And, if we had any guilt associated with depriving foreign workers, we could send a check for half the amount we would have spent on party favors directly to the charity or company of our choice in that country!


Has this argument gotten carried away . . . or not? If we stop to consider the birthday party as a microcosm of our society in America in the early 21st Century, we might see that much of our stress and toil is a result of escalating social norms of consumption and draws on our time. Whenever we feel compelled to commit significantly more resources than what served us just fine a year ago, let alone in our parent’s generation, we are participating in this escalation. If we feel overly stressed and hurried by things that should be bringing us joy, perhaps we are playing the “party-favor game.” If material excesses that have sprung up in just the past few decades have replaced perennial, traditional joys of human life, where have they gotten us? To the extent that the bigger and better things of life stress us out, perhaps we can start to turn things around with a good, old fashioned birthday party. Let’s do ourselves a party favor and give ourselves a rest.




I’ve spoken with a few folks about this essay as I’ve prepared to put it up on my website and had some very thoughtful and like-minded conversations. One friend shared with me some of her own ideas for presents that I find compelling and worth ending with:


“For my daughter, we had a party at my community garden and each year [she] would plant stuff for her party.  One year she planted corn and we had a “corn fest” where the kids cold actually pick their own corn and we cooked it right there using a camp stove.  They were thrilled. One year we set up a slip and slide.   Another year we had a watermelon seed spitting contest and the prize was a package of bubble gum, but the kids really got into it.  For gifts, when she was one year old, I asked people to write her a letter to be opened when she was 21.  Another time there was a prize for the kid who brought the smallest gift.  A very tiny seashell won the game.  As a “party favor” the kids got the pull carrots from the ground and take home a bunch of flowers in the their empty juice box – fun was had by all, including parents.

For Christmas each year, we have a family tradition called “Nothing new under the tree” and you need to give handmade or used gifts to each other.  The kids get plenty of stuff anyway, and the thrill of really not having any idea of what is in the box adds to the fun and sharing.  When they were little I just said “Santa knows about our tradition and if he has the gift you want as a used item, you will get it.”  Not always easy finding a used whatever, but we I made it work.  Now as adults, they really enjoy this part of the holiday, especially when they are short on cash.”