We’ve actually turned down party invites in the past because they hit at times when we’d had to cover a major, unexpected expense and were feeling too strapped to cover any extras.
While more and more folks are employing the “No gifts, please” approach these days (thank you, thank you!!), plenty still go it the old-fashioned way.
Why? Because kids love getting stuff. Stuff wrapped in sparkly paper. Stuff tied in fancy bows.
No matter what plastic crap made in China is waiting inside.
And I can’t say I hold it against them!
Toys are the tools of a child’s trade, after all, and that trade is growing up. Sure, every kid can jam with an empty cardboard box or a roll of Scotch tape, and they grow up just fine. But only so many hours pass before the cardboard gets shredded or they’ve taped their eyelids shut and now they’re crying.
Besides, pressing buttons, painting pictures, banging on drums, pulling cords, zooming cars and spinning tops is how kids learn, develop and grow*.
(*At least that’s what our privileged culture in modern-day America tells us. The Reductionist is painfully aware that this entire post smacks of privilege and that children raised in other cultures grow up just fine with almost nothing. For a fascinating exploration of kids from around the world posing with their toys, check out this photo album from The Guardian).
My son Leo turned five this weekend, so it was our family’s turn to burden other parents with the dreaded birthday invite. It was his dream to have a ‘science experiment party,’ where a small cohort of close friends would help him celebrate.
There would be cake, pizza, balloons, beer for the grownups, and baking soda and vinegar for making potions, of course.
But, months ago, Leo laid down one hard-and-fast rule for how this shebang was gonna go.
“I want a gift party this year, Mom,” he announced firmly. After all, he’d watched his big sister have her long-awaited gift party when she’d turned five, and then again at six.
(*6/29/18 Correction: I totes forgot we let Teagan have a gift party when she turned 4, too. Forgive me! Poor Leo's gotten the shaft this whole time. Dang.)
Until now, our kids haven’t had traditional “gift parties,” not with friends, anyway. Aunts, uncles, and grandparents are always incredibly generous with gifts for all seasons, but anytime we’ve invited friends to celebrate the kids’ birthdays, we’ve stuck to the “your presence is your present” motif.
Generally these parties have gone okay, but we realized over time that some people were weirded out by them. They hit up Target anyway for “something small” like a dollar-bin puzzle or a keychain that broke within a day, because showing up empty-handed didn’t compute.
One person actually stuffed a twenty-dollar-bill into a card because she just couldn’t stomach bringing nothing to a little child on his birthday.
Until they’re mature enough to fully understand why we do the no-gift party in the first place, going totally giftless just isn’t gonna fly.
So I found myself in a conundrum. We’re Reductionists. We don’t like to accumulate stuff, even though we are already swimming in plenty of it. My kids have everything they could possibly need, and more.
And yet, Leo was feeling deprived of something lots of other kids get to have. Of course I wanted him to finally experience that special feeling of being honored. If that had to be achieved with stuff, I would make it my mission to find a creative solution that wouldn’t require gross consumerism.
Given that this was a “science experiment party,” I decided to conduct a little experiment of my own. I called it an Experiment in Disrupting Social Constructs and stuck a special note to parents in the Evite.
“While we'd prefer to continue the no-gift tradition, Leo would be over the moon to see things wrapped up in festive paper all for him. So, may I suggest if you could kindly grab a random toy or book from your house that your kid has lost interest in & is ready to part with (especially if it has to do with construction, science or music!) and toss it in a gift bag or colorful wrapping paper? It's a win/win for all: you get to offload a lonely old toy without spending a dime; Leo gets a new-to-him gift; everyone goes home happy! If this turns out to be more frustrating than it's worth, just bring yourselves and don't worry 'bout a thing:) Thanks for humoring us!”
That’s right. I asked parents to regift an old toy and give it to my kid.
And no, Leo has no idea this went down. Are you crazy?! I’ll tell him when he’s older!
So, what happened?
Parents accepted the challenge with gusto. Their kids learned to negotiate. They experienced the selfless act of parting with something they no longer needed. One friend who’s moving found a new home for wonderful art supplies that she didn’t want to take with her to her new place.
One family went a different route with their gift, which was still modest but altogether awesome in its thoughtfulness. They assembled a whole bunch of ingredients for conducting DIY science experiments (think Pepsi and Mentos explosions; turning pennies green with vinegar!).
A couple of kids weren’t satisfied with regifting old toys—it didn’t quite register with their idea of what a birthday is supposed to be—so they insisted their parents make a special trip to the toy store anyway, which was lovely, too: I’m just thrilled to know those parents got to exercise their own free will; glad it was up to them to define the limits of their generosity, rather than us imposing ours on them.
And while I’m not a proponent of material displays of love—they’re not the real kind of love, obviously—I’m grateful we could make this happen for my five-year-old without anyone having to break the bank.
Soon Leo will tire of these toys, just like he does the rest, and we’ll send them on down to the Goodwill store, just like we always do, for the next kid to enjoy.
How do you scale back when it comes to gift-giving? I'd love to hear! Fire away in the comments below or shoot me an email!
Update as of 9/22/18: Last weekend we attended a kids' birthday party where WE were asked to bring a reused gift instead of a store-bought one! I love that the trend is spreading. Even cooler? My kids had a BLAST choosing the absolute right item for their friend: they were careful, thoughtful, held their toys and considered each one's pluses and minuses, weighing them against the kinds of toys they know their friend enjoys playing with and what he already has. They were SO excited to bequeath their beloved items and present them to their buddy, and they were seriously totally okay with not keeping them for themselves anymore. This was a wonderful experience and I'm so glad I got to be a part of it from the opposite--giving--end!
Update as of 3/25/19: I've switched to ScotchBrite greener cleaner sponges, made of 50% agave fiber and 23% recycled materials.
Cut, Mic, Wipe: The Reductionist’s 3-Step Hack That Makes Kitchen Cleanup a Breeze
STEP 1: CUT
You wouldn’t think washing dishes would present a challenge for people like me and the leader of the free world. But as a small-handed individual, I’ve always felt that standard-sized sponges were a bit…unwieldy.
Now, I don't know how The Donald washes his dishes (baahhhh!!), but a few years ago, I started cutting my sponges in half. It allows me the full grip I need to really scrub filthy pots and pans with gusto.
Plus, it saves me money because I buy sponges less often.
As a Reductionist, however, I have concerns about the makeup of these sponges. According to Hunker.com, “Most of today's artificial sponges are made of a combination of wood pulp – or cellulose – hemp fibers, sodium sulphate crystals and topped off with chemical softeners.”
Wood pulp is gathered from cuttings made by other manufacturing activities, so there aren’t millions of acres of rain forests being chopped down to make sponges (I bloody well hope).
The ‘chemical softeners’ refer generally to a compound called sodium hydroxide (NaOH), which is a blend of lye and caustic soda. Sources tell me the caustic-y part evaporates by the time I’m scrubbing my pots, but I’m still a little skeptical.
The part I’m more deeply conflicted over is that I love the scouring pad half of my sponge. It’s just that it happens to be glued onto the soft side using a polyurethane adhesive.
Experts over at The Green Guide.com have this to say about polyurethane:
“Scientists found isocyanates, a compound that can bring potential harm to one’s lungs, in materials made up of polyurethane. Exposure to the said product can cause lung irritation and asthma attacks. Furthermore, it can also irritate skin and cause difficulty in breathing when lung infections develop. People with migraine and other related body issues should keep at bay from polyurethane fumes because it can swell brain cells that bring about severe head pain. Meanwhile, pregnant women, elderly and sick and young children should never be exposed to polyurethane fumes because it could cause coughs and colds, wheezing, and other symptoms that are related to asthma. Workers who are frequently exposed to polyurethane fumes experience several health disorders including unsettled stomach, vomiting, and dizziness.”
While the amount is small—it’s not like we’re sealing a deck here—I still let these sponges air out before using them someplace where my kids and I aren’t hanging around.
An alternative, which I’ve not yet tried, could be a so called natural sea sponge, or one made from silicone or cellulose. All allege to be “eco-friendly,” “green,” and “non-toxic.” Either way, I want them to be low-cost, natural solutions to meet my cost+eco requirement.
In the meantime, I admit I’m set in my ways and accustomed to my routine with the synthetic cheap-o sponges from Target.
Now, after I’ve used one for about a week, it starts to get funky. Especially if I’ve washed anything that’s come into contact with raw meat.
According to microbiologist and professor at University of Arizona, Dr. Charles Gerba, interviewed by Today.com, "The kitchen sponge is wet and moist, always soaking up coliform bacteria. It's like bacterial heaven."
That doctor also recommends not using your sponge to wipe down countertops and tables. I concur. The Today article suggests, instead, using paper towels and some cleanser or store-bought wipes for that.
The Reductionist, on the other hand, prefers using my special home-made, DIY antibacterial wipes. Get the recipe here!
Now, why the vinegar?
You may have heard some critics squabbling over whether vinegar alone, while it possesses antimicrobial properties, is actually strong enough to kill nasty germs.
I checked with the latest research to settle the debate, and once again science proves that, yes, in fact, vinegar, does kill bacteria. Even flu germs!
Now, I’m no expert, and I haven’t run a black light over one of my small, microwaved sponges to check for residual bacteria, but I take the extra step of boiling in vinegar to make sure I’m sanitizing effectively.
The germ doctor I mentioned above suggests microwaving your sponge every single day.
And of course, sometimes you just hafta throw that nasty thing out!
I think back to my college years, circa ‘95, when the guys in the apartment downstairs just threw their microwave out at the end of the school year because it was so caked in schmutz. If only they’d known this trick…
I'm Janeen; writer, mother, wife, and full-time, radical Reductionist. I share stupid-easy tips on how to save money while reducing your impact on the environment, & I'm committed to helping others live a life of simple sustainability.
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