I guess I forgot to mention in my post the other day that in addition to two family birthdays, a long-lost friend, and a college reunion last week, my kids’ have two birthday parties to attend this weekend. One on Saturday and one on Sunday. Brrr. The first week of February must be bitterly cold, eh?
So … while I’ve found a way to rise above consumerism on an adult level–replacing gifts with quality time and good conversation–we’re still not quite there at the child level. Let’s be honest. Show me a five-year-old American that doesn’t expect a material gift to open at his or her birthday party. Even though I’ve replaced the large majority of my children’s gifts with experiences and adventures, we’re still in a place where we buy gifts for our preschool friends. I’m OK with that. I’m not Hitler.
But then, we had this shopping experience today. I took my kids to the toy store. The invitation had a picture of LEGO land on it, so we interpreted that to mean that this friend might love LEGOs. I took my kids to the LEGO section and told them to take a good look and find the very best LEGO set they could find for their friend. My kids are too young to assign a price range, but in general, I pointed them to the three bottom shelves that seemed to have LEGO kits in the birthday party price range. The set my son picked was pretty cool … knights with swords and shields riding on a lego horse. He knows his friend loves to play knights and princesses, so it appeared to be the perfect fit. My son has no concept of price yet, so price was no object. He just knew that his buddy would love this theme.
Then, as we were standing at the check-out counter, my son grew quiet and disconnected. I asked what was wrong and he said nothing–he was just thinking something crazy. After ten minutes of prying his feelings out of his tightly-guarded heart, he finally told me what was troubling him. The package didn’t look very big once it was wrapped. What if his friend didn’t like the gift? What if he thought it was silly?
The old me would have turned around and bought two more LEGO sets to accompany this one, just to ensure that his friend had something he loved in the mix. But the new me reasoned that I had left my children alone in the LEGO section, completely uninfluenced, and this is what he had chosen for his friend. Gut instinct. And, because I am intimately familiar with the overwhelming abundance of gifts at a five-year-old’s birthday party, I was confident that our gift would not be too harshly judged in the mad rush to rip open every present.
Instead, I recognized this as a “teachable moment,” and assured my son that he chose the very best gift for his friend. And that his friend would be so happy that we were at his birthday party that the gift was an insignificant side effect of having a party. Then, we went home and designed homemade birthday cards with stickers hand-picked for this spectacular event. In the end, it all worked out beautifully. I think. My ears are still ringing from the noise of ~50 people and children around the single dining room table.
What I realized today, is that sometimes we project our own insecurities on our friends. Sometimes our fear of failure and desire for acceptance impacts our purchasing behaviors in costly ways. And in that moment, we are not actually thinking about our friends–the recipients of our gifts–at all. Instead, we’re shopping to protect ourselves.
Have you been there?