Death to the goodie bag: Why these moms are pushing back against the pressure to give kids party favors

Party bags have become a mainstay of children's birthday bashes — but is it OK to push back? (Credit: Getty Images; illustrated by Joseph Riccobono)
Party bags have become a mainstay of children's birthday bashes — but is it OK to push back? (Credit: Getty Images; illustrated by Joseph Riccobono)

For more than a decade I have been entrenched in kid birthday party culture, sometimes attending three birthday parties in a single weekend. Without fail, my kids come home with a bag full of mostly plastic trinkets I know will wind up in the landfill.

Often my children excitedly tear through their goodie bags in the car, leaving their treasure forgotten in the backseat until I throw it away a few days later. Trinkets they find more interesting make it into the living room, adding to the general clutter of life, before breaking or being forgotten a day or two later and promptly tossed in the trash.

I've always felt guilty about throwing these toys away after just a few days. I know how bad they are for the environment and I know a fellow parent spent their limited time and money on these goodies in an attempt to make my child happy. Yet, I don’t feel as thoughI have a choice given that my kids are usually not interested in playing with goodie bag favors for more than a few minutes and they are normally of such poor quality that I wouldn’t donate them, just to make another child disappointed.

Finally, I had enough. I couldn’t control what other parents did, but I decided that I no longer had to participate in goodie bag culture. Planning birthday parties that require keeping a dozen or more young children safe, happy and busy is already time-consuming and expensive. I decided that layering goodie bags on top of everything I was already doing was not worth the effort. Plus, I reasoned, I was already giving our small guests a great party complete with pizza, cake and non-stop entertainment. Was I really under an obligation to send them home with gifts, too?

When it came time to host a 6th birthday party for my son, I decided that I was going to go against convention and not send the children home with goodie bags. I told my son that the party was the present we were giving to his friends. At first, he protested, but after I gave the rundown of all the activities I had planned and assured him that we would still have plenty of cake, he agreed.

The party was great and when it was time for the kids to leave, several asked me where their goodie bags were. I told them that the wooden figures they had painted at the party were their goodies and that they could also take home the figures that came on top of their cupcake. None of them cared. One literally shrugged his shoulders and walked away, completely unbothered by what I thought would be a bombshell announcement that there would be no goodie bag.

Before leaving with her child, one parent sheepishly asked me if I had forgotten to give her son a goodie bag. “I didn’t forget,” I told her. “I decided to opt out of giving goodie bags.” Her face registered surprise before she whispered conspiratorially, “I didn’t know that was an option.” I hoped I would spark a widespread revolt against goodie bags among my children’s peers.

While that didn’t happen and goodie bags are still a huge part of kiddie culture, I am far from the only one who has canceled them. “I hate them," Katie Carrick, whose children are 6, 4 and 11 months, says. "What's the point? It's usually just more ‘stuff’ that my kids are going to fight over for no reason, throw away after it almost instantaneously breaks or I will have to throw away because they are littered throughout my house and car. Could we all just … not?”

Some parents are anti-goodie bag because they believe that giving gifts to guests takes the focus away from the birthday child. Mother of five Melina Bricker says that birthday parties are to “celebrate someone's life, their growth … showing them they are special in a world of many, many people,” adding that this is particularly hard in large families. Giving gifts to others may diminish celebrating the guest of honor. Plus, says Bricker, “I do not ever want my kids to arrive at an event, home or celebration with an expectation of being given gifts. I love the idea that they give to someone on their day, and do not think about what they may get in return.”

Rachel Zients Schinderman, whose children are 12 and 16, agrees. Schinderman says she never expects a goodie bag when her children go to parties and decided not to give them out either. “They are already being hosted and going to a fun party," she says. "They don’t need to expect to be given something as guests."

The cost of giving goodie bags is also a concern for many families. Bricker says that giving out goodie bags “sets an unfair precedent for families that are already trying to afford the birthday party. Even if it's little things, it adds up fast.” While Bricker doesn’t think that anyone has to “live our lives to the economic limitations of other families,” she does think that more affluent families should think about the expectations they are creating for other families who may struggle to afford hosting birthday parties without the added expense of a goodie bag.

Kate Bollinger, whose children are 12, 10 and 6, wonders if goodie bags are really for the kids. “Goodie bags seem designed … to impress the other parents,” she says, noting that there is often “one-upmanship” when it comes to the contents of goodie bags. She adds that kids are perfectly capable of having a good time without new trinkets. “I think goodie bags show a lack of confidence in kids to enjoy time together without new stuff. In my experience, what kids want at birthday parties is to eat cake and run around like a pack of feral chickens.” When it comes to her own children, she notes that they don’t “treasure” anything they have ever gotten in a goodie bag and often never even use many of the items placed in goodie bags. “They do, however, remember how much fun they had running around on a sugar high at the party” she says.

Among the families who have ditched the goodie bag, some still send their small guests home with something from the party. Leah Charney, whose son is 6, says instead of toys she gives out items that are edible, and avoids candy. She says that “many of our friends struggle with food when school isn't in session” so she gives out items like shelf-stable milk, fig bars, juice boxes, fruit and trail mix. Charney says she sometimes adds a small, consumable toy like bubbles but that she tries to only give “things we would actually want to receive.” Charney notes that even her friends who don’t face food insecurity “are happier without more plastic BS.”

Schinderman, says that although she “hate[s] goodie bags” she is “pro gifting the kids something … just not tiny little never-to-be-seen-or-used-again stuff.” Instead, when her children were younger, she gave their friends something that they could play with during the party. For example, when she hosted a Star Wars-themed party, all the kids got lightsabers. For a train-themed party, all the kids got conductor hats. This approach “can add to the fun of the party,” Schinderman says, adding that she enjoyed watching the children play with these items rather than just grabbing them on their way out the door.

Camille-Yvette Welsch, whose children are 12 and 9, plans activities that involve something her guests can take home. One year party guests made a bubble painting and took the painting home. Another year she organized a rubber duck race. Kids competed to catch the rubber ducks and could take one home. According to Welsch, this way kids leave with “both a memento of the party as well as an active part of the party.” Welsh adds that another benefit is that she doesn’t “have to do two damned things — come up with activities and stuff to take home. It is a one bundle event.”

Sarah Netter, whose son is 9, says she can’t give up the goodie bag because she doesn’t want to disappoint her son and his friends, who all expect goodie bags. “But I try to make it useful or edible,” she adds. Netter’s goodie bags have included chalk, bubbles and Oreos.

Most parents who are anti-goodie bags know that the parents who give them mean well. “I get that it's a gesture of thanks for attending the party, and usually providing a gift for the kid being celebrated, but I don't need, nor do I want, a goodie bag,” says Carrick.

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