(This story first appeared in the Mail Tribune Sept. 11, 2003)
Years ago, they were simple paper sacks filled with inexpensive candy and stickers. But today's birthday party goody bags - those containers full of stuff kids regularly tote home from others' celebrations - often are much more. Parents sometimes fill the bags with specialty toys, gift certificates or personalized keepsakes that end up costing more than gifts for the birthday child. For some, it's all part of the fun; for others, the trend toward big is definitely not better. Count Medford resident Melody McNeil among the latter. She recalled a party attended by one of her three daughters, now 15, 22 and 26, at which a group of teen girls was treated to highlighted hair at a beauty salon and, for goody bags, designer backpacks loaded with hair supplies. McNeil, who acknowledged she has given in to the "goody bag requirement," though on a much smaller scale, called the practice more of a status symbol for parents than something kids will remember for long-term. "It's ridiculous," she said. "I think it's a competition for the parents. They see someone else doing it and they think, 'Well, she went to so and so's party and this is what they did so I need to do something equal or better. I think it's a keeping up with the Joneses kind of thing. I'm glad my daughters are beyond that phase." McNeil isn't alone in questioning whether bigger is better when it comes to goody bags. "Parents say they do these things for their children, but they're really doing them for themselves ... to be competitive with other parents," said Janet Bodnar, executive editor of Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine and author of "Dollars & Sense for Kids: What They Need to Know About Money - And How to Tell Them." "They say the kids expect it, and there's nothing they can do about it," Bodnar says. "But the parents are the ones who got on the treadmill." Coleen Towne, owner of Gotta Party in Medford, said she has seen parents spend less than a dollar per bag to $20 or more on party giveaways. "Theme birthdays are really big, and parents will try to get as many accessories to go along with that theme as are available or are within their budget," she said. "Some really go all out." Although the goody bag concept has been around for decades, Towne said, parents are spending more today - maybe because they have less time for "homemade" party favors or because of an increase in themed parties tied to popular and expensive characters. Central Point mother Leah Landis admitted she has been among the big spenders. "I definitely, always, go way overboard on the goody bags. All the other parents are like, 'When's your next party?' " said Landis with a laugh. "I just want the kids to have fun, and I want them to enjoy my parties ... to have a token of the party to take home." Landis said it's been easy to get carried away with parties for her 2- and 5-year-olds, Gracie and Parker. Princess parties require dolls or jewelry, for example, while a recent pirate party called for swords, hats, sashes and tattoos before the word goody was even uttered. "I'll usually go buy them four or five little items, like games or treats. It's probably as much as kids would pay for the presents the bring ... or usually more, " Landis said. "But then again, I feel like I'm creating this great memory for my kids. And of course all the kids want to come to my parties."
While the possibilities are truly endless for goodies to stuff inside a birthday party bag, kids are perfectly happy with even the simplest of treats, said Maryl Cipperly of the Party Place in Medford. She offered these tips for keeping things simple:
- Avoid buying plastic, character-printed baggies by providing light-colored paper bags and art supplies for guests to decorate their own.
- Pick up bottles of bubbles "off season," usually priced three or four for a dollar or less, and stash away for the party.
- Buy candy in bulk at the grocery store rather than individual candy bars or gourmet sweets.
- Check discount, dollar and specialty party stores for sale and clearance specials on items such as whistles, bead necklaces, balloons and art supplies.
- Let kids have fun making their own treats to take home. Set up a station at the party for painting a card-sized picture, making something to eat or creating a bracelet or necklace to wear home.