Who dares to ditch the party bag?
That plastic bag of 'goodies', the party bag, has become a fixture at children's birthdays, but some mums think that they're unnecessary and a waste of time
Published 11/04/2011 | 05:00
Children's birthday parties bother me slightly. Oh, who am I kidding, they bother me a lot. We've celebrated eight birthdays in our family in total and I can't help feeling that I'm a bit rubbish at them.
Well, apart from the cake, which is always homemade and always produced with a bit of a 'ta-daa' -- Spider-Man, pirate's treasure chest, clown -- you name it, I'll bake it. But the rest of it I find a bit, well, unsavoury.
Maybe I have a very rose-tinted view of my own childhood, which is filled with fond memories of a tartan rug on the lawn, a jug of Ribena, some cocktail sausages and a few rounds of pass the parcel. Generally, everyone went home happy with their slice of cake wrapped up in a serviette and that was that for another year.
Parties were simple and exciting; fun without being excessive.
Fast forward several decades and I'm planning parties for my own children which are unrecognisable from those of my youth. Parties of the 21st century are significantly bigger, brighter and bouncier with small semi-d gardens sprouting inflatable castles overnight.
Then someone came up with the concept of the party bag. Why, oh why? I break out in a sweat just thinking about them.
"The whole party thing became very symptomatic of the Celtic Tiger," says Alison Wells, writer and mum to four children aged between three and 10 years.
"We all got caught up in the mania and parties became a far cry from the jelly, custard and sandwiches that we knew as children.
"Party bags became part of this accepted norm, so children began to expect a party bag when they were leaving a party."
For the uninitiated, party bags are a small, plastic bag (usually covered with a picture of a superhero or a Disney princess) which contain several 'novelty' toy items and chocolates or sweets. These are given to the birthday boy or girl's guests as they leave the party.
The concept of the party bag has even extended beyond the birthday and into some christening and communion celebrations.
With a bit of savvy shopping, most resourceful parents could fill a party bag with plenty of crowd-pleasing bits and bobs for a few euro. Alison Wells tries to keep the cost to one or two euro per guest.
"Two of the birthdays in my house are in November, so I often use sweets from Halloween in the bags."
Hmmm, clever. Isn't that what they call 're-gifting'? Maybe the idea could be extended to find a home for all those Christmas cracker novelties.
But costs can escalate. If you bought 20 filled party boxes from a party planning website, you'd be looking at a cost of around €60 before you've even written the invitations.
And that's just for one child; many households have two or more children.
However, the real problem most parents have is the principle of the thing: the fact that they are expected.
So, we have the conversation in the car on the way to the party. "Now remember. You are NOT to ask for a party bag. OK? Do you understand? Not to ask."
They're so going to ask.
Mum-of-four Sheila McWilliams has experienced her fair share of 'party bag syndrome'.
"My children attended a combined total of around 15 parties in the last year. I still have to give the warning about not to ask for a bag, but it falls on deaf ears."
Anxious parents the breadth of the country experience this terror every weekend as they bring the party to a close and wonder whether their selection of a lolly, bubbles and crisps is exciting enough.
Will my kid's friends think he's a total loser if there isn't anything electronic in there? Will the other parents realise that everything is from Penneys? And God help the party host who forgets someone.
But after all is said and grabbed at, does it really matter what's in the party bag?
"I do separate bags for boys and girls, but not personalised ones," says Sheila. "I found it too hard at the end of the party, when there are loads leaving at the same time, to find the right bag for the right child. That's the last thing you want to be hassling yourself with.
"I don't think it matters what's actually in the bag," she continues. "Party bags have definitely become less extravagant; as long as it's there at the end of the party, most kids are happy."
At the end of a party where all manner of sugar-infested treats have been inhaled, do the children really need a bubble gum-filled lolly to eat in the car on the way home? Probably not, but most parents seem to share the opinion that while party bags are unnecessary, they are also unavoidable.
In response to this dilemma, parenting website Netmums has been running a 'book instead of a party bag' vote on its site. So far, 92pc of respondents have said that they would prefer their child to receive a book rather than a party bag at the end of a party. Quality over quantity. Alison Wells thinks it's a nice idea.
"I would love to avoid sweets but am not sure a book is cost effective. My children have enjoyed 'craft parties' in the past where they brought home a painted plate or a t-shirt."
Sheila McWilliams isn't convinced. "I don't think any child under six would be happy with the book idea unless it came wrapped in chocolate!"
So most parents have an inherent dislike of party bags, but the problem is, now they are out there, how do you get rid of them? Perhaps our children will simply grow out of them?
"I'm dying to know how it all evolves when they get older," says Sheila.
Is anyone brave enough to ditch the party bag completely? She doesn't think so.
"If there wasn't a party bag at the end of a party, I think children would actually be a bit confused. 'Why isn't there a party bag, did they not read the manual on how to throw a decent party?'"
Alison Wells isn't putting her hand up either. "Overall, I think party bags are unnecessary and a waste of time and money, the kids could just as easily take a piece of the birthday cake home as they leave. But I think children would be a bit disgruntled if there weren't any party bags as they have come to expect them."
Like many other parents, she hopes that they will be phased out over time.
"Interestingly, and perhaps encouragingly, I asked my kids would the party still be good if there weren't party bags and they said yes."
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