At the conclusion of the lovely kids birthday party, with cake and ice cream and games, the hostess bid each guest farewell with a smile and a goody bag. A 6-year-old boy grabbed his, peered inside and said, “This is a rip-off!”

At another party, a mother decided to do the unthinkable and not even give treat bags. A group of 7-year-olds cornered her and complained: “You should have told us before we came!”

Still another mom called her child’s friends to invite them to an upcoming birthday bash. At least one of the kids refused to accept the invitation … at least until she told them what was going to be in the gift bag.

When another party ended without swag bags, a group of outraged 10-year-olds bum-rushed the birthday boy and … beat him up.

These aren’t tall tales or urban legends. These horror stories are true, told by parents and grandparents to Bill Doherty, a professor in the Department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota. He is one of the founders of Birthdays Without Pressure, an informal citizen-action group that’s trying to raise awareness and reverse the trend it calls “out-of-control birthday parties.”

The days of kids leaving birthday bashes with a handful of candy, perhaps a paddle with a ball attached, or, heaven forbid, only nice memories are long gone. In their place are increasingly elaborate goody bags, favors and departing gifts.

While the most egregious examples – digital cameras, iPods and $150 toy-store shopping sprees – are still confined to goody bags of the very rich, many middle-class parents are getting sucked in.

“It’s an arms race,” says Doherty. “And it’s led by a small percentage of parents who want to push the envelope.”

The rest of the parents are then afraid to not keep up and appear cheap or uncaring.

Typical gift bags might include markers, nail polish, balls, sunglasses, costume jewelry, containers of Play-Doh, decks of cards or any number of plastic trinkets. Almost all include candy. Raising the stakes, other parents pass out toy models, stuffed animals, goldfish (not the crackers, live ones, with bowls) and more.

It’s hardly an America-only phenomenon. A survey last year by British retailer Tesco revealed that parents in the United Kingdom spend an average of about $15 on each birthday party bag.

Kathy Eudy, owner of My Party Dreams, throws themed kids celebrations across northeast Ohio. She remembers one mom who gave each guest a set of rhinestone-encrusted fairy wings – in addition to goody bags.

“Kids are starting to expect these,” says Eudy. Often, she adds, they start to scope the room for the loot as soon they walk into a party.

John Williams, vice president of the Cleveland area chain of Party Station stores, says he’s heard of parties where kids have taken home beach towels monogrammed with their names. At another party, each guest received two matching American Girl dresses, one for her and one for her doll.

The Party Station carries more than 100 different treat-bag styles, he says.

“Basically, every single one of our ensembles will have a loot bag with it. It’s really kind of a staple for kids birthdays.”

Bill Gang, a Cleveland-area magician who’s been working the birthday-party circuit since the 1970s, agrees. “Pretty much every party, they go home with a bag,” he says. “They’re not just throwing candy in a bag now.”

Despite the tasty gummy worms and Pixy Stix inside, goody bags can do real harm, says Doherty.

“Kids are overindulged and feel entitled,” he says. “It leads to the sense that I deserve everything in life. … And that I should never go anywhere for somebody else. There has to be something in it for me.”

He advises parents to get together and agree on a “disarmament”: no more goody bags, no more over-the-top parties and a renewed focus on fun, not swag. If that’s not possible, then at least de-escalate.

Eudy often does just that, putting small but meaningful items in goody bags, like a photo of the guests together and a small craft kit to build a frame for it.

“They love it,” she says.

At least until they find out that’s all there is. That’s when they roll up their sleeves and crack their knuckles.


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