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Parents rebel against the tyranny of birthday party goody bags

Nobody likes birthday goody bags ... except every child everywhere.
toys in flea market
blacklenz / Getty Images stock

Pencils. Slime. Kazoos. Bubbles. Generic Slinkies that don't work. Squishies that will become hairballs within 48 hours. Tiny cars you'll eventually step on later.

Just the thought makes me shudder.

After eight years of being a mom, I've decided that there is no such thing as a “good” goody bag.

I didn't always feel this way.

When my children started attending birthday parties for their little daycare "friends," I was delighted that they received thoughtful parting gifts. Melissa & Doug "Water Wow" books and Pirate's Booty were popular for the under-3 set.

I raised an eyebrow when the sugar and plastic started rolling in during the preschool years. I would confiscate their M&Ms or Blow Pops (that I would secretly eat after bedtime) and toss the plastic toys before they even knew they existed.

But then my children got older, and smarter. They started making the connection between birthday parties and goody bags. It was no longer a nice "extra" but an all-consuming "necessity."

They would start talking about goody bags before we even arrived at a birthday party, wondering what color the plastic [fill-in-the-blank] would be and whether there would be Ring Pops.

To be quite honest, I really can’t blame them. If you go to 15 birthday parties a year and come home with goody bags 15 times, of course you are going to assume that “birthday party = goody bag.”

The problem here is that my kids now remember stuff. This means that I can no longer just throw away goody bags willy nilly. They want to keep these ridiculous trinkets. The plastic is inside the house.

I wouldn't say that I am an environmentalist or minimalist, but becoming a mother and living in a small city condo with three other humans has made me really think about the amount of trash our little family of four adds to landfills, as well as the amount of unnecessary junk contained within our apartment. More stuff seems to come into our space than goes out.

And the worst part is that I am contributing to the problem.

I have tried many goody bag workarounds. There was a pizza-making party where the pizza was the parting gift. We made gingerbread houses topped with candy, which were taken home.

Goody bag-giving starts to get competitive in the post-kindergarten phase. So, while I succumbed to the tyranny of goody bags, I tried to make them as disposable as possible.

The last party I threw had a dog theme and the goody bag contained:

  • Scooby Snacks (a bag of bone-shaped graham crackers, edible)
  • Scooby-Doo gummies (too much sugar, but edible)
  • A pawprint candy necklace (on-brand but way too much sugar, blessedly edible)
  • Dog tattoos (potential garbage, but with a small carbon footprint)
  • A dog cookie painstakingly handcrafted by my mother (which I will defend in any goody bag situation)

All the items went into a small, reusable bag that I told myself would be used again (but, like a bridesmaid dress, probably wasn't).

I was proud of myself for procuring items that were themed, edible and relatively affordable. (Don't even get me started on what each goody bag costs.) But another local parent one-upped me in the best way possible.

She invited the entire second grade to her daughter's birthday party and the invitation had a line that made me want to hug her. It said: "No gifts, please. No goody bags will be given."

Not only did I not have to spend time racing around Target (inevitably at the last minute) to find a present, but I also would not be bringing useless plastic stuff into the house?! And she gave me advance warning so I prepped the kids that they would be coming home empty-handed. Fun fact: The girls were fine.

The no-goody bag model inspired me to change my ways, so I sought advice from another city parent with more children and a smaller space than mine. Tyler Moore is a seventh grade math teacher better known as @TidyDad on Instagram. He, his wife and their three daughters live in a railroad apartment in Queens, New York.

Moore thinks that goody bags are “a tradition that needs to go away.” Each of his three daughters gets a “treasure” box where they can house any trinkets they want to collect. When the box is full, he and his wife help the kids empty it and choose what to put back in.

“It’s fascinating, because typically the items they choose to discard are all the birthday party goody bag items,” he says. “We usually put them in a bag and list them on our Buy Nothing group, where they’ll get grabbed by a preschool teacher or family planning a party, so at least they get passed on instead of going in the landfill.”

KC Davis, author of "How to Keep House While Drowning," tells, "I don’t usually do goody bags because I feel like it's saying to a parent, 'Here, you throw this away.'”

She tried something different at her young daughters' joint birthday party this year. One of her daughters is autistic, and to make the party "neurodivergent and sensory friendly," she purchased fidget toys in bulk and placed them on the table in a basket, inviting the kids to play with them during the party and take them home if they wished. Instant party favors!

If you want to make traditional goody bags, however, Diana Rene, also known as The Decluttered Mom, says that "consumables" are ideal. In addition to food, she recommends things like art supplies, stick-on earrings or lip balm.

She says, "A good question to ask yourself when creating goody bags for your child’s party is, 'If my kid got this at a party, would I be annoyed with the items inside?'” 

I'm not sure what I'll do for my kids' next birthday parties. Will I continue to put together mostly-consumable goody bags? Will I skip them altogether? Or will I compromise by swapping a goody bag for a $5 gift card to the local ice cream shop?

I honestly have no idea. I'll unwrap that problem when I get to it.