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What to do about kids’ birthday party gifts?

Nicole Hill/Rubberball

Champagne, wine, spa gift cards, donations to a favorite charity. All lovely retirement presents or tokens for a milestone anniversary, right? Well, yes. And, these days, they’re also sometimes children’s party gifts — for parents, that is.

“A lot of parents are asking guests not to bring toys. They’ll make a joke: ‘Our house is cluttered with stuff already.’ Instead, guests will show up with a gift for the parents: ‘Congratulations, you kept your child alive another year,’” says Boston-based event planner Dustin Rennells, who books tot and adult parties up to a year in advance. He often works with New England Patriots players and has thrown events at the New England Aquarium and jeweler Shreve, Crump & Low.

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Rennells has seen everything, from an infant’s birthday party with a $50,000 budget to a pink-themed tot soiree that boasted $5,000 satin chair covers.

But even less spendy parents have hired him to take the stress out of children’s party planning. A familiar request: making personalized cookies with a birthday child’s sugary likeness frosted atop each confection, using an “edible” printer.

Such elaborate, carefully planned parties can be “a congratulatory thing for the parents, and they like to go the extra mile — or three extra miles,” he says.

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But birthday party anxiety also afflicts parents who lack four-digit party budgets and Pinterest-worthy pastry skills, especially as back-to-school party season looms. (Last year, the “Today” show polled 7,000 moms and found that 42 percent suffer from something called “Pinterest stress,” the concern that they’re not spending enough time on the homemade — think crafts, baked goods, decor — especially for their families.)

One of the most fraught topics involves gifts.

Problem one: Parents who specify “no gifts” to take the pressure off guests. It’s a kind thought. “In this economy, I feel uncomfortable asking anyone to spend money on my children,” says Meghann Marshall, an Ayer mom of three.

But what if a host specifies no gifts and everyone shows up with a gift anyway — except the inevitable partygoer who took the request at face value?

Indeed, I have been the fool who arrived empty-handed to a child’s party, only to feel as though I missed Emily Post’s memo. There I was, sheepishly clutching a lukewarm bottle of Yellowtail chardonnay, plotting how to flee to a nearby Target before cake time.

Problem two: Guests who are inept shoppers. All of us have purchased inane things in the spirit of goodwill, haven’t we? I once ordered a Tiffany rattle for my infant nephew. I confess, the idea came from “Sex and the City.” Just what every new mother wants for her newborn: a completely useless, ostentatious blunt object.

Still, this hardly compares to the tale of one partygoer — who requested anonymity — who received a goodie bag for her toddler that contained a live fish, swimming in a vase. (Party planner Rennells frowns upon amphibious party favors.)

To curb such disasters, stores like Toys “R” Us offer birthday registries, which seems bold at first blush. At Brookline and Wellesley’s Tiny Hanger, owner Lucia Berman-Rossi explains that a registry can function as a wish list for partiers who need guidance.

“Kids love to put things on their wish list, and relatives get so excited to buy for their grandkids or nieces and nephews but often don’t know what to get them. People find our registry-wish list helpful in those circumstances,” Berman-Rossi says.

“Sometimes older kids come in with their parents to pick up things their grandparents have chosen, and the grandparents are happy because they’ve bought just what the child wants.”

For those who associate the word “registry” with a reality show wedding, there’s also the slightly more palatable “themed gift exchange.”

“Last year, a group of our friends used birthday parties as a book exchange; bring a wrapped book and take another home,” says Dorchester’s Heather Richardson, a mom of two. “It was nice because the hosts didn’t have to do goodie bags and it reduced the onslaught of gifts. Our families provided more than enough gifts to keep the birthday boy or girl
happy.”

Let’s face it, though, a gifting quandary is the very definition of a first-world problem. One of the simplest — and most generous — ways to celebrate the child with almost everything is through charity. Quincy’s Good Sports donates fitness equipment to disadvantaged children nationwide. This year, because of customer demand, they added a “Party Playbook” toolkit, where families can register a birthday party online and ask guests to donate, similar to a fund-raising page.

“We kept getting calls from parents who wanted to leverage their kids’ parties to do something good,” says CEO Melissa Harper.

So far, says Harper, they’ve raised $12,000. That’s enough to provide sports equipment for 600 children—or several sets of satin chair covers.

Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@gmail.com.
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