My niece just turned 6 years old. Yesterday, she and a friend had a "Bratz" birthday party with all the kids from her kindergarten class (and their siblings...roughly 40+ kids). They had a very colorful, peppy, and LOUD clown performing, dressing kids up as Bratz, singing and dancing along to all the latest kids' party tunes. There were plenty of refreshments outside for the parents who chose to stay nearby until the end of the party, and plenty of sweets and snacks for the kids inside.
Now, don't get me wrong - I believe that children's birthdays should be celebrated and made a big deal out of, so that the kids really do feel that it's their special day. And I know that kids love all that raucous music and those sparkly arm-tattooes and balloon animals and the clown with the microphone blasting yet another round of hokey pokey - until it comes out their ears.
The part I could do without, though, is the "afterparty" with the rest of the family. This same gathering that happens after weddings and bar mitzvahs, and other big gift-giving occasions. And I've got to wonder what kind of effect it has on the birthday girl herself. This after-party is when all the guests have gone, when the grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins are dying to go home, but must sit through the gift opening ceremony. For "adult" events, it's the envelope opening, counting checks and cash - comparing who gave how much, and whether the amount is considered respectable ("That's nice, Ginny's gift covered the price of her plate, plus the tablepiece"), generous ("Mmm, how very nice of Uncle Moishe to give this gift, he came alone AND lives only on his pension"), or embarassing ("Can you believe that Cousin Yossi only gave such-and-such amount? He came with 3 kids and ate 5 desserts...the nerve!")
I was first exposed to this tradition in my husband's family after our own wedding, and it never ceases to shock and appall me (I heard it happens in other families too, but never actually witnessed it outside our walls). Call me silly, or even naive, I am just happy that people choose to come and celebrate our occasions with us; what they choose to give as a gift is their prerogative - I respect and accept that without a second thought. BUT, I guess not everyone goes with the flow like I do... not in this country, at least.
So there we sat, watching the 6 year old open her presents - with her mother sorting every one. There was the "Bratz"-themed present pile, the other girlie gifts pile, and the exchange or re-give pile. And with every gift there was a comment: "They're good friends, I'm surprised she gave such a skimpy gift" or "Most of the people gave presents worth at least 30 shekels, I saw this water bottle in the store for only 20" or "We gave their son a really nice *brand-name* shirt for his birthday, I would have expected something a little nicer" - and on and on...you get the idea. There were nice, positive comments for some of the gifts that apparently met their standards, but they were the exception.
I love my sister-in-law, she is an amazing and generous person with a really big heart and lots of other more challenging issues to deal with in her life. Maybe that's why it still surprises me to hear her say things like that. Because it's got to have an effect on the girl. She is being raised to judge people on what kinds of gifts they give instead of genuine appreciation for the people themselves. She is learning to compare and compete in an area of life that should be reserved for just being thankful. Once I was even so bold as to say this out loud - everyone agreed, and then continued commenting...
I would probably be a fool to think that this is an isolated occurrence. It is apparently what people are doing everywhere, but especially in the community my sister-in-law and her family live in. The translated name of the town is "Mother of all Towns", and although far from rich or exclusive, this town also seems to be the Mother of all Snobs. I won't go into detail here (maybe save this for another post) about the jeweled flip-flops the mothers were wearing, or the way they wrinkled their noses at the goodie bags handed out at the end of the party - but it's part of a larger, and much more distressing change in values that parents are passing on (or NOT) to their children. Even the fact that my niece wanted a Bratz-themed birthday party is related to this set of priorities, somehow... I think.
Obviously I cannot change these people, but I can do my best to make sure that I transmit more positive messages and values to my own children. There's a lot more to it than just teaching them to say "Thank you".