Shopping in the Present Closet

Parenthood is full of enchanting “firsts” with your little one.

I still remember opening my son’s first birthday invitation with delight, shopping with him for just the right present for his friend, and taking a zillion pictures at the party.

He was not yet 1. I’m not even sure he realized what was happening.

He’s now 10, and the thrill has waned a bit.

Don’t get me wrong. I love birthday parties, and I love his friends. But after 10 years of celebrations (and six years’ worth for my daughter), I am a birthday party veteran. I have present strategies. And so do most moms I know.

Like Gina Hieser of Savoy, who once got three birthday invitations in one day for her 9-year-old daughter -- two on one weekend, one the next.

Luckily, she has the Gift Crate. She keeps a stash of standard boy and girl presents she’s picked up after Christmas or at other sales, so she’s not scrambling at the last minute for a gift -- and she can save a buck or two. After all, those parties add up.

“My general rule is I might use one of my stock-up gifts if it’s someone we don’t play with on a regular basis. If it’s a good friend, I might go and do something crazy, like buy something new from the store,” she says.

I, too, have a Gift Shelf in the spare bedroom closet, with toys, games and books I’ve picked up at school book fairs or store sales.

It’s not that I’m cheap. My kids and I still try to pick out individual gifts for special friends. But there are days we multitask one too many things and don’t have time to shop. So we check the Gift Shelf or figure out where we can buy something on the way to the party (unfortunately, not many people live near Target).

Much of my stash consists of presents that were a big hit with my own kids -- like the musical instruments we bought for several friends during the toddler years, or the foam dress-up dolls for the tub that my daughter loved. If you find a good gift, stick with it.

Megan Loven of Mahomet snatched up a bunch of musical toys on clearance when the company went out of business. She had bought them at full price for her own children and knew they were a bargain.

“Music is always good, books are always good things that every kid can benefit from,” says Loven.
Mostly I look for really good quality things that will make great gifts for a long period of time.”

She isn’t using her Present Closet so much now that her 6-year-old is in school. Kids’ tastes tend to grow more specific with age. They want things like Littlest Pet Shop toys or Nintendo DS games.

But “it’s been great for preschool gifts,” says Love, who also has a 2-year-old coming into the birthday pipeline.

Preschool to first or second grade seems to be the peak birthday party era, when kids invite lots of classmates “so everyone gets to know each other and you can make new friends,” says Hieser, whose inventory has dwindled as her children have gotten older.

Her current stash includes a football and basketball, Webkinz stuffed animals and “Silly Bandz,” flexible plastic bracelets that can twist into different shapes (the latest craze for grade-school girls).

Hieser also likes to stock up on “consumables” like lip gloss or bubble bath. Last week, her daughter bought pretzels, goldfish crackers, gum and a Sonic gift certificate for her friend Colleen Hoerner’s birthday party -- all of her favorite treats.

“I feel like parents don’t want more junk at their house,” Hieser says.

Let’s face it: we are all awash in stuff. It’s hard to know what to buy for kids anymore “because they have everything under the sun,” says Becky Kasten of Champaign, who has two boys and two girls ages 13 to 7.

“They want the latest electronic gadgets that go with what they have, which is not in my own personal price range much less for their friends,” Kasten says.

Like many parents, she has switched to gift cards for the older kids, so they can buy music or something else they’d like.

Other moms say they keep several $5 or $10 gift cards on hand from bookstores, ice cream shops, toy stores or sporting goods stores. You can mix and match them depending on the child’s interests and your budget.

Kasten tries to spend no more than $15 per gift, a common target. That can be tough, but not if you’re creative. You can make the card and wrapping paper yourself, saving a few dollars, she says. And her children spend a lot of time thinking about something their friends would really like.

Lately, they have focused on gifts of time. They’ll take friends out for a day of hiking or horseback-riding, or treat them to lunch.

“Then you don’t have as much junk,” she says.

When Hieser’s daughter turned 6, they switched gears on the whole present thing. Maddie Lou’s birthday is two weeks after Christmas, and they decided she didn’t need any more Polly Pockets.

Her mom offered her a deal: have your friends bring gifts for charity instead, and I’ll buy you an American Girl doll. Maddie Lou has a philanthropic streak anyway, and she knew a good deal when she saw one.

She chose to benefit the animal shelter, and asked friends to bring donations. At the party, they braided fleece doggie toys for the shelter. A few kids also brought small gifts for Maddie Lou.

It was a little hard for her, but she felt good when they took the donations to the shelter, according to her mom.

“It promotes that giving sense, and how lucky they are,” Hieser says. “These kids don’t realize what they’ve got. My kids want for nothing.

“I think most kids don’t realize how to scrimp and save and really wait for that gift that they want. So getting stuff just to get stuff isn’t necessary, I guess. It’s more about the party, and being with your friends celebrating you.”

This column appeared in the July 20 News-Gazette. Contact Julie Wurth at 351-5226, jwurthnews-gazette.com, or on Twitter.com/jawurth

Photo:  Gina Heiser and daughter Maddie Lou, 9, braid puppy toys for the animal shelter under the watchful eye of Coco, their dog. News-Gazette photo by Vanda Bidwell

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