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Presents of Mind

Limos, bounce houses, catering, ice sculptures … the price of a good party is sky-high these days, with kids birthdays rivaling Hollywood affairs in many Dallas communities. Entertaining our little ones provides a new arena for putting on a show — and for keeping up with the Joneses. Gone are the days of pin the tail on the donkey and a performance by a volunteer clown. Today’s parties easily go over the top, as parents spend hundreds for small gatherings at local hotspots and shell out cool thousands for home parties with all the trimmings.

Just when you think your kids’ friends’ parties are putting even your wedding to shame, meet North Texas 11-year-old Caitlyn Hodo. When Caitlyn celebrates her birthday, she gets everything she asks for and more. From cash and toys to cell phones and electronics, this little girl’s wishes are her guests’ commands.

But this isn’t your average birthday girl, and her parties are anything but ordinary.

In fact, Caitlyn is part of a new trend that has popped up on the party circuit, and it favors giving over conspicuous consumption. Families across the country, and here in North Texas, are celebrating for a cause — transforming birthday parties into charity events in a unique antithesis to the revelry mayhem — and turning the notion of a traditional soiree on its head.

It’s perhaps not a surprising turn of events. As families get their fill of excess, many are seeking ways to give back and impart this value to their children. And why not? Grown-ups make a sport out of it locally with charity balls, casino nights and luncheons.

But is all this giving actually taking something from children? Experts caution if these parties aren’t pulled off properly, there might not be much to celebrate after all. Psychologists worry that these types of parties could have little to no significance if imposed on children too young to understand their meaning. What sounds like a welcome remedy for the party madness may not be an ideal way to introduce youngsters to the world of philanthropy.

Give a Little, Get a Little
Caitlyn has been using her birthday as an occasion to help others for years — an idea that was entirely her own, according to her mother. With a birthday very close to Christmas, Caitlyn had always enjoyed heaps of presents but just one celebration.

“She noticed when her sister came along,” says her mom, Anissa Hodo. “Her sister’s birthday got a lot more attention, and she got a lot more presents,” due to the fact that her birthday didn’t overlap with Christmas.

“Everybody was just lumping her gifts together anyway,” Hodo explains. Caitlyn, 5 years old at the time, decided to use her birthday and share its bounty with others. If this sounds like too heady an idea for a 5-year-old, hold your skepticism. Caitlyn’s inspiration comes from a variety of sources — namely, her missionary parents.

“We do a lot of community things,” says Hodo, and somewhere between the fun runs and food drives, “It’s become second nature to her.”

Because Caitlyn wanted to share gifts with other kids, the Hodos first concentrated their efforts close to home, organizing a collection drive for a nearby children’s home. For her sixth birthday, and over the next several years, party guests lavished Caitlyn’s cause with more than 300 packages of diapers, 100 sets of twin sheets, toys, school supplies, prepaid cell phones and phone cards, all for the children’s home’s 100 young residents. By the time she turned 9, Caitlyn had set her sights farther a field.

She decided to raise funds for Heifer International, a nonprofit that provides animals to families in third-world countries — something she saw on a PBS program that piqued her interest. This year, her 11th birthday will feature a fun run with donations going to a school in Belize, where her parents focus their missionary work.

Others, like Teresa Katsulos, of Plano, have also followed the passions of their little ones. Her 7-year-old daughter “is really into animals,” so they raised money at her party for a local animal shelter; and the memories have lasted much longer with the family than those of a normal party.

Is this type of benevolence for everyone? Experts like Christy Stammen, Ph.D., a psychologist with Park Boulevard Psychological Services in Plano, question what kids may be missing out on amidst all this charity. “I worry about us robbing kids of this fun,” says Stammen. “It’s fine for them to get presents.”

Hodo maintains her girls aren’t missing a thing, though. “Our kids, by all means, have got more than they need,” she admits. “But we put more emphasis on fun,” including what type of party the girls want to have. The family still hosts themed celebrations, from sock hops to pirate scavenger hunts. Little sister Cassidy hasn’t yet agreed to give up her presents in the name of goodwill, something the family is just fine with.

Party Foul?
Psychologists raise the caution flag when this type of bash is imposed on children without their consent or input. “I can see some children being devastated by that,” says Sharon Scott, a licensed professional counselor and president of LifeSkills for Positive Living in the Dallas area. “We can’t force-feed philanthropy on children,” she advises.

What sounds like a noble idea to a parent could be entirely lost on, if not detrimental to, an unassuming child too young to grasp the meaning. While this could be a great concept for some families, particularly if the child is inspired, “If you get the ‘deer in the headlights’ look when exploring this with your child, then don’t push the idea,” she says.

Another North Texas mom, Ann-Marie Trammell, and her 9-year-old son attended a charity party recently. Although the goal was noble, the atmosphere made guests feel less charitable – and more awkward.

“The party was at a public venue, and [the birthday boy] was getting strange looks because people were bringing things like toilet paper,” she recalls. Guests had received a list of possible donation items needed by a local women’s shelter with their invitations, but the charity of choice was selected by the parents and was something neither the birthday boy nor his young guests could relate to.

“I think the kids just don’t get it at this point and end up being resentful,” Trammell reports. “My overall impression was that it was not for the child. If charity is the goal, then the child should be on board. Otherwise, it seems like a punishment.”

Trammell says her son thought the concept seemed unfair. He decided his friend deserved a present and ended up purchasing a small gift out of his allowance.

Dr. Linda Hurley, a North Texas child psychologist, agrees. “Philanthropy really has to be a gift from the heart,” she says. If it’s imposed on the child, the child feels more like his birthday is being taken away from him, rather than spreading joy to others.

Better Ways to Celebrate
These parties, however, if executed properly with parents, child and guests all on board, can be just the solution for combating materialism and entitlement. Experts advise parents to follow common sense.

Hurley suggests choosing a charity that is close to a child’s heart or at least easy for a child to relate to. “Understanding a child who doesn’t have Christmas presents, that’s something that a kid can get really easily,” she says.

Kathryn McGlinchey, another North Texas mom, chose a charity party, not for her children, but for her second baby shower. “I felt funny about accepting gifts, particularly since we’d kept everything from son No. 1 and didn’t really ‘want’ for anything,” she remembers. So, friends organized a shower to benefit the local Child Protective Services Rainbow Room, which provides resources for caseworkers to use in assisting the most at-risk infants and children. McGlinchey and her husband hand-delivered the donations and left feeling humbled and extremely fortunate.

Another alternative to donating or raising cash, Stammen suggests, is good old-fashioned volunteerism. “I think it’s so much better to go do community service,” she says. “It’s also a great introduction to philanthropy for kids to go weed out their clothes or toys and donate them.”

Hurley says parental modeling is an excellent tool for teaching generosity. While charity parties are not for everyone, it’s less about kids being an appropriate age and more about what they’re already experiencing at home. If Mom and Dad do missionary work (like the Hodos), they show their kids how enjoyable that kind of work can be. “It’s very powerful modeling,” says Hurley, and that is what leaves a lasting impact.

Families should focus on consistent experiences throughout the year (such as adopting a family at Christmas or donating school supplies to a school in need) to set the stage for lifelong philanthropy, Hurley suggests. And, Scott adds, parents also need to share with their brood what kind of charitable acts they do and why. Even if it’s check writing, she says, we should explain it to our children.

But, as far as introducing philanthropy as a grand gesture, Hurley recommends parents not get too philosophical.

“The best way to teach kids is through Socratic questioning,” she offers. Encourage young ones to come up with the answers to their own queries about charity by asking questions like, ‘Why do you think we give toys to the toy drive?’ or ‘What do you think life would be like if you didn’t have all that you have?’ Rather than imposing your own view of philanthropy on them, you’ll foster of sense of what charity means to them personally.

Another test Hurley recommends is to ask a child what he got for his birthday last year. He’ll likely remember something large, like an Xbox or a bike, but not the heaps of smaller gifts he may have also received. But, ask the child about something nice he has done for someone in the past, she says, and he’ll likely recall at least one occasion with great joy, proving that no matter what, or how much, our kids are given, it’s their own altruistic experiences that stick with them, and, ultimately, shape them.

While there’s nothing wrong with pulling out all the stops to celebrate – Hodo’s girls still “live for birthdays,” she says, and get great joy in choosing gifts for friends – experts and families agree it’s most important to cultivate charitable acts throughout the year and throughout childhood.

Caitlyn says her friends are catching on, with about four other families now hosting similar charitable parties. So, it seems goodwill is just as infectious as keeping up with the Joneses.