I started off quite innocently, with a doodle pad for less than $3 and an oversized bottle of bubbles for $5.50. But before I knew it, I added a personalized hand-painted crayon set ($11.75) and a xylophone ($22).
How is it that I work hard to save money by cutting back on cabs and takeout in the past six months, only to splurge on toddler takeaways for my son’s 10 closest friends? Even though I knew the personalized crayons would be lost in the cab ride home, I did it anyway. At least I know I’m not alone.
“New York City kids are very jaded,” Kaster adds. “They attend a birthday party, they expect a gift.”
Never mind that many party spaces in Manhattan cost upward of $1,000 for 15 kids and an hour and a half of entertainment. It’s now the host’s job to provide each kid with a parting gift worth talking about.
Gone are the days of candy-filled plastic bags tied with ribbon. “Parents want something more unique and upscale,” says Amanda Poses, owner of Fill-R-Up, a UES store specializing in party favors. In place of plastic bags, Poses uses monogrammed canvas totes, hand-painted beach pails and personalized backpacks, which can cost anywhere from $15 to $45 each. Fill that with toys, and you add an extra $30 or $40.
There is likewise no sign of a recession at Dylan’s Candy Bar, an upscale candy store and party space on the Upper East Side where gift bags average $40 apiece.
“Parents still want to impress their friends,” says founder Dylan Lauren.
Kaster seconds that: “We’ve been to birthday parties where the goody bag was a Le Sportsac filled with nail polish, beauty products, Barbie clothes and items from Ed Hardy — and that was for a 3-year-old. It was literally a swag bag.”
Not all moms, however, are on board with this trend. “I detest party favors,” says a TriBeCa mom who asked to remain anonymous for fear of offending other moms. “I spend my life trying to clear my apartment of clutter, and then I go to a birthday party only to be bombarded with more crap that I have to sneak to the trash when my kids are not looking.”
The worst part, she says, is that we’ve conditioned our kids to expect party favors. “My kids are irate if they go to a party that doesn’t have them.”
For a 1-year-old girl’s carnival-themed birthday party last month, Poses created personalized plastic fish tanks and sent each kid home with a live goldfish. “I’m not sure how thrilled the parents were,” she says, “but the concept was really cute.”
Fashion publicist Alison Brod often incorporates fabulous gift bags into her kids’ birthday party experience. For her son Spencer’s 3-year-old cookie-themed birthday at FAO Schwarz, she created a “shopping” theme. The kids were given empty gift bags and then led to a room filled with cookie supplies.
“They filled their bags with rainbow sprinkle colors, cookie cutters and rolling pins — all goodies to help them make the perfect batch of cookies,” says Brod. “If you make the goody bag interactive, it becomes part of the party experience.”
Popular play spaces such as Kidville and NY Kids Club (with locations throughout the city) will take care of goody bags for you in their all-inclusive party packages — but make no mistake: Manhattan parents do take note of what other parents give.
“I always ask my kids what they got in their goody bag,” says Kaster.
Lyss Stern, founder of Divalysscious Moms and editor-in-chief of Observer Playground, says her kids’ goody bags are not as ostentatious as they used to be.
“When Jackson [now 6] was younger, I would see moms trying to outdo one other,” says the UES mother of two. “I’d see $100 gift bags overflowing with crap.” Now, she says, people are more cost-conscious. Instead of a handful of showy items, they are giving one well-thought-out gift.
“Maybe it’s a Melissa & Doug puzzle or a book or some eco-friendly educational item. It’s more about quality these days than it is about quantity.”
But even one thoughtful, eco-friendly gift can cost the average party planner anywhere from $10 to $25 apiece. Factor in that most parties have a minimum of 20 guests, and that means an extra $200 expense, at least.
“I would love to be that normal mom who doesn’t buy into all this crap,” says Amy Pullman, a UES stay-at-home mom. “But next year my son goes to nursery school. That’s 13 kids and 13 birthday parties. What am I going to do, be that one mom who doesn’t give her son’s friends a parting gift?”
And while some moms are too afraid to rock the goody-bag boat, others are out to make a political statement. Jennifer Gilbert, CEO of Save the Date, a premiere party-planning service and one of this season’s “Real Housewives of New York City,” says she’s putting a stop to all this.
“Goody bags are ridiculous,” Gilbert says. “My daughter is having a party next month with 80 kids, and I am not doing them. Instead, I’m giving a lollipop to each kid with a tag that says ‘In lieu of a goody bag, a $10 donation has been made in your name to Haiti relief!’ ”