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Mom's New Status Symbol: Goody Bag

October 22, 2000|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After the date has been set and the invitations mailed, after the theme has been chosen and the birthday cake flavor selected, after the gifts have been purchased but probably before they are wrapped comes one of the toughest decisions parents face: what to put in the goody bags.

Used to be easy. Used to be you threw a few Jordan almonds in a crinkly nut cup, maybe stuck a couple of Dum Dums and a party horn in a little plastic bag and called it a day. There were pointy hats and blowers, there was cake and ice cream, there was pin the tail on the donkey, perhaps a scavenger hunt, what more do kids need?

Plenty, it would seem.

They need multicolored plastic chairs with their names painted on the back, they need Thomas the Tank Engine backpacks stuffed with engineer regalia and about $20 worth of trains, they need CDs and books and personalized chocolate chip cookies the size of plates, they need monogrammed scrapbooks and gel pens and disposable cameras, they need handmade Harry Potter spell books and candy bags from Honeydukes. The girls need makeup kits and chokers and nail polish and hair clips; the boys need mini-skateboards and telescopes and animal figures, but not the little cheap ones, the really good ones you get at the zoo.

There can also be traditional goodies--candies, snacks, bubble gum. But points are given for items that reflect a personal knowledge of each child, and at least one thing should have the party-goer's name on it. And all should be gathered in a creative container that reflects the party's theme, which in turn captures the essence of the birthday child.

"I have been to some parties where the presents in the gift bags were more numerous and expensive than the gift I had brought," said one Santa Monica mother, speaking only under anonymity. "It was humiliating."

Not as humiliating, however, as forgetting the gift bags, or filling them with something that is not up to par.

"Kids get really disappointed if they aren't there or if they're not interesting," says Margaret Oberman, whose 6-year-old daughter recently received a wax mold of her hand, and of her father's hand holding her hand, as a parting gift.

"Kids remember what they get and what they like," says Stephanie Bronson, a mother of two, "and if you're going to get in the game and compete, well, you have to be original. I know that sounds terrible but you don't have a choice."

She recently attended a party at which the children spent much of the time, with professional supervision, constructing elaborate and beautiful art boxes. At the end of the party, however, many of the revelers were disappointed to learn that these boxes were the parting gifts.

"Every single kids leaves a party saying, 'Where's my gift bag?' " says Bronson, of Santa Monica.

"It's not really bags any more," says Denise Jaffe, owner of Denise's Place in Santa Monica, "it's more like an investment."

Jaffe's 10-year-old store sells personalized items, and parties, particularly children's parties, account for much of her business. Lunch boxes, scrapbooks, fancy water bottles, trucks and pails, and treasure chests, all full of designer, theme-appropriate candy, Jaffe's take-aways cost anywhere from $6 to $100 apiece. And business is booming.

"There really has been an increase in the past five years or so," she says. "It just doesn't do to give a Pez dispenser or something anymore. Kids come home from a party and say, 'Look what I got Mom,' and the mothers say, 'Oh no.' "

"Oh no," as in "Oh no, now I have to think of something even more fabulous."

Like hand-painted T-shirts or personalized pogo sticks.

Say the words "goody bags" to a random selection of mothers, and you will hear a lot of groans and embarrassed laughter.

"I hate them," says one Pasadena mother, who declined to be named. "They should be banned."

Other mothers complain about parents who fail to RSVP, making an accurate head count impossible, or who bring uninvited siblings that send the hostess mom scrambling to assemble an extra bag or two. Cost is universally decried--some moms will admit to spending about $10 per kid, although some say it's more like $20. But the biggest obstacle is the creative effort. Most mothers feel pressed for time as it is--the last thing they want to be doing is running around town looking for 15 cunning purses or 20 Irish penny whistles.

But even for otherwise sensible women, the gift bag assembly process can take on a life of its own.

"We try to avoid commercial-type characters," says Susan Hayden, mother of Mason who celebrated his fourth birthday Oct. 13. "So we're having a 'Where the Wild Things Are' party, and a girlfriend told me there was a store with a 'Wild Things' exhibit, so I thought maybe I could get some stuff there."

The exhibit, however, was in San Francisco, which meant Hayden's friend found herself surveying the accompanying merchandise and reporting it via cell phone to Hayden.

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