Does a 6-year-old need 25 birthday presents?

Slate's Emily Bazelon tries to sell her son on the idea of getting fewer gifts.

Published February 3, 2006 2:00PM (EST)

On Thursday, as Salon readers debated the prudence of pricey breast pumps and cashmere baby tees, Slate's Emily Bazelon posed a related parenting question: What's the best way for parents to set material limits without leaving kids feeling deprived?

Describing her parenting approach as "Spartan Mom," Bazelon eschews sugary cereal and subscribes to a birthday-present strategy borrowed from a friend in Vermont (a state she wittily identifies as "a hotbed of Spartanism"): Bazelon's young son and his friends forgo presents and goody bags, and instead trade books at the end of his birthday party. Or, that's what they do until they become 6-year-old rebels.

"I WANT PRESENTS," Bazelon's son complains.

"Viewed with an iota of perspective, it is indisputable that no child needs or should receive 25 birthday presents," Bazelon writes. "On the other hand, the kids Eli knows generally do. When your kids grow up with a norm that you find distasteful, but that isn't harmful or evil, how do you draw a radically different line?"

This reminds me pleasantly of my own would-be Spartan mom, who still points to other kids' birthday parties -- "Too much sugar!" -- as a thorn in the side of her own principled parenting strategies. But though Bazelon finds a compromise that works for her family, in which the book swap continues but five of her son's close friends are asked to bring gifts, she may not be out of the woods yet. What if the parents of the chosen five didn't want to shell out for presents? What if some of the remaining parents felt snubbed?

Still, I'm glad for the chance to read about Bazelon's internal struggle and interim solutions; her questioning of party politics is a refreshing reminder that there's no one way to parent. And judging from the volume of feisty responses to her story -- which range from "Amen, sister" to "Spartan Mom or Mommy Dearest??" -- we're not in danger of reaching consensus on any parenting topic anytime soon.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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