Guest column by Jeremy L. Caradonna
Your child has been invited to yet another birthday party. (Can a weekend ever go by without one?!) It’s someone from school; not a close friend.
The party is at a recreation centre, a pool, a park, a house. It’s already noon and the party starts at 1 p.m. Before leaving the house, you realize that you still haven’t bought a gift. Most likely, you rush to a chain store and shell out $25 on a plastic thing that will most likely end up at the back of a closet.
It’s a familiar story for any parent, birthday parties need birthday presents, right? Not necessarily.
Enter the ‘toonie party.’
It’s grown considerably in the past decade, part of the cultural shift toward sustainable living and revisited parenting styles.
In this case, the birthday party has been re-conceived. The “toonie party,” as far as I can tell, seems to be not only a specifically Canadian phenomenon, but one largely confined to our little region.
For those who don’t know, instead of bringing a gift, the party going family brings one or two toonies for the birthday child. In most cases, the organizing family sets out two cups in which the toonies are collected—one for the birthday child, and one for a local charity. The idea behind the toonie party is to shift the focus away from shopping and consumption and on to the event itself. The birthday child then has the option of buying one gift and/or saving the toonies for a rainy day. As an added bonus, kids get to learn about the values of charitable giving, rather than merely receiving.
I’ve really enjoyed attending and hosting numerous toonie parties over the past several years. It takes a lot of pressure out of the equation. The hosting family usually jettisons the gift bag, and instead gives out something perishable or plantable, such as flower seeds. The parents of the partygoers no longer have to make a trip to a box store and spend cash on plastic crap from China. And best of all, the birthday child learns the essential life lesson that “less is more.”
I saw this recently with my own daughter, who just turned five. She spent half her toonies on a stuffed owl, that she adores, and decided to save the rest. The owl is special in the way that a pile of anonymous gifts is not. Plus, she got to use her money to pick it out.
The charitable element is especially important. In the past, we’ve taken the collected toonies, added a bit to the pot, and donated the money to a local youth shelter. Many of us house-poor, 30-something parents do not have large amounts of disposable income to dedicate to charity, but the toonie party offers a modest pathway to the practice of giving.
Cultural rituals provide rare opportunities to convey meaning and values to the young. The toonie party manages to retain the best parts of birthday parties—the most meaningful rituals that many kids will experience—while ditching the materialist elements that it gained in the late 20th century.
A sustainable society is one that values community, experience, and charity over enforced consumerism. The toonie party is a great way to impart those values to our young.
– Jeremy L. Caradonna is the author of Sustainability: A History, adjunct professor at the University of Victoria, and former owner of Share Organics.