The whole gang's coming over

One of the hidden costs of being a parent is buying birthday presents for your child's classmates.

In addition to the expenses of throwing a birthday party for your own child, one of the hidden costs of being a parent is buying birthday presents for your child's classmates. If you have two grade-school kids, each with 35 classmates, then you're looking at approximately 70 birthday presents - that's a lot of magic marker sets. "I have three children," says Maya from Mevaseret Zion. "That means almost a party a week between the nursery- and school-aged kids. You can't afford to spend more than NIS 30 on a present, so a kid usually ends up getting 35 crappy presents that break after five minutes." Mali in Modi'in says that her budget for presents doesn't always jibe with those of her neighbors. "I was surprised at how much people spend on presents. My budget is around NIS 30. But looking at some of the presents my kids have received, I see some parents spend a lot more than that," she says, adding that it hasn't caused her to redraw her guidelines. According to Ben-Gurion University's Bradley Ruffle, the act of gift giving, and indeed the whole invitation process, is different here than in the US. "Here, it's a more social thing," he says. "At birthdays, weddings, bar mitzvas, we invite friends, family, their friends, it's much more inclusive. In the US, you pick and choose, and give in kind gifts, because you know the person involved. Here, you might be invited to the wedding of your co-worker's daughter, whom you may have never met, so the present you buy may not be based on any personal information." Ronit from Ra'anana says one way to solve the problem of 35 lousy presents from 35 classmates is through joint presents from more than one classmate. And her son's class has devised an even more elegant solution. "In his class, one optional thing that's being done is every parent contributes NIS 20 and the birthday kid gets the money to go out and buy something of substance. But it needs to be an organized class with lots of parent involvement to get that to work. My daughter's class tried that but there was an argument about the amount, and it ended up fizzling out." The present conundrum raises another question, however - where is it written that all the kids in the class have to be invited to every birthday party? "It's hard not to invite the whole class - we're a socialist society and we want to be community oriented," says early-childhood consultant Sylvia Hareven. Anat, who lived in Ramat Aviv for three years, explains that the "all-inclusive" rule is actually unwritten, but clearly legible. "I've heard stories of parents or kids who got blacklisted in the class because they didn't invite everybody," she says. "I don't know if I felt pressure to invite everyone or have big parties, but I sure did it." Ra'anana's Ronit says that it's perfectly acceptable to cut down on the numbers by gender division. "If you don't want to invite the whole class, the way that's considered fair is to just invite the girls or the boys. By the time they get a little older, it's more acceptable to have smaller groups instead of the whole class," she says. Some parents, however, who buck the trend, meet stiff resistance, like Maya. "When my son started kindergarten, his birthday was in November. He didn't really know all the children well then, and didn't want to invite everyone. I thought it would make him uncomfortable and feel self-conscious to be the center of attention like that. So we decided to just invite the boys - luckily there were only 12. "Instead of giving out invitations, I just called the parents to invite the kids. One of the mothers said, 'That's okay, I'll just get the details when you send out the invitations.' When I told her it was going to be informal and that we weren't inviting the whole gan, she got upset. 'That's not right, it's not fair.' But I had just given birth to a baby, and I said that's too bad, that's what I'm doing." Ruffle says that a decision to cut out some members of the class from birthday parties could bear no consequence or it could have ramifications for the child. "It's not an easy cycle to get out of," he says. "If a child or parent decides not to have a big party, the kid might get subsequently picked on, accused of not being a team player."