Oct. 1, 2013 at 11:58 AM ET
Remember when a child's birthday was a simple celebration, maybe featuring homemade cupcakes and a nice game of bingo? Not anymore. Today cakes are gourmet, goody bags are a topic of debate and parties feature pony rides and face painting and balloon animals on demand. As guests we're faced with "no gifts" requests and sibling gift confusion. If you thought the whole topic of kids' birthdays couldn't get any more complicated, think again. The latest raging birthday debate centers around gift registries for the wee ones.
When I first heard there was even such a thing, the idea didn't seem entirely half-baked to me. After all, most of our kids have closets and toy bins overflowing with crap they don't like or won't play with, and I don't know about you but I've donated at least 13 redundant copies of Goodnight Moon to Good Will over the years. Plus, well-meaning but clueless relatives (usually of the grandparent variety) frequently ask for gift suggestions anyway. Why not collect your child's wish list in one convenient place?
I understood the potential tacky-factor ("No, sweetie, you can't put a Corvette on your list!"), but I wondered if I was overreacting. A gift registry would be helpful, convenient. Busy parents would appreciate the ease it offered—wouldn't they? Not feeling hugely opposed or in favor, I posed the question on my Facebook wall and was blown away by the impassioned response. An overwhelming majority found the idea (and I'm quoting directly here, minus a few ALL CAPS) awful, obnoxious, rude, gross, presumptuous, abhorrent, horrifying and—my favorite—indescribably vulgar. "Call me old fashioned but at a birthday party you get what you get, say thank you and like it," said one gal I don't actually know but sort of wanted to high-five. Another played the life-lesson card: "There's something to be said for teaching your child to appreciate that it's the 'thought that counts' when they get a gift they don't especially love." Hard to argue, right?
But the other side and had some excellent arguments, too. "I used Amazon for my daughter's birthday and it was helpful to the family and friends who live far away, didn't have much time to shop, and have no idea what a 3-year-old likes but wanted to still surprise her," said one no-nonsense mom. "It's a resource, not a means of begging for more in this more-is-more society." Another took an even more practical stance: "I'm a single mom who can't get everything that I would like to for my daughter, even if it's something simple like a pair of summer sandals. I would rather coax people in the direction of her needs rather than have them blindly buy something that I don't approve of, something we definitely do not need or something she simply won't like."
Still firmly on the fence, I called my go-to etiquette guru friend Jodi R. R. Smith, author of The Etiquette Book: A Complete Guide to Modern Manners. "To send out registry information is to imply that you are expecting gifts for your children, which is a big no-no," says Smith, who also was equally appalled at the thought of little Johnny or Jenny being allowed to traipse through the mall with a scanner (or surf the web with abandon) to create his or her own dream-gift list. "However," Smith added, "should a parent decide to create a registry for a child in case grandparents, relatives or friends ask for ideas, this is within the realm of reason."
The bottom line, says Smith, is timing. "As with all registries, information is only offered after a guest inquires, never before." In other words, never ever include this info on the invite.
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.