Can We All Agree Goody Bags Are Just the Worst?


Where did the idea of “goody bags” come from, and can they go away now?

The first time I encountered the goody bag tradition, my child was four. He was in preschool, and the week before his birthday his teacher reached out to let me know how many kids were in his class for the “birthday treats.”

“Oh, I thought we couldn’t bring food in?” I naively inquired.

“That’s right, you can’t.” She said. “I’m talking about the goody bags.”

My mind was blown; I had no idea I was expected to bring goody bags into class in lieu of edible treats, which had long been rightfully banned due to allergy concerns. “Just make sure there are no choking hazards or button batteries,” she elaborated. I spiraled into a nearly week-long struggle to figure out what the heck I could bring 13 preschoolers that wasn’t a choking hazard or harboring a potential death button.

I combed the aisles of the local dollar store and decided on crazy straws. It seemed like an utterly ridiculous gift at the time, but nothing on those shelves wasn’t tiny enough for a preschooler to choke on or illuminated by contraband batteries. It was either crazy straws or a small notebook, but giving a notebook to a four-year-old seemed even weirder than a straw. So I bought some ribbon, tied it around the little straws, and brought them to school. When I handed them to the teacher, she looked at me like I was some sort of alien formation. I looked down at my fist clasped around the small bunch of unwrapped straws I’d brought in and understood.

Gross. Why had I brought in a bunch of loose straws for children? Even pre-pandemic-me knew that was pretty unsanitary. And odd. I broke eye contact and slipped out the door.

Goody bags have continued to haunt me, and my children are nine and 12. We’ve managed our kids’ expectations at this point (meaning they have none), but this is still very much a thing for their elementary school-aged peers. Except now, instead of bringing them to school, we’re furnishing them to children who show up at our kid’s birthday parties, and just why? They’re always filled with plastic, always contain a potential pet-murdering button battery (apparently OK since the kids are older now), and are always completely useless. No parents like to put them together, and kids don’t even want this crap.

Which begs the question… why do we do this?

According to Yale, 80% of toys end up in a landfill. “The importance of toys in child development is undeniable, yet play is never limited by number or intended use,” claims the research. “While excess toys are unnecessary to expand one’s imagination, keeping a smaller toy box can teach kids to be environmentally conscious in their future decisions.” Is it possible that many of us are just blindly continuing a tradition no one likes because we’re too busy to step off the hamster wheel of parental asks? Knowing even our child’s most precious toys will undeniably end up in a landfill makes the handfuls and handfuls of junk most of us have tossed directly into the garbage even more deplorable.

And where did the idea even come from? “The ritual dates back at least to the Stone Age as a way for clan leaders to cement the social connections made at important gatherings,” the New York Times explains. “The bags have a functional purpose too. Their arrival is an upscale version of flashing the houselights: a host’s polite but unmistakable signal to guests that it is time to leave.” While we can probably all get behind something that will signal to Becky’s newly divorced father that he’s not invited to dinner, might we be leaning into a tradition that should be reserved for more important functions than a group of children eating cake?

My last attempt at the goody bag was three years ago when my son turned nine. We were at a laser tag venue, and clearly, shooting lasers at each other in a dark room was going to overshadow anything I’d shoved into a bag for these kids to take home. Nevertheless, I hit up stores that week in search of stuff I thought nine-year-old boys would like: superhero erasers, monster fingers, Minecraft candy, and other assorted crap. I loaded all the trinkets into Minecraft bags I’d carefully labeled with each child’s name and proceeded to forget the entire box at home. When I realized what I’d done, I told the parents as they were leaving that I’d have my son bring the bags to school the following week. At least half of the parents almost instinctively shouted, “NO!”

Enough is enough. We’re composting, we’re making an effort to recycle more, we’re hauling reusable bags to the grocery store and buying electric cars. It kind of makes sense that we stop throwing a bunch of plastic in our kids’ faces every time a holiday pops up on the calendar.

It’s time.

Time to be done with goody bags.


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