Lessons of Altruism and Egoism in Children’S Birthday Stories


Russell Belk and Kimberly Dodson (1997) ,"Lessons of Altruism and Egoism in Children’S Birthday Stories", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 103-108.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997      Pages 103-108


Russell Belk, University of Utah

Kimberly Dodson, University of Utah


A popular category of American Children’s books involves children celebrating their birthdays or the birthdays of friends or family members. Like older fairy tales, these stories convey morals and often focus on selfishness and greed versus altruism and generosity. However, in our analysis of contemporary stories, "bad" egoistic and materialistic behavior is seldom punished. Instead, happy endings are either created by a transformation of egoism into altruism or by allowing material rewards and self-indulgence to result from ostensibly altruistic acts. This "you can have it all" message makes altruism an instrumental act; not its own rewrd.

Stories, such as those of Aesop’s Fables and Grimm’s Fairy Tales, have long been used to convey moral lessons to children. Many of these stories attempt to valorize altruism and villainize egoism. It is the honest, caring, and generous character who succeeds and thrives, while the unscrupulous, selfish, and greedy character fails and suffers (e.g., Belk 1995; Gooderham 1993; Tetenbaum and Pearson 1989). At the same time, the successful children’s tale relies not on didactic moralizing, but on the emotional power of magically and mysteriously dealing with deep questions such as identity and how life is to be lived (e.g., Bettelheim 1976, Winston 1994). A popular contemporary genre addressing issues of egoism and altruism is the children’s birthday story. For young children especially, birthdays have become a time of avid material desire and anticipation. Birthdays provide a significant tableau against which contemporary morality plays may be enacted in both the actual celebration and in children’s stories written about these celebrations. In offering and receiving birthday gifts, children have a critical opportunity to learn about giving and getting. Thus we turned to contemporary (largely post-1950) children’s birthday stories to see what moral lessons are presented in these socialization vehicles.


Children’s birthdays have not always been occasions for parental indulgence or even for celebration. While the ancient Persians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans celebrated birthdays, such celebrations were primarily restricted to adult males of high rank (Linton and Linton 1952). The early Christian church found individual birthday celebrations to be too egoistic and materially indulgent; it sought to substitute instead celebrations of the death days of Christian martyrs (Lewis 1976). For the first 1500 years of Christianity, church opposition combined with general illiteracy to eliminate birthday celebrations or even recognition of dates of birth (Lewis 1976). In Medieval Europe, children’s birthday celebrations were absent as children were not considered unique people to be attended and indulged. Only in the Sixteenth Century was childhood beginning to be recognized as a formative period deserving special attention (Aries 1962). Still, in Nineteenth Century Great Britain and America, there was concern that excessive attention to children might make them self-indulgent rather than generous and caring people (Lewis 1976). Birthdays were celebrated, but restraint and modesty were considered essential.

In the Twentieth Century however, restraint and modesty seem to have given way to indulgence and celebration of the birthday child as a "king" or "queen" for the day (Dodson and Belk 1996b). Birthday cards directed to children emerged in the early 1900s (Chase 1927), and the first half of the century has been labeled the "Golden Age" of childhood and children’s literature (Goldstone 1986). Goldstone’s (1986) analysis of children’s literature concludes that starting with the baby boom and the 1950s, these tories depict childhood less as a time of hope, innocence, and magic, and more as a training ground for learning about the world and preparing to assume adult responsibilities. While this may be true of children’s stories generally, birthday stories continue to depict one of the few occasions where the child’s desires are encouraged and indulged. It is therefore worth considering the general meanings that surround the contemporary American child’s birthday which is the focus of our analysis.

Birthdays have become democratized celebrations across social classes in literate, urban, calendar-keeping societies. As detailed by Dodson and Belk (1996a, 1996b), contemporary American birthday celebrations appear to serve four important functions for the birthday person. First, they are perhaps the key rite of passage in our society. As Chudacoff (1989) demonstrates, the Twentieth Century in America has been a time of increased attention to age-grading in education, parenting, advertising, medicine, law, and the popular press. This is especially true for the childhood years, and childrens’ birthday celebrations help in marking and adapting to biological as well as socially expected age-related changes. In this sense, birthdays are a celebration of life progression (Humphrey 1988). Milestone birthdays in American society include those preceding major life changes such as entering school and entering puberty, and help precipitate and prepare the child for these major changes. Through gifts and other ritual elements, we help convey what is deemed appropriate behavior in each new life cycle stage. Gender roles, play roles, work roles, and family roles are all potentially encoded and shaped for the birthday recipient.

A second function of birthdays in western cultures is individuation. Birthday celebrations are the primary American celebration of the individual and serve to convey and reinforce a sense of uniqueness and personal value. Through the celebration, attention, deference, and license granted to the birthday person (e.g., indulging material and other wishes and lifting food taboos), the birthday person is made to feel special and worthy. Individuation generally seems to correspond more to the male conception of a separate/objective self that relates to others in terms of reciprocity between distinct individuals (Lyons 1983).

In spite of the individuating function of birthday celebrations, a third function of the birthday occasion is to provide a sense of group membership. The attentions of the celebrants helps to assure the birthday person of continuity and support (Rosenthal and Marshall 1988). This is especially the case with children’s birthdays, where family and communal support and recognition help children to know they are not alone or unloved, but rather a part of a family and community of friends who demonstrate their connection and care this one time each year. Next to Christmas, birthdays are the most widely celebrated family ritual in the United States. While we and the world around us may change, the yearly birthday ritual provides a stabilizing sense of continuity and support in our lives. The communal function of birthdays seems to correspond more to the female conception of a connected self that relates to others in terms of care and concern for their well-being (Lyons 1983).

A final function of the birthday celebration involves the material and non-material gift transfers made. One of the goals of the perfect gift is to provide pleasure and delight to the birthday person (Belk 1996). Thus, birthday gifts ideally respond to the needs, wants, wishes, and desires of the recipient. Significant for the present analysis, this forum provides a critical arena in which material values and behavior patterns are implicitly taught. This includes patterns and concepts of egoism and altruism, delayed and deferred gratifications, selfishness and generosity, gratitude and ingratitude, earned and unearned reward, expectation and satisfaction, delight and disappointment, and anticipation and surprise. The opportunity for learning material values is critically focused on this one day each year, as birthdays involve the one time wen children’s wishes and fantasies are encouraged and often fulfilled by well-wishing family members and friends.

It is worth noting that the birthdays of friends and family members provide a different sort of socialization opportunity for children who are called upon to be givers rather than receivers and celebrants rather than celebrities. Just as the birthday person is assured that he or she is a loved and valued family member, others’ birthdays provide opportunities for the child to demonstrate his or her care for someone else. Participation in others’ birthdays also provide a means of incorporating a child into the community. Children not invited to another child’s birthday party are likely to feel left-out rather than a part of a loving community of mutually supportive friends.

An additional function of a child’s birthday for the celebrants is that of emersion in a reciprocal birthday celebratory cycle. The child who is invited to another child’s birthday party is generally expected to reciprocate when his or her own birthday occurs. Reciprocity in terms of staging a party and providing gifts may be less expected of children toward adults due to age and wealth inequalities, but a part of the socialization process involves gradually accepting this reciprocal obligation toward older family members and friends as well. The notion of reciprocity may, however, operate more within a male conception of self as autonomous individuals rather than as interconnected through an ethos of care (Gilligan 1982, Kohlberg 1981, Lyons 1983).

Just as there are material lessons to be learned and enacted as a recipient of birthday gifts and well wishes, so there are material lessons to be learned and enacted as a giver of gifts to someone on his or her birthday. Participation in birthday rituals provides an opportunity to demonstrate real or feigned altruism, generosity, and sensitivity to the birthday person’s wishes and desires. For the child giver, this may require putting aside selfish egoistic interests and learning to be a gracious giver. To do so seems to require taking the perspective of the recipient. Here, too, there are important social values that may be encoded and learned with the aid of reinforcement from the birthday child and from those adults who are present. Otnes and McGrath (1994) found that these lessons are better learned by girls than boys, at least among three- to five-year-old children. This is consistent with findings in other gift-giving contexts that a disproportionate portion of the responsibility for choosing gifts and staging celebrations inevitably falls on women (e.g., Cheal 1988; Fischer and Arnold 1990; Wallendorf and Arnould 1991). In addition to gender, culture, age, and social class may also be important sources of difference in the lessons of material values involving egoism and altruism in the context of children’s birthday celebrations.

Thus, whether as giver or receiver of birthday gifts and well wishes, children regularly encounter critical opportunities to learn material values and behavioral patterns in birthday celebrations. Besides the events themselves, children’s stories about such events provide important socialization vehicles. We found that there was a rapid growth in children’s birthday stories since the 1950s, and these stories form the major text for our analysis.


We gathered all American children’s birthday stories we could locate, but did not attempt to be exhaustive. We excluded non-fiction, stories intended for adults, and nonAmerican stories. The 99 stories used for our qualitative analysis were distributed as follows by year of publication: 1930s, 2; 1950s, 1; 1960s, 11; 1970s, 8; 1980s, 47; and 1990s, 30. The stories were most commonly targeted to preschool and elementary school aged children. In these stories, 41 of the focal characters were female and 65 were male (in some cases as with animal characters gender was not evident; in other cases both male and female focal characters were highlighted). There were biases in these stories toward depicting white, middle-class, two-parent, suburban families, although each of these biases lessened in more recent materials. Of the 99 stories, 69 were written by women. However, as in a study by Tetenbaum and Pearson (1962), we did not find a systematic pattern of differences based on the gender of the story authors.

The birthday stories vary, but they most often involve a birthday party celebrated in the home of the child having the birthday. Less frequently, a non-focal child or an adult is the birthday person and the focal child or children are gift-givers. The settings and artifacts depicted in the birthday celebrations are highly consistent. There is a birthday cake with candles, ice cream and other treats, wrapped gifts, party hats and decorations, party games, and party favors for guests.

Our analysis was based on a close reading of written material as well as the nearly ubiquitous illustrations in these stories. Each author analyzed a portion of the stories with coordination through a series of discussions and re-examinations of the material. In this collaborative, iterative process, two primary opposing themes emerged: the ideal/altruistic and the pragmatic/egoistic. The tension between these two visions of birthday celebrations runs through the majority of stories, often forming the central motivating drama in the tale. We present results within each of these themes below and discuss their resolution in the tales.


Ideal/Altruistic Elements

Perhaps the ideal story of altruistic giving is the Christmas gift-giving of the young married couple Della and Jim in O. Henry’s "The Gift of the Magi" (Porter 1922). The story, in which Della cuts and sells her beautiful hair to buy Jim a platinum watch chain, and Jim sells his treasured watch to buy Della tortoise shell combs for her hair, illustrates each of the six characteristics that Belk (1996a) sees as characteristic of the perfect gift: (1) The giver makes an extraordinary sacrifice; (2) The giver wishes solely to please the recipient; (3) The gift is a luxury; (4) The gift is something uniquely appropriate for the recipient; (5) The recipient is surprised by the gift; and (6) The recipient desires the gift and is delighted by it.

In stories in which children are gift-givers to another child or adult, there are several examples that come close to this ideal. In one such story, after hearing an older woman next door speak wistfully of visiting China, Alexis digs a hole in her backyard and goes there herself. While in China she buys a postcard for the neighbor’s birthday and returns with this gift, much to the woman’s delight. In another story, seven-year-old Daniel decides to give his sister a "half-birthday party" to celebrate her first six months. He decorates, makes treats, invites guests, and coordinates the party. The guests do everything in halves and Daniel’s gift to his siste is the half-moon outside. As these stories illustrate, both boys and girls are shown to exhibit such altruistic and ideal giving, but such stories most often feature girls as the thoughtful, caring, and altruistic givers.

One story clearly offers the lessons of the perfect gift and altruistic giving. After hearing his friends wish for a "magical tool" to do their work for them on their birthday, William (an adult cooper) decides to act as the "magical tool." During the early morning hours of each of his friends’ birthdays, he sneaks into their businesses and secretly fulfills their wishes. When each man is surprised by the "magic," William does not claim his part in it, and instead reflects on how happy his friends are and how much pleasure he gets from making them happy. In the end, William himself is visited by a "magical fairy" on his birthday and finds his wishes fulfilled. This story shows the emotional and sometimes tangible rewards for giving a gift solely to please the recipient and not with thought of personal gain. In the various stories, such a gift is never received with ingratitude, so there is a message that altruistic giving brings feelings of self-satisfaction by bringing delight to a loved one.

Given the modest material resources of children, the perfect gift may not be a luxury by the recipient’s standards, but it ideally involves a sacrifice that shows loving concern of the child giver. This sacrifice is often depicted financially. Many stories show the child completely emptying his or her piggy bank in order to buy a gift. In one example of this "spare no expense" ethos, Bear dumps all of the money out of his piggy bank in order to buy Moon a new hat. Interestingly, the child’s "savings" are often not enough for the gift, which necessitates an additional sacrifice on the part of the child. The child must give of him or herself in some way, supporting Ralph Waldo Emerson’s (1983) credo that, "The only gift is a portion of thyself." Thus, 5-year-old John John is unable to afford the Muumuu or lei that his mother would like, so he makes a lei himself by stringing yellow flowers on a vine. Similarly, Snipp, Snapp, and Snurr are unable to find enough money to buy their mother red shoes for her birthday, so they find ways to earn the money. In one story, the sacrifice is intensified when five sheep shop for a gift for their friend and their piggy bank does not provide adequate funds. So they shear themselves and trade their wool (literally a piece of themselves) for the gift. And Little Pig is unable to decide on the perfect gift for his mother, so he ties a ribbon around his head. In response, Little Pig’s mother says, "This is the best present you could possibly have given me. There’s nothing in the world I’d rather have" (Gray 1990, p. 24).

The maxim that it’s the thought that counts is also evident in these stories, such that even when gifts go wrong they still bring delight to the recipient. For instance, when Little Fox mistakenly believes that it is his mother’s birthday and attempts to bake her a cake, he makes a mess in the kitchen. But learning what he has tried to do, his mother gives him a loving hug and he earns the respect of his father and siblings. In some instances, the child gives a gift that is a luxurious treat perfectly suited to the birthday recipient, as when young Martha gives his favorite Swedish tobacco and a handmade card with raised letters to her Swedish grandfather who is blind and living in a nursing home. But more often the child giver’s sincerity, sacrifice, and limited resources seem to excuse the modesty of their gifts. This is seen, for example, in a story in which a six-year-old black girl goes by bus with her unemployed father to purchase a flat of annual flowers for her working mother. The success of this gift is evident in her mother’s delight when she sees the flowers in the planter in the window of their apartment.

If there is little moral conflict in tales such as these, it is because the recipient is made to seem especially deserving, whether it is a hard-working mother, a blind old grandfater who misses his homeland, or a kind neighbor woman. The implicit message is that we should express love toward those who are themselves good, kind, sympathetic people. Johnson (1996) finds a similar tactic used in certain children’s animal stories in order to evoke sympathetic attitudes and actions toward these animals. In stories where children’s fervent birthday wishes are gratified by adults who must sacrifice in order to do so, the child generally is also made to appear clearly deserving. For example, when Chris longs for a bike like his friends Miles’ for his twelfth birthday, he realizes that his out-of work-father can ill-afford to give it to him. He nevertheless uses his talent at wood carving to make gifts for others for Kwanzaa. When his relatives all pool their money to get him the longed-for bike, he not only takes a job delivering papers with the bike, but also arranges for his father to take over as newspaper route manager. He mistakenly comes to believe that his father needs to post a $300 bond to get the job, and is willing to give up his loved bicycle to obtain the money. His deservingness of the bicycle under these circumstances is made almost melodramatically evident. Such deservingness bases for acting benevolently toward someone do not convey strong messages of altruism however. They suggest instead a morality based on justice and rights rather than a morality based on care and concern for others (Tetenbaum and Pearson 1989Cc.f. Kohlberg 1981 and Gilligan 1982). Ironically it is in some of the stories involving elements of egoism where the stronger moral messages about altruism may be found.

Pragmatic and Egoistic Departures from the Altruistic Ideal

There are several major types of departures from the altruistic ideal of the perfect gift in these stories. One variant, especially common among adult male characters, is an emphasis on pragmatism over what is depicted as sentimental idealism. In one story, a father sends his 14-year-old daughter to learn what his wife really wants for her birthday because his past gifts to her have been failures. He learns that what she truly desires is a magical cake that her mother used to bake for her. After dismissing it as impractical because his wife is always dieting, he suggests that they order it from a bakery. When his daughter explains that a magical cake can’t be purchased so easily, he becomes frustrated and gets his wife a bathrobe. The daughter perseveres in baking the cake and succeeds in recreating the magical recipe. Similarly, when Jasper is asked by his father what he wants for his upcoming seventh birthday, his father also admonishes him to be certain it is something practical. He quickly dismisses Jasper’s wish that he could drive a horse and buggy around Central Park by the light of the moon and serenade a beautiful princess. The father suggests something more practical like a bicycle or summer camp, and eventually buys Jasper a wooden rocking horse. As in several other of the birthday stories, the horse magically comes alive and helps Jasper fulfill his fantasies. The polarities here are consistent and revealing. Children, and to a lesser degree women, live in a world of fantasy that depends on sustaining magical belief in the face of adult male pressures to "grow up" and become rational and practical. As with Peter Pan who refuses to grow up and Dorothy and her magical shoes, belief in fantastic wishes transcends the pragmatic bounds of rationality that threatens the magical world of children’s fantasies as well as the ideal of altruism.

Another threat to the ideal of altruism, also depicted most commonly among males, is a tendency toward egoism, selfishnss, and greed. In one alliterative story entitled The Birthday Burglar, Bassington has been abandoned by his wealthy parents to the care of Baker the Butler. Feeling he needs a special day and learning that he cannot buy one, the boy proceeds to steal birthdays from others. He is eventually discovered and made to return the birthday trimmings and gifts. A more prosocial message is attempted in a tale in which Peter teaches his younger brother Davy that they must get their mother something she would like for her birthday rather than only things they would like. Nevertheless, Davy spends all of their money on a pinwheel he likes and they are able to salvage a well-received gift only by creatively turning it into part of a "birthday tree" gift for mother. In a similar story, a four-year-old is invited to his friend Maria’s birthday party. When shopping with his mother, the boy selects gifts that are all things he likes. In response, his mother helps him select a gift (a blue ball with yellow polka dots) that Maria will like and it turns out to be just what she wanted. In stories such as these, selfish egoism is presented as the natural state that must be overcome by learning proper expected gift-giving behaviors.

A related theme in several stories is the depiction of children at birthday parties (again especially boys) as real or metaphoric "monsters." In one of the literal stories of this sort, Muck the monster goes to a fellow monster child’s birthday party only to be disgusted by the other guests’ and guest-of-honor’s behavior in pouring punch on each other, throwing birthday cake, butting heads, jumping on beds, and throwing dirt. Hiding from the chaos, he meets a lizard and the two of them go to Muck’s house where they enjoy peanut butter sandwiches and milk. In stories such as this, selfish egoism is portrayed as the natural state of boys and as something they must learn to overcome. There are exceptions (including some noted above) in which boys are caring and altruistic, but there are few tales in which girls are shown as innately selfish.

An exception, and another type of threat to the ideal of altruism, involves sibling rivalry. Because the birthday of a sibling takes attention away from non-birthday children in the family and gives it, as well as numerous treats and delights, to the sibling, both boys and girls are shown to suffer from envy. In one story, Sister Bear becomes a "green-eyed monster" when she eyes Brother Bear’s new bicycle and becomes envious. She is unwilling to repress her envy and accept that the new bike is just too big for her, until she has a nightmare in which she wrecks the new bike. At the end of the story, Father Bear begins to feel envy for his friend’s new car, and after a gentle reminder from Sister Bear to watch out for the "green-eyed monster," he congratulates his friend and the story ends happily. In many of the sibling rivalry stories, the sibling relationship is shown to be stronger than the envy, and sometimes the joy of giving is able to overcome the envy. However, in other stories, the tension is eased only by a reciprocal promise that everyone must get their turn at being special on their birthday and that the focal character will have his or her chance as well.

The sibling rivalry theme in birthday stories is also seen in stories of twins or triplets who share the same birthday. A common element in these stories is striving for individual recognition rather than being perceived as part of a set of identical siblings. Besides convincing others to respect them as individuals, these stories also sometimes are about learning to share. Thus, the triplets Cleo, Mirabelle, and Gertrude repeatedly learn that when they all want the same thing, they all lose as a result. But after they learn that they must share in order to have a pet dog, they find that sharing brings the best results. As a negative example, the story of Snyder Spider involves his running away on his birthday only to be captured by one of the twin sister "kangapuses," who sings to her sister:

Oh, I got it [a captured Snyder], you want it, but it belongs to me!; You won’t forget it and you won’t admit it,; But you’re jealous as can be!; You’re jealous of my face, you’re jealous of my grace,; You’re jealous of my smile, you’re jealous of my style,; You’re jealous of my hospitality!; You’re jealous of my feet, you’re jealous that I’m sweet,’ You’re jealous of everything I do!; Well, you fight and fuss, you old kangapus; But I’m not jealous of you! Yeah, I got it, you want it, but it belongs to me!; If you ever get it, you won’t regret it,; But you ain’t gonna get it from me! (Bach 1986, p. 10).

Here too, Snyder learns from these bad examples. The Kangapuses are two of the many "bad" forest creatures who are not invited to his birthday party. Snyder Spider returns to his surprise birthday party as a more grateful and less jealous spider.

The triplet story also involves a common plot element of wanting a pet for a birthday. Usually these stories provide dramatic tension through some element that seemingly precludes having the pet, only to overcome the obstacle and achieve a happy ending. The common childhood desire for a pet can be read in several very different ways. One reading is that pets provide another being to care for and teach nurturance, responsibility, and care-giving to the child. In a number of the stories involving birthday pets this is made explicit as the child agrees to accept responsibility in exchange for the joys of owning a pet. A very different reading of some of the same pet acquisition stories is that the child seeks and acquires an animal that they will be able to dominate in much the same manner that their parents dominate them. Johnson (1996) describes this as "a dream where prestige and power will accompany the ecstasy of possessing another creature" (p. 7). A third take on the child-pet animal relationship is that the animal provides a mirror through which the child is able to projectively see him or herself. As Fiedler (1978) has observed, children may wonder "whether they are beasts or men: little animals more like their pets than their parents" (p. 28). And Bataille (1993) suggests that children are "animals becoming human" (p. 65). There is also an aspect of extended self in pet ownership, in that many pets extend the range of what the child is able to do, as expressed most dramatically in magical birthday stories in which a toy horse comes alive and takes its owner away to adventures. This is a very different type of egoistic involvement with pets than either the care-giving or possessive interpretations. It appears to us that each of these interpretations of the desire for a birthday pet are plausible for at least some of the stories (see also Belk 1996b). No doubt this multivocality in the meanings of pet ownership extends beyond the birthday context examined here, but in the present context, the focus on desire for a pet draws the greatest attention to the acquisitive and possessive aspects of wishing for pets. Only in two stories concerning pets (of more than a dozen) do we see a primary focus on care-giving.

A final egoistic theme in the children’s birthday stories analyzed involves fulfilled and unfulfilled wants, wishes, and desires. In one variant of these stories noted above, the wish is blocked by some impediment that is overcome to result in a happy ending of wish fulfillment. In these stories the intensity and fervency of the wish is often stressed, including the Kwanzaa-related birthday story noted earlier in which Chris prays for the bike he so strongly desires. Often, as in Chris’s case, wish fulfillment s accompanied by deservingness. In a second variant, magical surprises fulfill a child’s unspoken wishesCanother characteristic of the perfect gift (Belk 1996a). Inevitably in such stories, the child reflects that this was the best birthday ever. But a third variant of the wish stories is the unfulfilled wish. Thus Billy, who longs for a bike like his friend Carlos gets for his birthday, learns that his single mother cannot afford it. In this case Billy’s brother builds him a soap box racer that he uses to win the non-bike race in the park. In another story, eight-year old Treehorn longs for a television and other fantastic birthday gifts only to have his pragmatic father and shopaholic mother give him a sweater just like the one he has outgrown since his last birthday. When he finds a magic lamp and a genie who grants him three wishes, he wishes only for a birthday cake, candles, and his name on the cake. Still a final undisclosed wish as he blows out the candles leaves open the possibility of a happier future outcome. And when Hannah, who loves gorillas, finds that her father is always too busy to take her to the zoo, the toy gorilla that she gets for her birthday comes alive, dons a hat, coat, and bow tie, and takes her to the zoo as well as dancing on the lawn. When she awakes the next day, the gorilla is a toy again and her father takes her to the zoo. These stories, together with a number of stories in which the child fears that his or her birthday will be forgotten, suggest equating gifts with love. To worry that wishes will be unattended is not simply a matter of egoism, it reveals a deeper anxiety that the child is not loved. Nevertheless, the happy endings of almost all of the stories provide hope that parents love their children altruistically and unconditionally.


The resolution of the tension between egoism and altruism in children’s birthday stories makes altruism the victor, but less because it is itself more rewarding than because it leads to better material rewards for the altruist. Most often a way is found through which a child can be both altruistic and egoistic. Commonly this is through a test or demonstration of humility, generosity of spirit, or other altruistic acts of deservingness, which culminate in getting what the child wants. That is, unlike many of the older fairy tales, these contemporary tales have happy endings suggesting that the child can have their wishes granted if they are good enough. One way to be "good" is by behaving generously and graciously toward others. In pursuing a deeper understanding of the moral messages in these birthday stories, we found that girls and older children show more sacrifice, sharing, and caring, and less greed, individualism, and egoism to be overcome. The idea that altruism is its own reward is feminized by its depiction almost exclusively among females and older persons. The very young, very old, and impoverished are most commonly the recipients of such "true altruism." A more universal ideal is that of communal support for birthdays involving a system of family, friends, and community. But their largesse is also largely directed to those who are morally deserving. Thus the overall message about altruism these children’s books is that altruistic acts are a means to self-gratification via a deus ex machina rewarding individualistic deservingness.


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Russell Belk, University of Utah
Kimberly Dodson, University of Utah


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24 | 1997

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The Embodiment of Repair: Consumer Experiences of Material Singularity and Practice Disruption

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