Prizes used to be for winning. Now children expect to leave a party laden with goodies. Why do parents put up with it
Crisps and jellies are ready, the games are all set and the furniture pushed to one side when the first wave of guests arrives. "Where's my party bag?" pipes up a five-year-old, and I swap an embarrassed glance with the mother.

This little exchange, with minor variations, has been repeated with depressing regularity at children's parties I have thrown or attended as a chauffeur in eight years of fatherhood. My response has varied from a clipped "You'll get it at the end", said through clenched teeth, to a defiant "There aren't any".

Why do we go along with this ritual of handing out little bags of plastic tack and yet more tooth-rotting sweets to the crisped-out, sugar-satiated punters at the end of the party? We all know that most of the contents will be consumed, spilled or broken by overtired, over-excited children on the short journey home.

But go along with it we do. A telephone survey of friends around the country revealed that the practice is all but universal in Nineties Britain. Most parents shrug and offer the rationale that, well, everyone else does it, so the children now expect something to go home with.

When, earlier this year, I decided finally to put my foot down and to ban party bags from my younger son's fifth birthday, there was a certain amount of agonising in the household over whether or not I would go down in local lore as the Scrooge of the reception class. I argued that we were already hiring a mini-gym and laying on tea at the leisure centre; what more could the kids (or their parents) want?

As it turned out, my gesture was in vain. The leisure centre, being in the business of keeping its customers happy, provided party bags as part of the deal. The requirement was so obvious that they didn't see the need to discuss it with us.

Back in the early Sixties, when I was on the birthday party circuit myself, only the lucky few went home with presents. Prizes had to be won, either by luck (pass the parcel) or by physical prowess (musical chairs, statues). There were, on occasion, tears of disappointment, and perhaps it was unfair that budding Daley Thompsons won more than their share, but we learned that the fun came from taking part (and that prizes were all the sweeter for their rarity).

Only once was I presented with a party bag (although it was called a going home present). Naturally, we were pleased with this unexpected show of generosity, but I remember also feeling distinctly suspicious at what seemed an overdone gesture on a par with offering a third or fourth helping of ice cream.

So how, in the space of 30 years, has a rare and lavish gesture turned into a kitsch ritual of conspicuous consumption? I asked Susie Burrows, the proprietor of It's My Party, a small specialist shop in Battersea, south London, who confirmed my suspicion that it is a relatively recent import from America, like trick-or-treating on Hallowe'en, which has taken root on these shores in the past 15 years.

If proof were needed, most of Susie's stock of small games and toys is manufactured in the Far East but distributed from the United States (where, incidentally, they are known as "party favors"). This means that when you pay 20p for a bracelet, you get a couple of pence-worth of parts and labour, and about 10p-worth of round-the-world shipping costs.

Given that a large slice of Susie's income derives from providing party bags, she is surprisingly sympathetic to the plight of the reluctant parent. "People just feel that they have to provide them, so I try to stock as many comparatively cheap things as I can," she says, waving towards shelves of plastic goodies costing as little as 12p a throw. "After all, that's what children want - lots of little things. But it's amazing how many people - and I'm talking about the parents, the mothers - don't want them. They want something more expensive."

The something more expensive is preferably made of wood, such as a mini football rattle costing pounds 2.45, or has long-term usefulness, such as a skipping rope or a pack of cards.

It's My Party will either fill bags to a particular budget - and orders of 30 bags at pounds 4.50 each are not unknown - or bag and label goodies of the parents' choice.

But even with the help of a specialist shop, budgeting and choice is no easy matter. "It's very tricky," says Susie. "Far worse than giving a dinner party, and almost as expensive. Mothers spend an awful lot of time and money organising them." The competition leads to escalating levels of expenditure on themed party accessories, with matching invitations, disposable plates and cups, balloons and party bags, in pirate or dinosaur designs for boys, princesses (yes, still) and fairies for girls. All this in addition to an entertainer, a custom-baked cake, possibly professional caterers, and (even expensive houses in Battersea being small) the hire of a local hall.

So, by some mysterious transference, the children's birthday party has turned into a battleground of social ambitions, ripe for the attention of a contemporary Jane Austen. No one considers the embarrassment of the mother who can't afford to keep up, or the danger of turning our children into spoilt little brats.

Or is it merely a harmless indulgence in parental pride? After all, today's Mrs Bennets aren't trying to marry off their five-year-olds, they just want the fun of dressing them up and clucking over them. As they know from their own relatively recent coming of age, they'll never see their daughters as debutantes or throw formal 21st birthday parties for their sons: it is only in early childhood that today's offspring are biddable.

The danger here is that children become mere spectators, even extras, at what is supposed to be their own event.

I suggested to Susie Burrows that party bags must come to an end at nine or 10, when, instead of a tea party for the whole class, the child will take a smaller group of friends off for a treat.

"Oh, no," she said, "it's still expected. They go off to a film or whatever, then they are given a bag to go home with."

No wonder that Disney now makes as much money from merchandising as from each new children's film, or that the promoters of big rock shows routinely make more from printed T-shirts, glossy programmes and other paraphernalia than from ticket sales. We've entered the era of the spin-off, and the party bag is the spin-off from the birthday party, the take-home proof that you were there.

For those parents grappling with the party-bag issue or simply wanting to economise, here are a few hints.

l Instead of an entertainer, organise a treasure hunt and traditional games such as pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey or grandmother's footsteps, with plenty of small prizes. This has the double advantage of economy for parents and active involvement for the children, so they are better behaved and hungrier when you feed them.

l By all means fix the games so each child wins a precisely fair share of the prizes - there is no going back to the Darwinian unfairness of earlier times, when only the high achievers won. I once awarded my less- than-Olympian son a prize for coming third in an event when he unwisely demanded an Olympic theme party. The boy who won every event did not worry that he received only one prize, the same as everyone else.

l Provide each child with a bag at the end, to take home one or two prizes and a slice of the cake that never gets eaten - an excellent compromise.

l If you really can't hold out against the party bag pressure, follow Susie Burrows' advice and fill the bags as cheaply as possible, substituting tiny boxes of raisins for sweets. For slightly older children, you'll feel better if you provide useful goodies such as pencil sharpeners, crayons and rulers instead of plastic puzzles that no one can ever work out before the pieces get lost.

Good luck, and party on.

Trick chocolate and marbles beat the pink plastic butterflies

Six party bags supplied by Susie Burrows of It's My Party were reviewed by Frances and Lucia Giffard, aged eight and six, and Tom and Darcy Millar, aged eight and five.

75p girls' bag: pink fairy motif, containing a mini yo-yo, plastic butterfly, bracelet, beads and notebook.

Lucia: I would like this [pointing to the notebook]. But I think boys get better things than the girls.

Frances: I think it's revolting. I'm not a fan of pink or necklaces. I like animals. I like the butterfly, it's the only thing I like.

75p boys' bag: dinosaur motif, containing a helicopter whirrer, plastic puzzle, mini plastic string-and-ball game, snake whistle and chocolate bar that squirts water.

Darcy: I don't like it - except the trick chocolate.

Tom: It's more grown-up than the girls'. It's an OK party bag; better than average.

pounds 1.50 girls' bag: printed in yellow with the word Loot, containing play clay, address book, fake tattoo, purse, golden heart-shaped stickers and shaped ruler.

Lucia: I like the book and tattoo.

Frances: I like the fake tattoo and the clay. It's a kind of good bag, but it's just yellow, it needs more pattern.

pounds 1.50 boys' bag: red, containing a kazoo, magnifying glass, fake glasses- nose-and-moustache disguise, mini Frisbee, knot game, number puzzle and referee's whistle.

Darcy (greedily): I like all of them. A good bag.

Tom (grudgingly): Reasonable.

pounds 4.50 girls' bag: with coloured balloon design, containing a large bamboo- and-paper fan, bamboo flute, skipping rope, set of hair grips and mini tambourine.

Lucia: I liked the other bag better.

Frances: The best bag so far - it's got more amusing things in it. But the fan doesn't close quickly enough, like the good Spanish ones [her mother is from Gibraltar].

pounds 4.50 boys' bag: containing a blowpipe with target, water pistol, spinning top, giant yo-yo and bag of marbles.

Darcy: I love the shooting thing and the water pistol, but the marbles are king.

Tom: I don't know many parents who give things as good as this - it would make it less special for the party boy or girl. The blowpipe makes you think it's cool, but I bet it's no good when you open it.

General comments:

Frances: the boys' things are more interesting and exciting.

Lucia: I think boys and girls should get the same things.

Tom: Yes, all the girls in my class hate Barbies, and I don't think many parents think a great deal about party bags - they are a waste of money.

Lucia: Sometimes you get something you really hate, but you can't throw it in the rubbish because that would hurt their feelings.

Frances: Well, throw it in the bin when you get home.