These events get parents to fork over numerous dollars on the latest toys and carve out 2-3 hours of precious weekend time. Why? So their own child can run wild, get a sugar high and beg for the same experience when her own birthday rolls around. The children love it, the parents buy into it, and I want to know: who’s responsible for this?
When I was a kid, birthday parties were just another reason to hang out with relatives in a backyard cookout. Sometimes I could invite a friend. I did receive gifts—usually clothes—but nothing special. Aunts and uncles smiled, remarked how big I was getting and disappeared for a drink refill. My cousins and I fueled up on soda and ran around the yard until it was time for the best part—the cake.
Nowadays, the preschool scene is an endless round of birthday parties, meeting the same kids and parents at the same gym, zoo or Chuck E. Cheese’s. And the gifts range from ridiculous (makeup sets for four-year-olds) to lavish (ensembles of the most popular toy and the latest award-winning game complete with matching bag). They are decorated like wedding cakes and often accompanied by flowers bouquets or talking cards. One thing hasn’t changed, however. The kids still run around and look forward to cake.
When Sofie was three, we officially entered the birthday party circuit. I remember her first friend’s party where I gaped at mothers arriving with giant balloon displays and three-tiered gifts wrapped to shiny perfection. It made my simple book encased in Sofie’s artwork quite drab in comparison. At the time, I still subscribed to the “less is more” philosophy and tried to keep Sofie impervious to the world of Licensed Plastic Playthings.
For her own third birthday —attempting to honor her princess obsession in a different way—I talked her into guest donations to one of Princess Diana’s favorite charities. This was in lieu of gifts. She didn’t mind, as long as there was cake. Once she turned four, she had completed a year of the party circuit and knew she was getting gypped.
I believe birthdays should be fun, but exactly when did they become so overblown? Often, that overblown quality goes straight to cookie cutter. I swear I’ve seen the same princess doll opened at no less than three parties. There’s nothing to ooh and ah about anymore. For the record, I do not like this tradition of opening gifts in front of everyone—thankfully, this seems passé in my party circuit. An eco-mother’s uniquely recycled giftwrap and educational book will never match the latest princess-fairy-superhero toy in all its plastic glory.
And what is my child learning from all this? Birthdays are about presents? Newer and bigger is better? The comparisons kill me. “Savannah got Diva Barbie for her birthday, so I want it too.” “Aiden invited the whole class to his party – why can’t I?”
Mostly because I refuse to shell out the big bucks that Aiden’s mom did. Party space rental prices are obscene (starting at $200 for just half the class) and that usually does not include food, decorations and favors. Attending these parties really adds up too. A year’s worth of friends’ birthday gifts can equal an airplane ticket (a cheap domestic flight on Southwest, but still).
I must admit I sometimes succumb to the madness. I’ve given popular plastic toys wrapped in non-biodegradable paper. We threw Sofie a big fifth birthday bash at which she received piles of glossy gifts.
Yet, when I come across examples of kids thinking beyond the typical birthday party, I make a point to show it to my daughter. Kids who request charity donations or center their party around helping someone in need. And guess what? Sofie noticed my Defenders of Wildlife magazine one day and was inspired to have a Save-the-Wild-Animals themed party for her next birthday (still five months away). How cool is that? She still wants gifts, of course, but she also wants to tie in saving animals. I can work with that.
I wish birthday party moms could get together and agree to ending the overblown party cycle. Change it up a bit. Agree to eco-friendly party themes, a $10 gift limit or some fun theme like “gifts that rhyme with your child’s name.” If the cake is the best part, why not focus on that? Have each guest bring a cake or throw a cake-baking party or put the doll inside the cake (that caused a sensation at one girl’s party).
Enough of the business of children’s birthday parties! Let us return to the days of the home party: limited guest lists, space for running, drinks for the parents and lots of cake.