I will start by admitting I’m an old parent with young-ish kids so when I was experiencing birthday parties as a kid it was the 1970s. I don’t know about other parents but the parties we feel compelled to throw for our kids and the parties they attend are generally very different than those in the 70s. By the time my oldest was 4, we felt like birthday parties needed to be a production. Some years we go down that rabbit hole and some years we manage to stay fairly low key.
Why have kids’ parties gotten so over the top?
There are many reasons to be honest. Sometimes, it’s just fun. Going full on Harry Potter can get your creative juices flowing and it can be fun. Sometimes it’s because parents want to make our kids happy and production parties can be exciting for them. Sometimes it’s really about keeping up with the Joneses. Nobody wants their kid to be the one whose party is “sub-standard” and the possible subject of whispers from either other kids or parents alike. Sometimes we want to be that “cool parent” because them maybe our kids will “like” us more. Maybe we are living out our own childhood wishes for “the best” party experience. Maybe it’s parenting guilt and the need to prove ourselves.
What’s wrong with BIG parties?
This can be a tricky one. I will admit the kids often do enjoy the production parties whether it’s art themed, or a place where kids jump in bounce houses or on trampolines. It’s a delicate balance between choosing something that’s a lot of fun for all the kids and being aware of contributing to the community expectations of an “event”. When we contribute to those expectations we are all on the same hamster wheel that’s hard to exit.
The big event parties can be exhausting to plan and pull off. In addition, they are expensive! Anymore, the standard event party is at least $300 and that’s before the themed party bags. It can be a big financial burden for families to participate in the birthday party circuit. As mentioned, the big deal parties create a kind of competitive environment even if that’s not what we want to do. Kids begin to be envious of whatever’s better (which inevitably will happen). Kids start to have a sense of entitlement and expectation of “more”. Sometimes the kids get way over-stimulated and can even start to have less fun.
Let’s be honest about those gift bags and gifts
The gift bag for attendees may be one of the most dreaded parts of the party. How many parents hate all the plastic junk that comes home in those bags? Putting them together can be just as annoying, especially trying to coordinate them to a theme. Most of the time we are just contributing to over-full landfills which is a problem itself. Also, the message kind of misses the mark. It’s really ok to teach kids to celebrate someone else and not have to be rewarded for it. We’ve managed to get to the point where we are giving kids presents to come to a party for a friend or classmate.
On the topic of gifts, maybe it’s time to decrease the more-more-more expectation kids have now. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if each birthday kids didn’t end up with mountains of gifts on top of the party? Again, all those presents help contribute to a growing entitlement culture. It can be hard for the party attendees parents to know what to get for a kid they may not actually know that well. Not only does it get expensive but it can also create situations of too many things the birthday child may not want or need.
What can we do about it?
First, if you feel comfortable, have a conversation with the parents of your kids’ friends. Find out how they feel about the birthday party pressure. Maybe together you can start to create some changes. Second, talk to your kids about the specifics of what they most enjoy about birthday parties. Chances are it’s mostly about having fun with their friends which doesn’t have to be a big production.
We’ve tried most of these hints and I can vouch that they can be quite successful.
1) To keep the materialism down and do some good at the same time-have party guests bring a food donation or community donation like socks instead of presents. Make a big deal of having the birthday child bring in the donations.
2) Mix it up so sometimes there are small parties mostly at home. Maybe you take a few friends to a movie or swimming and have a meal but don’t have a big event. You can still decide that landmark birthdays (e.g., 10 or sweet 16) will be an event but you can stop the expectation that every year will be a huge spectacle.
3) Opt for experiences with the birthday child instead of a party. Experiences might be an extra special restaurant or seeing a play or maybe a small road trip to see the neighboring state’s interesting sights. If the experience is going to be a bigger one, that might also be the present as well as the party.
4) Go back to the at home parties that are really about having fun running around with friends and having cake and maybe some pizza. Spring and summer babies may get a scavenger hunt in the yard or a little driveway basketball. Fall and winter babies may have an art project or a chance to give each other manicures indoors. It all depends on your weather and your kids.
5) Have your kids invite some friends to “do good”. Feed My Starving Children has a permanent location near me so it wouldn’t be hard to create a food packing “party”. Maybe your kids and their friends would like to go visit at a nursing home and play board games with the residents. Maybe a gang of kids can rake leaves for a neighbor in a random act of kindness. It’s never too early to teach kids the joys of helping someone else and doing something bigger than themselves.
It’s ok to set down the parent guilt or the need to be cool or keeping up with everyone else. Chances are your kids need a lot less than you think they do. Their friends will have fun just hanging out. It’s really all just about celebrating your child anyway.
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