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Whose Birthday Party Is It?

by on Jan.23, 2012, under Brat-Proofing, Child development, Expectations, Holidays, Parenting

I might hold the record for having given the most single birthday parties. Each of my kids (triplets) had his/her own party from age two years old on up. It’s not that I am a glutton for punishment; it’s that there’s not much that is all yours besides your name and your birthday. In the case of triplets, the need is magnified.  So I bought into the whole birthday party phenomenon.

 The majority of my kids’ parties happened in our yard because we had the space.  They ran the gamut: Olympics party; break dancing party; western party; tea party…to name a few. The cakes were homemade; the favors were trinkets; the guest lists were small.   I write, however, not to pat myself on the back, but rather to marvel at how birthday parties have changed. Welcome to the world of competitive birthday partying.

 Birthday parties used to be about a child and his friends. Today’s parties include the child guests, their siblings, their parents…and, by the way, the caregiver, the visiting relatives, and a friend for the sibling.

 Birthday party themes used to be age appropriate. Activities were simple and loads of fun. Today’s parties aim to outdo all the others; the fancier, more grown-up and wildly different, the better. The ante keeps getting upped, and the emphasis is no longer on the child and his birthday. It’s “Look what I did for my child.”

 Birthday fare used to be cake and apple juice. Throw in a cheese pizza if a meal is on the agenda. Today’s parties boast a broad buffet of options for the pickiest palates with a vegan, glutton free, organic, whole grain, naturally sweetened cake and a fully catered feast for the parents, and oh yes, don’t forget the open bar. I’m exhausted just thinking about it feeding all those people.

 The birthday party favor used to be a small something handed to the guest to assuage any sadness at his not receiving a truckload of gifts as does the birthday boy. Today’s favors put some birthday gifts to shame. And what’s with the candy in the bag? No one allows her young child to roam free in candyville, and yet goodie bags are padded with forbidden sweet junk.

 Most children are thrilled by just the prospect of the upcoming birthday party. Young children, in particular, are content with far less than parents realize. It is the parents who go overboard, and they ruin it for all the rest.

 (There are some children who prefer to steer clear of the event and the inherent attention, avoiding the spot light and even the singing of the birthday song. They are the exception. For these children, skip the party. You’ll both be happier.) 

 The time has come to get back to birthday party basics and to remember, it’s the child’s birthday.

  1.  The guest list.  How much better it would be for your child if you adhered to the birthday party rule:  Invite as many kids as  years your child is old, plus one. If your child is turning 4, invite 5 friends. I know, I know—there are school rules about inviting all the girls/boys.  At least keep in mind the reality that most kids do better among fewer friends. Remember, it is your child’s party, not yours. Your friends, neighbors, distant relatives, work associates will understand. This should not be your pay-back time.
  2. The theme. The theme and activities should be based on your child’s interests and age. Less really is more. Just being together with peers generates plenty of excitement for children. Make it easy on yourself, too.  All kids love cookie decorating, especially licking the frosting off the plastic knife! Remember Pin the Tail on the Donkey?  Relay races including running with eggs in spoons?  Kids still love simple games and activities.  Many people don’t have yards and homes that accommodate a party. Gyms and other venues can be great. But we’re not talking about renting out the baseball stadium for practice with the Dodgers.
  3. The food. Remember this:  the kids don’t care! Keep it simple and give yourself a break. And since you’re not inviting the guests’ families, let the one accompanying parent eat the kids’ food. By the way, parents love pizza, too.
  4. The favors.  Kids don’t need goodie bags. If one parent stops giving them, the rest will follow suit, and everyone will be relieved, I promise. The favor is the fun time at the party. If you’re worried that the guest will feel deprived, then remind yourself that every child has a birthday every year. It’s time he learns to delay gratification. His turn to be the birthday boy will come.
  5. The birthday gift.  Does your child need anything?  I doubt it. Most families house their own, personal Toys R Us. I am not Ebenezer Scrooge; I do think kids should get a few gifts. But ten gifts are not necessary. The more they get, the less they appreciate.   If you start young, your child will not grow to expect to receive a gift from each guest. Even better, why not ask your guests to donate to your charity of choice in honor of your child.

 Putting the child back in his own birthday party has to start somewhere. Let it start with you, this year.


8 Comments for this entry

  • Jane

    Great blog!! This is often the topic of our yearly parent meetings. As a long-time educator from a respected independent school, I did want to clarify our school “rules” for parties – we certainly don’t expect parents to invite everyone!!

    “A few guidelines follow to help make social gatherings or birthdays wonderful experiences for the child as well as for his or her classmates. The goal is not to limit family choices, but to help families avoid situations, which we observe to be problematic for the social development of children. We realize these guidelines will not apply to all social gatherings, such as spontaneous groupings, and therefore encourage families to use common sense and uphold the spirit of these guidelines.”

    “The following measures are not so much about rules, but guidelines for building a strong community, which encourages inclusion. Social gatherings and especially birthdays are a time of joy and celebration, but when classmates are excluded, a happy event may unintentionally become hurtful and upsetting to those not included. In a school our size, we encourage sensitivity for the feelings of all children and the avoidance of parties where children may reasonably feel excluded. It is our strong belief that that the only parties parents give should be one of three types in regards to our students:
    1. Host the entire class of both boys and girls;
    2. Invite all of the children of the same gender as the birthday child;
    3. Invite a small number of a single gender – no more than four for K-4 and no more than five for grades 5-8. In Preschool, where each class may total only six or seven of one gender, we strongly encourage inviting only one or two of the same gender from one of the small-group Preschool classes.”

    My own kiddos certainly enjoyed PJs and pancakes in the front yard, decorating cupcakes, “almost sleepovers,” and bobbing for powdered donuts swinging from the rafters! We always kept it simple! Great memories and loads of fun!

    Thank you!!

  • M

    Great blog! My kids didn’t have their first party (with friends that is – family party every year) until they were 5, and they can only have them every-other year. I think it makes them appreciate their own parties more. And gratefully, they are more than happy having the party at home!

  • Anita Kinney

    Great blog!! I didn’t realize the pressure until I became a parent!! I used to tell my parents when I was a director to keep it simple and this past year for Lexi’s 4th I took my own advice. When parents felt obligated to have big parties with all their school friends, I invited them to have their parties at school…no favors, no gifts, no mess at home! Just friends singing happy birthday and sharing a fun activity in honor of the birthday child! Sometimes it was a favorite book, music & dancing, even cookie decorating! So when I felt “the pressure” I spoke to her school’s director and brought balloons and cupcakes for snacktime! I came in after they had already had their planned “healthy snack” with daddy & grandma & a video camera. It was just enough for my shy little girl and her busy working mom who both get easily overwhemed!! Less really is more!! Of course we also had a family party with her cousins and the traditional pinata! Couldn’t get around that!! A party for 3 kids is much easier than a party for 20!

  • J

    This may be one of your most timely blogs for me! Thank you! I have a child who doesn’t want birthday parties and only wants family – loves going to others parties, but doesn’t like the attention on her! It is not easy because several friends still want to celebrate with her and we try to find ways to do that while also giving our child the right to decide what she wants for her day. It is not easy, but I’ve been learning to follow my daughter’s lead. Thank you for reinforcing that!!!

  • Betsy BB

    This blog has generated a lot of comments so it must have hit a chord! Good for you for standing up to the pressure and doing what is best for your child. That is your priority, after all. You must be a great mom, J.

  • Jennifer

    I absolutely LOVED your recent blog on birthday parties. It was so nice to be reminded what the kids’ birthdays are actually about…the KID! Roman’s 4th is coming up and I’ve been trying to decide what to do – after reading your blog, I think I’ve figured it out.

    Thanks Betsy!

  • Donna Holloran


    JUST had this conversation w/my brother a few weeks ago when they were planning my nephew’s 5th b’day party as my sister in law tends to go a bit overboard on the birthday party thing. BTW, my sister in law is a full time working mom who often has to travel for business so I know there is some guilt associated w/this b’day party overkill.

    I sent your blog to my brother and he said it sounded just like what I’d suggested a few weeks ago. “Make the party about YOUR child…make it special…especially as they are getting older…”

    And, yes, for my nephew’s 5th birthday party, they took my advice…invited 6 boys…(one more than my nephew’s age)…and did a LEGO party…found a LEGO PARTY GUY who comes to the house who brought tons of legos, etc. Everything was lego which is my nephew’s favorite thing…it was a huge success and both my brother and sister in law were grateful for the advice (and money saved). AND, believe me…I suggested PIN THE TAIL ON THE DONKEY! 🙂

    And, don’t ask me what they are doing for the 3 year old…my sister in law has 2nd x mom guilt on top of working mom guilt so his party is a BIG one this year! 🙂

  • Marylyn Stueckrath

    Truly good site thank you so much for your time in publishing the posts for all of us to learn about.

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