Stop Going Crazy With Birthday Parties For Kids

by golbguru on September 6, 2007

birthday kidKids’ birthdays are meant to be celebrated for various reasons - sharing the kids’ and parents’ joy, creating memories that last forever, generally having a good time, etc. However, now-a-days, it appears that the term “celebrations” have somehow taken the meaning of “spending large amounts of money in trying to prove how our party is better than yours“.

Even before I put my thoughts and words together for this post, I have been thinking in terms of “herd mentality” - especially when it comes to consumerism. It probably applies well to kids’ birthday parties.

This is what happened at a lavish 1st birthday party a couple of weeks ago (ah.. finally a chance to get this off my chest):

Imagine this scenario at the party: Things are happening in a rather expensive restaurant. There are around 80 people including about 30 kids. The adult males have scattered into small groups and are talking to each other about totally unrelated stuff (probably the same things that are generally discussed at any given workplace).

Slightly older kids are running all over the place and pretending that their parents do not exist. Some smaller kids are in their strollers (oblivious of everything around them) and the rest are hanging around their mothers talking to themselves (because the mothers are too busy bitching talking to each other about how their respective party was better than this one).

The parents of the birthday baby are really busy taking care of the arrangements (while keeping an eye on the baby) and they don’t really have much time to talk to all the guests they have invited. The birthday baby is sleeping peacefully. It’s time to cut the cake and the baby shows no signs of waking up. The parents are getting restless because the guests (especially the children) are wondering when this cake-cutting will be done so that they can proceed to hog on the (seemingly) delicious food. So, the parents try to wake up the baby and he starts crying like there’s no tomorrow. The baby is least interested in doing anything and just wants to go back to sleep. But, everybody else is not interested in what the baby wants and they just want to eat the cake and get back home - with their gift bags filled with expensive gifts. :)

So, what exactly was the purpose of the party?

A little birdie told us that it was a $1000+ affair. $1000+ for what!? gift bags for spoiled kids? for inviting *friends* who otherwise didn’t have the time to come visit you to share your joy? to hear them sing “happy birthday to you”? or to tell your kid 25 years down the line: “Look, we spent $1000 on your first birthday - now don’t expect us to pay for your tuition“? OR.. was it just to show friends and relatives that you can spend a large amount of money on birthday celebrations?

Now, 1st birthdays are bit special and I can understand parents going a little overboard in planning that one; but, I have observed almost similar scenarios at birthday parties for 2, 3, and 4 year old kids [none of our acquaintances have kids older than that, so we will have to wait and see what happens as these kids get older]. Things will more likely get worse in terms of spending and outrageousness as the kids get older.

Birthday parties are probably never about the kids - they are always about the parents and their unreasonable tendency to compete with the lavish parties thrown by their neighbors or friends. It’s more about “what will people think of us if we don’t do _____ and _____ at the party?“. When the kids get older, it’s probably more about “will my kid complain to other kids (and their parents) in the neighborhood about us being stingy?“.

When a good chunk of people in a given community start thinking along these lines, some sort of unspoken social standards get created which define a “great” birthday party. After that, everyone gets suckered into following these standards, irrespective of whether such standards are within their resources (of money and mental stress) or not, and things quickly get out of control.

Here is an excellent example that says it all:

I’ve barely started, but am already done with throwing birthday parties for my kids (ages 2 and 4). I love to celebrate their birthdays, but do not want to have to throw a party for their friends with the stress and the cost that comes with it. Not to mention the competition to make the party as fun as the friends’ parties. I want to keep the celebration small, perhaps just a special outing with just the immediate family and then have the grandparents and cousins over for dinner and cake. BUT, my kids get invited to a lot of parties, and I feel guilty for not reciprocating, and the older one is SO excited about his birthday (which is coming up) and keeps telling everyone he sees that they can come to his birthday party. I hate to burst his bubble and tell him that there will be no party…. [source]

Another birthday example that I read on Dollar Stretcher ends with this:

We’re seriously thinking of moving out of this area because of the enormous social pressure to consume!

It appears that the evil cycle of people trying to prove that their party is better than (or at least as good as) their neighbors’ is going to continue till some parents start going against the norms and pull the plug on the showoff aspects of birthday parties.

Of course, feel free to celebrate, but please do it on your own terms and stop competing with others. Try cutting down on party expenses and engage the savings in some kind of an investment that will give your kid a helping hand when he/she really needs it the future. I think your kid will really appreciate that. If you hate to have that kind of a foresight, at least stop for a moment and ask yourself “how is this lavishness going to add value to my kid’s life?” - and act accordingly.

A few times, I have tried to explain this line of thought to some parents we know, and each time, I have been silenced by a single overbearing statement: “You will understand it when you have kids“. That scares me a bit, and makes me wonder if the social pressure will eventually make me an hypocrite when it comes to our kids in future. Time will tell.

Here are some interesting resources/articles to read on this subject:

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{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lynnae @ Being Frugal 09.06.07 at 7:18 am

Amen! I hate the incredible birthday party pressure these days. I’ve never gone super-overboard with parties (spending $100 to rent a place, etc), but I have felt pressured to have the perfect games, gift bags, etc.

Last year I finally said forget it, and I had a few of my daughter’s friends over for a slumber party. No games, just hanging out and having a good time. My daughter told me it was the best birthday “party” that she ever had. The funny thing is, her two best friends ended up doing the same thing for their parties this year. I think we started a good trend!

2 Jenn @ Frugal Upstate 09.06.07 at 7:19 am

I so totally agree with you on this! In my area it isn’t quite so bad, as we are in Upstate NY where it is fairly rural. But still, the pressure to have everyone and their uncle to Chuck-e-Cheese or some such thing, and to do themes, and to spend lots of money on gift bags is there.

What I’ve noticed is that kids (pre teens and teens may be different) just want to play. They might think a theme is neat and all, but they all just want to run around and scream etc etc. It doesn’t take a lot of money to do that. And with a few elements you can give a party the feel of a theme without spending a fortune.

I usually don’t backlink to my articles in a comment (it comes across rather “spammy” most of the time) but I think this is very relevant. I was able to put on a very nice, princess themed birthday party for my 6 year old for around $60 dollars. (Originally it was $51, but then I left the pinata too late and had to buy one.)

The best thing for me about her party was that I overheard a couple of her little friends tell her “This is the best birthday party”.

3 Liz 09.06.07 at 7:37 am

I hope like you that once the kids come, the birthday party gene doesn’t rouse itself. I am also hoping that the scads of plastic junk gene doesn’t come into effect either… My husband told me not to be a fanatic, and I think that when the time comes we’ll try to find a point of moderation…

4 rstlne 09.06.07 at 7:40 am

Growing up, I never had an expensive birthday party. It’s a different generation and a different era now.

5 Kimberly 09.06.07 at 8:25 am

Thank you for this post! This is something that gets on my last nerve, not least because my husband and I know a few people who spend far too much on birthday parties. It’s definitely the case that in some suburbs, the goal is to spend more than your neighbors and invite them all over so that they can see how much you spent.

The truly sad part is that, at the parties I have attended, there is no pressure on the birthday child to learn how to act as a good host. This used to be the reason to throw a party for a child in the first place. My childhood birthday parties were lessons in how to greet and treat guests and share my good fortune, and had I acted badly, there would have been no more parties! Nowadays these lavish parties are an excuse to allow the kids to act like monsters.

Just imagine what these kids are going to be like at 16….

6 stidmama 09.06.07 at 3:59 pm

Well, I think there is a difference between a party for the children and one for the parents. The types of parties that you are describing ARE all about the parents… and how the parents want to be perceived by their own friends.

But not all themed parties are done because the goal is to impress. Once a child is about four or five, they like to have their friends (there are usually three to six friends at that age) join them for cake and some games, but they are not interested in themes and schwag (how is that word spelled?). It is a good way to teach a child how to be host (and how to be a gracious guest).

Older children like to have parties with themes, just as they decorate their bedrooms by a theme when they can. But they also like to be involved, and simply buying all the stuff and presenting it to the children takes half the fun out of the party. My own children had the best time with a wizard party where we bought some themed paper goods (NEVER use real plates and cups at a child’s party!) and made a lot of really nice treats ourselves.

I have found that, by the “tween” years, the children don’t want a party per se but want to go hang out with their friends. Taking a small group to the skating rink or a movie and pizza is a real highlight and everyone is happy — with little hassle and a not much money.

Just my two cents… I wouldn’t be too quick to paint all parents — or all parties — with the same brush. Of course, very few people who comment in this blog are caught up in the “appearances” game anyway…

7 Chief Family Officer 09.06.07 at 7:20 pm

Birthday parties for children under 3 are about the adults, not the kids - that’s definitely true. But having said that, I was willing to pay a pretty substantial amount for my son’s two birthday parties at play rooms (like Gymboree) so that all of the kids would have a great space to play in and as many adults who wanted to come could attend. My toddler is the first grandchild/great-grandchild on both sides, so his birthdays are a big deal. I would love to have the party at my house, but it is far too small for 10 to 20 rambunctious toddlers and another 20 to 30 adults. The grandparents’ houses are not viable options either. I am considering less expensive options for son #2’s first birthday in a few months, but think we’re still likely to end up at a play room because of space issues.

8 The Financial Blogger 09.07.07 at 4:22 am

I prefer hosting my kids’ parties at home. We have a nice summer after noon, hot dogs, beer and juice for the kids :-)

These days, our kids are spoiled by toys. We bring all my son’s toys outside and it looked like an amusement park. Everybody is enjoying their afternoon and it doesn’t cost much.

Restaurant? come on! Who care about restaurants when you are a kid? (unless we are talking about McD’s of course)

9 Welmoed 09.07.07 at 10:45 am

For both my kids’ first through third birthdays, we had the godparents and next door neighbors over for cake. After that, they could invite friends for a small party — as many kids as they were old (so four kids for the fourth birthday). They picked their own themes, and we did simple games (musical chairs, etc) and usually did a craft rather than just have a goodie bag. My son always picked the most interesting themes: for his sixth birthday, he asked to do “The History of the World”. I hung a beaded curtain between two rooms; that was our “time machine” and the kids would go through that to play a game, then come back through the “time machine” for an activity. They all loved it. I don’t think I spent more than $100 for any one of my kids’ parties until my son turned 16 and asked to take five friends to the local laser tag place; it was the first time either kid had had a party anywhere except home.
A new trend I’ve read about is the “charity party”, where the presents (either cash or goods) are donated to charity. The trouble is, this has spawned yet more competition, this time as “My kid is more charitable than yours” or “I gave a hunk of money to your kid’s charity; you’d better cough up for mine.”

10 I buy and sell 09.08.07 at 7:05 am

Do you remember yourself as a kid? Birday party was the best thing ever! (It still is :) ) Let the kids have fun.

11 Jill B 09.08.07 at 8:14 am

I agree wholeheartedly, and I used to run a business giving kids’ cooking birthday parties, which cost a minimum of $300 for 8 kids and routinely cost upwards of $1000 for parents who wanted more than my basic package. I have all the instructions for a do-it-yourself version of my most requested party foods, pizza and chocolate marshmallow lollipops, on my website….all the ingredients can be had for about $25…

12 DivaJean 09.11.07 at 5:20 am

Absolutely agree with other posters. Any parties under age 4 are about the parents and adults. We just have grandparents over for cake and ice cream after dinner when the kidlets are under 4. Once they start establishing their friends, it feels more right to have the party be about their wants and needs.

My son, who turned 5 this year, had an awesome party just borrowing an inflatable jumping room from a family friend (their child has several issues and found jumping in a bouncy room was a way to work off some of the frustration). We put it up in the backyard and lets kids jump and play outside. Cake and punch with a few snacky foods. We bought jumpropes at the Dollar Store for the kids as their take home prizes. Done.

My daughter, who is 8 now, had a really great 7th birthday party. She wanted a tea party. We made fruit kabobs, finger sandwiches, and of course cake & tea. All her friends brought their favorite doll and we made fancy hats for them by gluing cheap silk flowers on hats I had found (8 for a dollar at the dollar store). The dolls wore their finery at the table and then the parting gift was a dollar store tea set for each friend. Many of the girlss still play with them or have them out in their rooms.

I think birthday parties need to be about the kids own personality and needs- not about outdoing the Joneses.

13 Susanna 09.11.07 at 12:40 pm

Some of my favorite childhood memories are of planning birthday parties. My mom helped me research games at the library and make decorations. Having a limit on the number of friends I could invite was a good early lesson in etiquette - whom to choose, how to send the invitations so no one felt snubbed.

When he’s old enough, I hope my son enjoys planning his own parties as much as I did. Until then, we’ll enjoy cake with the grandparents.

14 Terry 09.11.07 at 6:22 pm

I have to fully agree. I have 4 kids and have never done one of those expensive parties. Our parties consist of cake and ice cream at our home with family and maybe one or two friends. It is always a small affair and the kids love it. They run around the backyard while the adults sit inside and talk. I refuse to give into peer pressure. It’s ridiculous.

15 Anonymom 09.22.07 at 8:07 am

You are so right about this. I wrote about birthday party madness a couple of months ago in my blog and it has been the most popular page on my site!

16 Bigfunparties 12.09.08 at 3:38 am

Our site ” ” helps in organizing a party to make it as fun and successful as possible for your child. We provide entertainer to entertain children, one entertainer for about fifteen children. For big parties we provide extra entertainer too. Our parties have a perfect mix of interactive play and games as well as music, dance and a lot fun. So make your kids birthday an unforgettable event.

17 Business birthday cards 06.24.12 at 8:59 pm

My daughters birthday is coming up and I am thinking of having it at a restaurant. Preferably one where the kids get to play or do some sort of activity and has a menu suitable for a very large, very hungry group. I have a big family and we usually have buffet style celebrations (we’re Filipino).

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22 Business birthday cards 07.01.12 at 8:51 pm

I have been to many parties and if they just have this simple party light, the party would have been much funnier and it beats having to dance in the light like some weirdo.

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24 Online Bridal Shop 09.26.13 at 2:11 pm

You are stop the kids party !! Why you are stooping it ? I think it should not be happen !! I have a lot love for kids due to which I always going to support them !! So don’t stop for birthday party or any type of party !!

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