Grappling with the Birthday Beast
This essay was first published in May 2009 at parenting-journals.com.
My first taste of modern-day children’s birthday parties left me goggling. Pushing my children on the playground swings, I listened intently, nearly stepping into a swing, as a mother discussed organizing her son’s party five months in advance, calling parents of children with proximate birthdays to coordinate dates. My incredulity only increased when a bewildered father wondered where to stow the many toys his son had received for his birthday. That evening, a favorite comic strip pictured a family going through customs en route to a birthday celebration.
As a new parent, I naively assumed cake and homespun games still sufficed at parties, as they had for generations. Understandably, busy families might have started outsourcing event planning and coordination, but rollicking carnivals for three-year-olds certainly constituted an anomaly. Only after my playground experience, and once my family hit the birthday party scene, did the mounting evidence convince me. What was originally an honest attempt to save time and effort had escalated into a formidable movement, turning celebrations into monstrous undertakings.
Shuttling my daughters to parties, I witnessed the trend firsthand, particularly on the entertainment front, where bedazzling guests was the goal. Hosts routinely rented free-fall rides, booked princesses, chartered petting zoos, and showcased scorpions in living rooms. Unexpectedly, I found myself mesmerized by the merriment. Swallowing my initial shock, I began to embrace this beast gone wild. After all, birthdays marked important milestones and merited celebrations. Furthermore, high-end amusement spelled good news for party guests, a fact my children relished while moonwalk-jumping and rock-climbing away Saturday afternoons.
Predictably, with invites pouring in, birthdays soon commandeered as much family calendar space as ballet or soccer. Purchasing gifts topped our weekly errand list. Some weekends, the stack of outgoing presents by the front door reached as high as a post-party tower of empty pizza boxes. Nevertheless, in keeping with the prosperous times, my children partied on.
Sometime after the umpteenth party, however, my enthusiasm waned. Wiping smeared face paint from my sweater, I reflected upon the long-term effects of theme cakes, dollar store prizes, and extreme fun. Though a blast for the kids, shifting the focus to wowing party-goers seemed to sap hosts’ savings and shatter their sanity. I recalled a friend, knee-deep in favor bags she had spent a vacation day bargain-hunting for, wondering if select universities offered degrees in birthday management. Furthermore, as presents piled up, parents’ hopes of teaching gratitude deflated faster than a punctured balloon.
Finally, tempted to set up birthday savings plans, rather than earmarking funds for higher education, I vowed to counter this trend. About to enroll my preschooler in swim lessons (a prerequisite for kindergarten pool parties), I switched course, embarking instead upon a quest to tame the birthday beast.
First, I limited parties my children attended, unburdening our schedules. When hosting, I consulted birthdayswithoutpressure.org, where extravagance-cutting suggestions abound: inviting only friends; simplifying entertainment; substituting charitable donations for presents. Eager to put a leash on the beast, I attempted to follow this advice, but soon faltered, adding guests and trinkets, even while impairing finances, as I regretted throwing an unimpressive event and not reciprocating some invitations. Reining in a monster requires resolve.
Next, I tried domesticating the animal, throwing a backyard bash. Compensating for the lack of professional revelry, I prepared over twenty games, yet, the beast still prevailed. Accustomed to razzle-dazzle in the entertainment department, the guests expected more than dance contests and musical chairs, and expressed their disappointment by refusing to follow game rules and squabbling over prizes. Overwhelmed with containing the disgruntlement, I forgot to take pictures. With high standards and a monstrous ravenousness, today’s kids prove a tough crowd.
Down 2-0, I considered scheduling the next function at an inconvenient time, hoping to outwit the monster with fewer guests and a lighter bill. Thankfully, before regrets could accumulate, I overheard parents at the playground, once again discussing birthdays. With the economy a shambles, I held my breath, curious if celebrations had come full circle, and if pin-the-tail would make a comeback, now that many families had lost savings, bonuses, jobs, and even houses. Finally, a mother disclosed her newfound strategy. Instead of offering her son a choice of party locales, she simply asked how he wanted to spend his special day. To her relief, he decided to bring a friend fishing, foregoing a party.
Busy grappling with the beast, I had overlooked this obvious approach. Focusing on the child, though, rather than the monster, made sense. In fact, laying aside expectations and spotlighting the birthday child’s interests seemed essential to achieving more reasonable birthdays, regardless of the Dow’s performance. Possibly, my children would insist on the hottest party joint in town, but with some luck, they might name an activity limited to friends or relatives. Or, perhaps, they might choose fishing.
Copyright © 2009-2013 by Jennifer Kirsch. All Rights Reserved.