Kids’ Birthday Parties: Real Talk

Can We All Just Get Back to Basics?

About a month before the party, I created a Pinterest board for “Star Wars parties.” I contacted a local mom who moonlights as a Star Wars party planner. I had visions of cutesy themed snacks with the Star Wars font labels, Star Wars games to fit the attention and interest of 3-5-year-olds, and the proudest little boy in the center of it all, celebrating turning 4 bedecked in his Jedi robe, lightsaber glowing in hand.

One by one, the visions disintegrated into more of a minimalist party than the best Star Wars party in the history of the galaxy. We decided it wasn’t necessary to pay a party planner, no matter how much more fun she could have added. The Pinterest board sat dormant.

 We picked up the usual party supplies from Party City and Target instead of creatively crafting. (Okay full disclosure: My husband did make fabric Jedi robes, and cleverly configured lightsabers with flashlights and different colored lights; but let’s be honest, WHO really loves Star Wars?) When I couldn’t find cheese cubes in my last-minute Target run, my one hope for tie fighter cheese snacks crumbled into cheese cracker dust that never was. This is why I had never even attempted a Pinterest-ed party: I knew I couldn’t pull it off.

It almost feels like we are shirking our parenting into a form of emotional neglect if we don’t put together two hours of cake, pizza, and screeching joy.

And a Pinterest-ed party is the bottom of the barrel these days. Renting out a movie theater for a first grader. Booking a food truck for a 3-year-old. Those are just regular families we have known in our lives. It’s not just our imaginations: I read that the average expenditures on kids’ birthday parties have dramatically increased since the early 2000s.

Between reality TV showcasing glamorous affairs with ponies for 5-year-olds, and luxury birthday cakes picking up in popularity, the expectations and norms have skyrocketed with the costs. Apparently, estimates for the average cost for a kid’s birthday party ranges from $400-500, before presents (average because some get into the thousands range). British parents spend a total of $28,000 over a lifetime of birthday parties. Hello retirement savings?

We call it “birthday season” in our family because our kids’ birthdays fall 3-4 weeks apart, meaning 3 birthdays in a span of 2 months (and then we segue right into holiday season). Over the years, we have tried to become more and more minimalist about it all (No more goodie bags! Make our own cakes! Just a few friends!) but somehow it always still adds up.

I have a friend born and raised in the Philippines, pregnant with her fifth child (bless her – she’s amazing), and they only celebrate certain milestone birthdays with friends. All other years, they have dinner and cake at home with just parents and siblings. At first, I felt like “those kids are missing out on the childhood experience of birthday parties!” Now, beaten down after a total of 18 parties, I’m ready to sign up.

Homemade cake

Homemade cake

It’s not just feeling like there are definitely better ways to spend our limited funds (how many birthday parties to sacrifice for a trip to Hawaii?), but what expectations are we setting up for our kids? Between lavish birthday parties and promposals, will they be disappointed on their wedding day?

One of our parenting credos in which I take great pride is “set the bar low.” We have convinced our children that flavored water is a “special drink.” We almost never take them out to eat, so a trip to Jimmy Johns becomes a worthy topic for a 1st grader’s essay. They are effusively grateful when we surprise them with BRAND NEW WATER BOTTLES! (“Mom this is just the nicest thing you’ve ever done for me” has literally come out of my daughter’s mouth when surprised with new socks.)

So why, when it comes to birthday parties, do we give into the pressure? Partly, it seems like a golden part of childhood. I may not remember specific parties, but I remember the anticipation and delight of “my” special day, and don’t we want our kids to have that sense of special? It almost feels like we are shirking our parenting into a form of emotional neglect if we don’t put together two hours of cake, pizza, and screeching joy.

Maybe we don’t want them to feel different or left out, giving them their turn after they go watch their other friends be celebrated. Maybe we don’t want to feel judged by other families for being “that” family. Maybe we don’t even know anymore why we do it, year after year. It’s just what we do.

But what if we all worked together to take the bar down a few notches? It’s like the “Wait til 8” community pact to wait until 8th grade to give kids cell phones. Where’s a community contract to “keep it simple” for kids parties?

I’m here to tell you, I’ve done MY part. As we set out a veggie tray from Costco, dumped some Skinny Pop into a bowl, threw together blueberries and strawberries, hung a piñata for the main event, and the 8-year-old and 6-year-old made labels for activity centers (bubbles, chalk art, and temporary tattoos), I looked at our backyard and thought, “this is old school.”

 About 10 kids between the ages 3 and 6, with a few older siblings in the mix, literally ran around our medium-sized backyard for two hours, with an adult showing off the bubble makers here and there, and supervising the piñata to ensure safety from bad aim. It was chaos. We had a few wanderers into our home, who somehow made their way into areas we had not prepared for the party (like our shower).

But they were dirty, sweaty, loud emblems of fun, with no need for the extra. This was a back to basics affair.  I don’t know if it was well-acted politeness or genuine praise when one of the fathers said to my son, “this was the best birthday party I’ve been to in a long time.” My son smiled shyly into my shoulder as he was starting to come down from the party high. But I smiled with pride, taking it as a high compliment. I may not pull off Pinterest, but I pulled off keeping it simple.

Who’s with me?