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Grappling with the Birthday Beast

by Jennifer Kirsch

A mother starts to plan her son’s birthday party five months in advance, calling the parents of children with proximate birthdays to coordinate dates. A bewildered father wonders where to corral the many toys his daughter receives for her birthday. A friend confesses her relief at learning her son would like to go fishing with a neighbor on his birthday, foregoing a party. A comic strip pictures a family going through customs en route to a birthday celebration.(1)

Have children’s birthday parties reached an immoderate level? Beginning as uninvolved functions, they marked the passing of another year in a child’s life. Understandably, busy parents started outsourcing event planning and coordination, but what was originally an honest attempt to save time and effort has escalated into a formidable movement, as celebrations have become elaborate, pricey, and even monstrous undertakings.

The trend is most obvious on the entertainment front, where bedazzling guests is the goal. Hosts routinely rent free-fall rides, book princesses, line up petting zoos, and showcase scorpions in living rooms.(2) Some even toy with danger, as in Coral Gables, Florida, where a live cougar attacked a birthday guest.(3)

The brutal pre-party planning stage also raises a red flag. With a sense of obligation permeating festivities, hosts concentrate on what is expected, rather than rejoicing over the occasion. Beleaguered parents then spend days grappling with the birthday beast: researching venues, brainstorming themes, and competing to find the most original idea, cutest cake, or enticing activity, all within a budget. Soon select universities will undoubtedly offer degrees in birthday party management.

Undeniably, top dollar amusement spells good news for party guests. Yet, shifting the focus to wowing party-goers saps hosts’ savings and shatters their sanity. As presents pile up, parents’ efforts to teach gratitude deflate faster than a punctured balloon. The birthday child often experiences the flip-side of the merriment, as well, fading into the background. Restaurants boasting rides and video games present a case in point. With friends happily scattered in the maze of token-gobbling machines, and multiple fetes taking place simultaneously, the birthday child seems all but forgotten. Resigned to a similar fate is the affair whose scale approaches that of a wedding, with hundreds of invitees, a photographer, professional entertainment, a catered buffet, and in one case, a babysitter paid to engage the two-year-old birthday girl while her parents managed the crowd and arrangements. Will the child even be invited next year?

Still, birthdays mark important milestones in a child’s life and warrant a celebration. Yet, short of launching fireworks, can parents find a way to make them fun? Tempted to set up birthday savings plans, rather than earmarking funds for higher education, I vowed to counter the trend. On my way 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.

Birthdayswithoutpressure.org advises cutting the extravagance: limiting guests to friends; scheduling the event mid-day to avoid serving a meal; doling out only one favor per child. Eager to put a leash on the beast, I attempted to follow this advice, but soon faltered. Unable to withstand the regret of planning an unimpressive event and not reciprocating some invitations, I caved in, adding guests and frivolities (while impairing finances). Reigning in a monster requires resolve.

The next party, I tried domesticating the animal, throwing a backyard bash. Once again, though, the beast prevailed. Compensating for the lack of professional revelry, I prepared over twenty homespun games, and even constructed invitations picturing Velcro-tailed donkeys, to allow party-goers to refresh pin-the-tail skills beforehand. Yet, my efforts proved futile. 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 the rules of games, squabbling over prizes, and cutting in line. Overwhelmed with containing the disgruntlement, I even forgot to take pictures. Perhaps my lack of entertaining finesse deserved the blame. Or, with their high standards and a monstrous ravenousness, are today’s kids hard to please?

A neighbor’s strategy involved outwitting the monster. Feeling obligated to invite her daughter’s entire class to a celebration, she cleverly booked the bash at an inconvenient time (on Mother’s Day one year, during a school break the next), trusting that several invitees would decline. Another parent invited guests on short notice, hoping some would already have plans for the day.

Lacking such insight, I might have abandoned my quest, were it not for a friend who managed to delve into the heart of the problem. Instead of offering her son a choice of party locales one year, she simply asked how he would like to spend his special day. By taking her approach, laying aside expectations and focusing on the birthday child’s interests, might more of us end up with sensible and original plans? By getting the kids’ opinions on what they would like to eat, what they would wear, and who they would like to include, might we succeed in centering festivities, once again, around the child? Admittedly, some kids will invariably insist on the hottest party joint in town. I wonder, though, if some might just name their good friends, or choose to share their day with Grandma and Grandpa, or even Mom or Dad. Or, like my friend’s son, they might even reply they would just like to go fishing with a neighbor.

(1) Dan Piraro, Bizarro.com, August 18, 2006.

(2) Thelizardguys.com.

(3) Patrick Condon, “Parents Get Sick of Over-the-Top Birthday Parties for their Kids,” The Star Ledger, January 22, 2007.

Biographical Information for Jennifer Kirsch

While not shuttling her daughters to and from birthday parties in and around Livingston, NJ, Jennifer Kirsch, a former software developer, pursues free-lance writing. Her recent publications include “Juggling Too Much?” in the July 2008 issue of The MotherHood, and “Inquiring Minds,” which appeared as the cover article in the October 2006 issue of The Church Herald. She also enjoys covering sporting events for a local newspaper, contributing to church publications, and editing an elementary school’s weekly newsletter.

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