Musings on children’s birthday parties

Next week is my son’s first birthday. To celebrate this event, I’m making him a Dinosaur Train cake and some homemade orange popsicle flavored ice cream, both treats my husband and I plan to consume in significantly larger quantities than what my son will. (He’ll likely wear a good portion of his servings.) We’re not having a traditional party, but we’ll video chat with grandparents and cousins when he opens (rather, when we open) the gifts they generously sent to him. We might go to a park or the zoo if the weather is nice.

My expectation is that his second birthday celebration will be similar to this and he won’t start having parties with friends until he’s at least three, four, or five years old — whenever he requests a more standard party. Until then, we’re keeping things as low key as possible.

Before I became a mom, I never understood the lavish parties parents in my area throw for their kids. I’ve heard of some events that easily cost parents thousands of dollars, and guests to the party end up leaving with bags of goodies more valuable than the toys they brought for the guest of honor. I know I won’t ever throw a party like this for my son (sorry, kiddo!), but I’m at least starting to understand why parents do.

As a parent, you want the world for your kid. You want your child to be liked by his classmates, you want your child to be happy, and you want to celebrate his life. A basic swimming party with hamburgers can easily cost a hundred dollars — spending 10 times more once a year on a birthday party wouldn’t seem like such a big deal, especially if you’ve got the disposable income to do it. Research even shows that experiences make you happier than physical possessions.

My parenting philosophy and budget don’t include renting elephants, night clubs, and cruise ships for my son and 100 of his acquaintances, though. I’m more interested in teaching him to appreciate adventures than extravagance. I want him to respect people more than glamor and glitz. And, I hope he learns that the things that matter most in life don’t usually come wrapped in shiny paper with bows.

I don’t judge the parents who go all out for their child’s birthdays — for all I know, they’re teaching their children the same values I’m hoping to teach mine, just with the addition of a really great party once a year. A simple party is what works for our family, however, and I hope my son won’t be an outcast or disappointed by our decision when he’s old enough to know what a party is. If we stay in this area of the country, his birthday might regularly fall on the last day of school, which he might even see as party enough.

74 Comments for “Musings on children’s birthday parties”

  1. posted by Jacquelyn on

    Hi!
    Long time reader, first time commenter.

    My son turned one year old a few months ago. We opted for a “huge” party, but live a very simple, minimalist lifestyle. I heard rumblings amongst some friends that they viewed first birthday parties as ridiculous or silly. Let me explain myself,…

    We are moving across the country in a month. SInce this was the only birthday that we foresee being surrounded by all our friends and family, we wanted the party to include as many guests as possible to celebrate our son. We kept the budget VERY minimal, i made a few homemade decorations, and we asked for no gifts but a photo instead (to be placed in a photo book, so when we are 2500 miles away our son can learn who the special people in our life are).

    I do feel judged by other people for having had a large party (40+ guests) but I wish people wouldn’t judge it on face value. We didn’t spend much money at all, didn’t have silly favors for guests, didn’t have entertainment (for kids, or for adults). We wouldn’t have done it any other way- we felt like we got to celebrate with friends whom we won’t see for a very long time, and not nearly often enough. I think looking back on his first birthday party- though he won’t remember it- he will see photos and know that he has a lot of people in his life who love him.

  2. Profile photo of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    @Jacquelyn — The way you describe it, it sounds like you threw a simple party. It was focused on friends, family, and being together!

  3. posted by marlie on

    I agree with you about the child birthday parties. Growing up, we never had the disposable income for the over-the-top parties, but instead, we usually had family dinners with a few friends along for good measure.

    I can honestly say that some of my favorite memories (I’m 33 now) are of the dinners where my mom or my grandmother would make all of my favorite foods, and my aunt would bake my favorite cake, and everyone would come to my parents’ house and play board games and watch movies. And for a gift, my parents would take me to a toy store and I could pick out the ONE toy that I wanted the most. I’d sometimes spend weeks researching it! And this was from a very young age all the way up to my “Sweet 16″. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for all of the lavish birthday galas in the world.

    I also think it’s rather amusing how, now, my friends are baffled by the fact that I rarely want to make my birthday into a big “event.” I’d much rather go to my favorite restaurant with a few close friends and celebrate that way. I suppose it’s just the grown-up version of the family birthday parties that I had way back when. (And I still buy myself one birthday gift too, though now it’s jewelry or an iPhone or the like!)

  4. posted by Erin on

    With my 40th birthday less than six months away, I realized that the only time I had a “big party” for my birthday was the year my family had also had a house fire–9 days earlier. In the wake of being distressed and displaced, the celebration was very welcome. I was not lavish, but some close family and friends at a local restaurant. All other years have been small family only celebrations.

    Next year, will probably be dinner out with my husband which will be great.

    @Jacquelyn–given your relocation I think your party sounds spot on. Nice job!

  5. posted by Jen on

    I fall somewhere in between your minimalist party-lifestyle and the crazy all-out party lifestyle. My son turned 4 a couple of months ago and for his 2nd, 3rd, and 4th birthday we have had a small-ish party with roughly 10-12 kids at an outside facility (like a gym place or something like that). Each time it has cost us a few hundred dollars, which seems like a lot to me for a child’s birthday party, especially when I consider that all of my parties as a child were held in our backyard. But for us it was worth it to know that we wouldn’t have to do much except show up and have fun, and we wouldn’t have to clean up a huge mess in our house. And his birthday is in March, which in the northease is not conducive to an outdoor party so everyone would be confined to our limited indoor space. my only problem with this type of party is that I have to plan it months in advance in order to get the place of our choosing – in our area they fill up very quickly!

  6. posted by LB on

    Our kids’ favorite parties have *always* been the simplest one – the same kind we had growing up. Invite all the neighborhood friends over (since our kids have summer bdays, we could be selective with school friend) to run around in the sprinklers and slip ‘n slide, then eat cake and ice cream and juice boxes. Parents sit around in the shade on folding chairs with soft drinks and enjoy a calm, low key, low energy, low volume visit. The parents ALWAYS comment on how much they loved the party. I always make their cakes because they taste better and the kids like to help decorate (I have decorating tools).

    My daughter’s 9th birthday is next week, and we are actually having a bowling party. She has mitochondrial disease and now cannot walk without assistance, so backyard running around parties aren’t the best. She wants a bowling party. So, we are paying $15 a kid for 1.5 hours of bowling, pizza, and soft drinks. I’ll still make a cake. However, this is great value for my money because it’s way doggone hot here right now (Alabama), the alley has a ball ramp that means my daughter can knock down pins like everyone else, and most importantly, she has just completed her first full year of school and actually has friends to invite. It’s worth the money for her to feel “normal.” I won’t be doing gift bag b/c I think paying for bowling and pizza is enough!

    We have asked guests to bring unwrapped gifts to be given to the hospital instead of for Kate, but she will keep the gifts from her (very large) family, which will be given at a small family supper.

  7. posted by Wesley on

    I am now 22 and from about the fifth grade I started having birthday parties where all my closest friends..about 9 other people…would come out to my house and spend the night. That went on until we all turned 16 and got jobs and just got too busy.

    We live in the country, miles from anybody else. And I can honestly say those are the best friend related memories from that point in my life. And to this day anytime I see those people (usually once a yearish) that is always something that is brought up. Whether it is the food or the awesomely epic games of hide and go seek in the dark.

    The best thing was that it was very cheap and easy for my parents, it was tradition for my parents to fix Spaghetti for dinner and Pancakes for breakfast. Great memories that will stick with me for the rest of my life.

  8. posted by Leigh on

    We had a dozen of my sons big friends (aka our friends he loves and who love him) over for his first birthday with homemade caterpillar cupcakes and snacks.

    For birthdays growing up we had involved parties, but my Mum made us take the lead and it was our project for weeks. I remember home make pinatas, researching party books, my brother as the magician at my 10th birthday. The parties we came up with were far better than most of our friends had because they were our ideas and we were invested in enjoying them.

  9. posted by NancyV908 on

    I’m basically with you, Erin.

    I don’t see the point in lavish parties for little ones, who won’t appreciate the magician or musician. But I did throw a big party, at home, for my daughter when she was 1; it was like Jacquelyn’s. Same for my son–again, more of a chance for family & friends to get together. Really, I suppose it was a celebration of MY happiness to have my children (& also to buck me up b/c I was sad to see my little babies become toddlers :-) ).

    As my kids got older it got a little more complicated. In the preschool/early elementary years, I’ve found that most of their classmates throw big parties out of the house (often inviting the whole class). These are expensive, but oh so easy. I did two of these myself for my daughter, but liked mine better than many others b/c it was in a small space where no one else came, so the kids were all together (as opposed to parties at places where there are many activities going on & other people). For my son, who went to school later & had fewer friends, I got away with sprinkler parties in July, with just a couple of kids & their mothers on a weekday afternoon.

    More recently I’ve done home parties for my daughter. They are cheaper (although not a lot cheaper, as the out-of-the-house ones I did were not on the expensive end of the spectrum) but SIGNIFICANTLY more work; she wanted themes, & I obliged. I did have the satisfaction of putting together nice parties with fun decorations & activities, & I like all the compliments from my fellow parents, but it really was a lot to do: planning, preparing the house, cleaning up….This year, my son wants a “regular” party so I am in the midst of planning a train party for him; again, way more work.

    I am doing it this way now b/c it’s what my kids want, but honestly, if my time is worth any money (& it is!) I could make a strong argument for going the party-place route.

  10. posted by Tiffany on

    When I was a kid we kept it pretty low-key. Dad would make whatever we wanted for dinner on our birthdays (and being little kids it was usually spaghetti or tacos or something like that), and then there’d be cake & ice cream with family members that weekend. We had bigger birthday parties a few times (the slumber party when I was 10 was particularly memorable), but I remember that by the time I was about 13, even having family over was more commotion than I wanted to deal with and we restricted it to grandparents, or I’d go to a movie with a couple of friends or something.

    Of course, this means that my actual children will prefer big over the top stuff and I won’t know what to do. ;)

  11. posted by Jude on

    My daughter’s favorite birthday party was the fossil hunt we went on when she turned 12. As adults, all the kids who attended that party still remember it (everyone of them found a fossil to take home). The best advice I’ve read about kid parties is to keep the size and cost reasonable by inviting the same number of kids as your kids’ age. Thus a 4-year-old would have 4 kids at the party. For his 11th birthday, my now-15-year-old son asked for one thing–to have a day away from his older brother. The two of us went to a nearby city, played miniature golf, ate out for all three meals, saw a movie, went to a tourist attraction, and had an amazing day. By the time he was 13, the idea of spending a day with mom would have been unthinkable, but last year as a special favor for *my* birthday, we spent the day in a similar way, eating out, seeing two movies, and having a great time together.

  12. posted by Marrena on

    I am a newbie to your excellent blog. I did not realize you had children. I must confess I am fascinated to see how the blog will change in the next several years. Five-year-olds especially are little clutter machines.

  13. posted by Tiffany on

    I don’t have kids…but I remember my birthday parties. They were always AWESOME! That being said, they were very simple. Chips and burgers, soda. Homemade cakes. They were so fun because my mom came up with creative things that we couldn’t do most other days…like an egg toss, a shaving cream fight, a food fight…etc. It was a day to be totally silly without reprimand…and my friends and I had a blast. We still talk about how fun they were.

    It really is the people you celebrate with, and the attitude you bring to the party..however low-key that is, not the price tag that counts!

  14. posted by Cecily T on

    We’re having our daughter’s 3rd birthday party (and her first ‘friend’ party) this weekend.

    At 28 wks pregnant, I needed to keep it simple. I like the rule about ‘age + 2′, because that keeps it real. She actually has 6 friends coming, because the line you walk in reciprocating party invites, including members of the same group, etc, is surprisingly hard. But at least for this party, I wanted it to be only kids that she knows well enough to know their names. (There’s one iffy one…but they invited us to a party so we felt that we should reciprocate.)

    For the party, the kids are getting homemade playdoh for favors in V’s favorite color: BLUEYELLOWPINK. I’m making fruit salad and cupcakes, hubby will grill hot dogs and we’ll blow up a few balloons. We’re putting balls, bubble stuff and wands, sidewalk chalk and a sprinkler outside. At 3, the kids don’t really do organized activities, so it’s more like a free-for-all. I feel like I’ll be lucky if I can get them all together to sing!

    My one splurge money-wise is mostly for me. I’m having my house cleaned for the first time. I haven’t been keeping up since I got pregnant, and I know I’m fooling myself if I think I’m washing baseboards the week after the baby comes.

  15. Profile photo of

    posted by ninakk on

    I don’t want to teach my future kids that a birthday equals a huge load of gifts that on top of that might be expensive as well, but it’s a time of being with the people you love. Some birthday parties that have been featured on ohdeedoh seem extremely extravagant to me and make me feel like they are more about competing against other parents who have lost their minds than anything else.

    I remember from my own parties friends’ comments about how exotic the drinks were – homemade rhubarb juice, when all the others drank some sugar-filled nastiness like coke or whatever in their homes – and a modest buffet that still satisfied everyone. There was a cake and candles were blown, after which we started the games. Sometimes my mother used to make this fishing thing where she had hung a blanket in the door opening and then one kid after each other got to lower a “fishing hook” aka basket behind the cover where she then put a mini favour of a kind.

    All the parties were about having fun with little means and I don’t think any less of them for that. Everyone did their parties this way and they didn’t shake anyone’s budgets either, precisely the way I like it. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with theme parties, but to go completely crazy “wedding style” when planning a birthday party? That’s not for me.

    I don’t have a plan yet for how to tackle the parents who attempt to initiate competitions though, because at some point my kids would feel short blinks of inferiority the same way as I did when not having the latest pair of jeans or whatever, which “everyone else” had, regardless of trying to tell myself it’s okay. No point in worrying about that right now when there aren’t even any kids in the picture :)

  16. posted by JC on

    I’m childless…but in all the grownup parties I attend, I don’t expect to take home any party favors. The fact that the host is providing food and drink and a chance to socialize is enough. I usually bring supplemental drink options.

    So I’m very puzzled when I read about “gift bags” and “party favors” for these birthday parties when the hosts are already providing food, cake, bowling, sidewalk chalk, and other fun things for the kids to do while at the party.

  17. posted by WilliamB on

    Based on observation and experience, I think a large factor in over-the-top birthday parties is parental bragging rights or social status. I can only hope that the kids enjoy them as well.

    After watching a one year old destroy her birthday cake, I decided the ideal first birthday party needed no more than a child, a cake, a diaper and a wading pool or bathtub. What child doesn’t like the idea of smooshing a cake all over, eating off his/her fingers, and being encouraged to make a mess?

  18. posted by HowToPlaza on

    Hello Erin.

    You echo precisely my thought when you say it’s no use having parties when a kid is small. I think 4-5 years is a good age to have a party when the kid can appreciate the presence of his or her friends and doesn’t feel overwhelmed or threatened.

  19. posted by Keetha on

    My son’s first birthday party was just family – grandparents, a couple of cousins. It was wonderful. His second one was like, that, too, and his third a little bigger.

    He’s eight now and I decided to have about as many guests as his age plus one (when he turns nine, this fall, I’ll plan to have about 10 guests). That rule of thumb works pretty well. He enjoys his friends coming to his house – we have a cake and that’s about it. The kids play, the family and adults visit, it’s an easy party to host and one I get to enjoy, too.

    One thing I tend to do is have a definite starting and ending time. I think one to one and a half hours, maximum, is plenty long for a child’s birthday party.

  20. posted by NancyV908 on

    Back again, but this time I’ll try to keep it short. Just echoing JC on the gift-bag issue. I hate gift bags!Why shouldn’t it be enough to provide food & entertainment? Having said that, I do them, b/c they are expected. I try not to fill them with total junk, though. And I’ve noticed a trend away from gift bags to single, more usable gifts–but still, that begs the issue of how it became expected to send guests home with stuff in the first place.

  21. posted by KateNonymous on

    I think it’s one thing to have a party like the one Jacquelyn describes, which was also a farewell part of sorts, and another to invite, say, your direct reports. I’ve been to a couple of first birthday parties, and both were ridiculous blowouts. They were ridiculous primarily because the guest of honor had no idea what was going on–at one, the little girl’s expression clearly said, “Why am I sitting here while Mommy and Daddy tear paper? I was having fun playing with my cousins!” Seriously, at each of these parties there were at least 75 people.

    I contrast that with the celebrations my parents threw on my first birthday and my brother’s–the pictures show a cake with a single candle, and family.

    Our daughter is two months old, and my husband and I have already agreed that we’ll follow the latter model.

  22. posted by Myra on

    Hi, I too am a long time reader and first time commenter.

    I can see your point in trying to keep it simple. When I was little some of my favorite birthday parties were at the beach with tons of food and a pinata.

    For our only child, my husband and I sometimes felt like we had a chance to have some of the slightly more elaborate parties that we never had as kids. That being said, they weren’t crazy over-the-top things (well, maybe the snow party with the truck load of shaved ice in our South Florida yard was a little extravagent, but the melting ice cleaned itself and the kids still talk about it!). We’d pick a theme (science- (hands on experiments we set-up), backwards (everything was backwords- from the invitation to the clothes), camping out (in our backyard), etc.) and run with it. Yes, we gave out treat bags, but candy goes a long way towards filling them.

    We’ve also thrown some school’s out parties full of water guns, water balloons, egg tosses and other messy things.

    The main thing is to gear the party towards the kids- they’re just happy playing with each. Classic kid games are always a hit, don’t cost much and provide hours of entertainment- flashlight tag, hide & seek, Twister (still big with the teen crowd).

    We’ve got the 18th birthday coming up at the end of the year it will probably just be a nice dinner out with some of her friends- simple but always fun.

  23. posted by Margaret on

    When I was a kid, birthdays were whatever relatives were around invited to supper and kids run around playing. And that’s what I do with mine. I live in a rural area, so there aren’t any real options for putting on a lavish child birthday. We usually have a crowd because we invite the grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and some neighbours. I used to invite my cousins with little kids as well (in addition to my siblings with their children). However, I’ve pretty much stopped that except for the ones who live within ten minutes of our house. We always have lots to eat — hot dogs and whatever else I feel like throwing out, an awesome cake just because I decorate for fun, and that’s about it for my planning. Kids just run around and play and I DO NOT do gift bags. Once my oldest started school, he was allowed to invite THREE school friends. And I do not send the invitations to school, because I don’t think it is fair for the teacher to have to deal with hard feelings because so and so got invited and not so and so.

    There is a website called birthdays without pressure that has stuff about this. For the person who was concerned about competing parents, there is a book called something like “Queen bee moms and king pin dads” that talks about that kind of stuff that you might find interesting.

  24. posted by Eileen on

    I worked with a guy who had 3 kids, fairly close together in age. He said they established that they would have “parties” at ages 5, 10, 15, and a family celebration in between. I thought that was a great idea.

    I have 2 boys, so the 15 year old parties didn’t even happen due to lack of interest (nice built in feature of the plan, lol), but they did have 5 year old parties at a Gymboree type place and one had a small party at an NHL game at 10.

    They have joked about “not having parties”, but I can also tell it’s not a big deal at all. On their birthday, they pick the dinner menu (sometimes we go out) and I always bake a cake. I use tier cake pans that my mother used after getting them using green stamps in 1942 (the box still has the postage stamp) so it’s a special day anyway.

  25. posted by Margaret on

    I’ll add that whether everyone and their dog shows up or just one family can make it over, the kids always have fun.

  26. posted by Nicole on

    My niece is having her 1st birthday party this weekend – and my daughter will have hr first birthday party in October. My sister is renting a large water slide (obviously not for the babies), and as a gift, I bought my niece a little kiddy pool so we are going to fill it up for the little ones. Other than that (as far as I know) she is just going to have family – lots of family. My sister married into a large Puerto Rican family and our own family is pretty large so withou friend included, it is still going to be a pretty big party. I have a feeling my daughter’s party will be similar. I will have a “theme” but being a teacher, the theme is Dr Seuss so we will have all of his books out for the kids to read (that will be the entertainment for them) and most of the food will be Dr. Seuss related (GREEN deviled EGGS & HAMburgers, pink ink for the yink (pink lemonaide), etc.) I found some cheap cardboard cutouts of cat in the hat hats (about $5 for a set of 15) and that will be the only favor the guests get, and thats only if they want to wear them! Parties should be about hanging out and having fun…not about showing off. 1st birthday parties tend to be more for the scrapbook and the parents than the kids anyway…but I think my family would disown me if we didn’t have one!

  27. posted by Maria on

    My birthday is towards the end of summer two weeks before school starts (when most people are on out of town vacations) and my mom was not exactly organized so NO ONE ever showed up to my birthday parties when I was little. They were the pits. I still have anxiety about it now as an adult and tend to avoid throwing parties out of fear that no one will show! Silly I know, but it definitely stuck with me. I stopped having b-day parties altogether around 8 (at my request). Since then I’ve only had 2, 1 when I turned 21 and another last year that was a surprise party hubby threw for me (only way he could get me to have one is by not telling me about it!!)

    I do however throw parties for my son’s birthday’s, his 4th was just this last weekend. I try to keep it simple and affordable. We had about 25 ppl including adults and it was pirate themed, I ran with it and had a treasure hunt, sword making, tatoos and face painting the kids loved it and we didn’t spend much at all. The big splurge? I paid my teenage niece $100 to keep the kids entertained, lead the games and clean up during the party. Best $100 I ever spent! I was able to enjoy my guests and since $100 is a lot of money I didn’t feel guilty asking her to do stuff.

    Funny thing about how much effort you put into things, I made 9 mini pirate ship cakes for the party. I spent about 10 hours baking and decorating them, I even dyed them blue my son’s favorite color. The cakes got RAVE reviews during the party and the term “mother of the year” was thrown around more than once. When I asked my son how he liked his cakes he said “what cakes?” you know the pirate ship cakes? He shrugged and said “yeah” SIGH oh well, at least I had fun making them!

  28. posted by chacha1 on

    My parents hardly ever did the party thing for us kids, and I don’t have kids myself so have no opinion on this (am just glad we are mostly able to avoid the many parties of our extended family!). But it does remind me I have a “milestone” birthday this year and I … think I want a party! :-)

  29. posted by DJ on

    I’ve always been very bugged by the idea of giving gift bags to the kids who attend birthday parties.

    We never did this at our kids’ parties. Only once did someone ask about it, a little boy, who came up to me and said “Where are the treat bags?” I said to him, “The party is the treat.” And he replied, “Oh. That makes sense.”

    When I was young, my mother always made a bunny cake for birthdays, by baking two round layers, and cutting up one to make two ears and a bow tie.

  30. posted by Cathy on

    I’m probably the only nut here who throws birthday parties for my dog, but hey…it’s a good excuse for my dog loving pals to get together and drink mojitos…

    As a kid, the most memorable parties I had were the ones where a bunch of my friends and I went out to the local pool, my dad grilled, and we splashed around until we were exhausted. I think my parents had to pay something like $5 per kid that wasn’t a member at the pool, and it was great fun. :)

  31. posted by Jay on

    The following post pertains to YOUNG children only.

    A friend used to host parties for her young children, but the mess and cleanup became too stressful. After the last party she hosted, she found, in addition to the normal spills and messes, cake jammed into an electrical outlet and juice spilled on (poured into?) her DVD player. She recommended that we try to have parties away from home. We are forced to follow her advice because our house is too small, and an outdoor party might be too cold (my son’s birthday is in November).

    In my experience as a guest, there are several possible drawbacks to home parties for YOUNG children. First, the house may be too small. Remember that, these days, each young kid comes with an entourage; where I live, parents and even siblings stay at the party. Second, the birthday child and parents may not be comfortable with guests touching their stuff (including TVs, furniture, and toys), and roaming around the house. A birthday child having a tantrum because other kids are playing with his or her toys is no fun for anybody, especially the birthday child. Third, sometimes home parties become chaotic because activities are unscheduled or unplanned, the parties are too long, and there is no definite end time.

    If you have a birthday away from home, have it somewhere where the party has its own room or space. For example, we have hosted and attended parties at places with inflatable structures. At the successful parties, only one party group was allowed in any given play area at any one time. The birthday child could see his or her friends and play with them. At other facilities where all the party groups were in one large play area, the child played with strangers and did not seem to know who was at his or her party.

    Have the party at a place with age-appropriate activities that require minimal waiting. While miniature golf and bowling may be fun, young kids have trouble waiting patiently for their turn to golf or bowl. At one miniature golf party I attended, young boys, while waiting for their turn to golf, knocked balls into the water and used their clubs as swords.

    Some places that have worked well for parties are nature centers, petting farms/zoos, ice rinks (especially if the rink provides traffic cones so that beginners may keep their balance and have fun too), and gyms (the small ones that host one party at a time).

  32. posted by Rosa on

    Jay, i just learned that – parents are expected to stay with the kid at the party – this summer. My son is 4, almost 5. It’s so weird! I guess it makes sense but this was the first birthday party we’d been to where the invitation was for my son because he was friends with the kid, instead of for all of us because I was friends with the parent.

    We have a big party, at our house, every year, but this will be the first year he’s inviting any of his friends – 2 daycare friends (and parents and siblings) are coming.

    What makes the party big are 3 sets of grandparents, cousins, his godparents and their child, aunts and uncles. And, what a PITA that is – I am actually looking forward to having a kid-only party next year. I already told the family, if they want to have a big family get-together in future years it can’t be on his birthday and someone else has to host it. Next year he gets to choose the guests and the location, and it will be less work for us – at the very least, his school friends won’t expect to stay here and randomly move up their arrival dates just because they feel like it.

  33. posted by ecuadoriana on

    I haven’t seen anyone comment about my biggest birthday party pet peeve (besides the ridiculous clowns & pony ride themed parties- shudder…). I absolutely HATE going to a birthday party for a young child where all the adults are there and drinking alcohol. I can not stand that at all. My goodness, if a grown adult can not spend a few hours at a childrens birthday on a Saturday afternoon without having a beer in his/her hand…. sad.

    When my daughter was eight she was invited to a neighbor boy’s seventh birthday party. All the parents were invited too. Not only did the birthday boy’s father get drunk, along with all the other dads, but he got into a physical altercation with another drunk dad & the police ended up being called. Luckily I got my daughter out before the police arrived. But that is not the first time I’ve experienced this behavior at kids parties! And this isn’t only a “red neck” behavior! The father at that particular party was a lawyer & the man he punched was a surgeon!

    What a sad way for that boy to look back at his seventh birthday party.

  34. posted by Mletta on

    Speaking here about children say age 10 and up.

    One important factor in party planning of any sort is the child’s own input.

    I’m not saying let the child dictate the party plan, but getting their input as they get older is helpful. Some kids really don’t want parties, some really really do.

    Some kids, when given a choice, would rather have one really big gift or a trip, visit to a special place. Really depends.

    I champion not spending a fortune, even if you have it and trying to keep it very personal and meaningful. (Too often parties are really social events for parents, and not much about the kids. And there are a lot of parents trying to outdo each other.)

    As kids age, the tough thing is that other kids do tend to compare parties, etc. and parties also reflect on a child’s popularity (or lack thereof, with some parents overcompensating). It gets very tricky to make a “pure” decision.

    Where you live and where your child goes to school is also a factor. If you live in a very social and/or upscale area (especially big cities and wealthy suburbs), parties are really problematic. Many kids are mortified when their parents do “simple” stuff after they have been guests at more extravagant parties. And that can reflect on the kids, who then don’t get invited to other parties. Ugh. All so crazy.

    There’s a part of me that says: Keep it in the family until a kid is say 16, when they can save and plan for their own big blowout, if they choose. But some families are not really close or don’t have anyone beyond parents and it can be lonely for a child and not very joyous if there is nothing special about their day.

    Somehow there has to be a balance. I’ve seen kids in tears because their parents didn’t believe in parties; every time they went to someone else’s, it was a painful reminder that they didn’t have any parties. They did feel as if their parents did not care as much.

    I’ve also seen kids who basically threaten their parents into holding big parties even when parents can’t afford it. (Parents, do not give in to these kids, please.)

    I really think at younger ages, it should be about family sharing and creating memorable family experiences. Save the parties for their teens or older.

    Coming from an economically challenged, single-parent family, I can only remember one actual party, an outdoor one, when I was around 6. After that, it was just my mother and I. Sometimes a special dinner in, sometimes out. But then not many kids had parties in those days the way they do now. It’s much harder to go the non-party route today. My nephew has had a big party every year since he was born though his parents are not wealthy.

    I’ve had two surprise parties given for me as an adult and though not lavish, thoroughly enjoyed them. And I truly wished I’d had parties for those “big” adult birthdays!

  35. posted by Lisa on

    Here’s what you need to ask yourself…. what is the first or best birthday I remember? Most adults I ask say that they don’t really remember a birthday before the age of 8. And most people say, the homemade cake and ice cream, backyard party is the best. As long as the celebration is focused on what the birthday boy or girl likes and is able to handle in terms of their threshold for noise, activity, people, etc. it will be great. I just attended a HUGE party for a little boy who was really overwhelmed, tearful and angry. What a bummer.

  36. posted by Nana on

    My shy 4-year-old wanted to invite ONE girl from preschool…with her sister, we went out for pizza lunch. Just after we ordered, in came 100 Army guys on break. I’d hung a few balloons and brought a little cake. when we started singing “Happy Birthday,” of course the Army joined in. The look on her face was priceless!

  37. posted by Mike on

    @Tiffany and I must be on the same wavelength. I am 36 now, but I remember my 10th birthday (mostly thanks to photos) and it was an absolute blast. All we did was get 8 or 9 friends and go to the pizza & video games restaurant. I got a few toys as gifts, and everyone walked away happy after only half an afternoon. Even as a parent of two now, I look back on that and realize that kind of party is pretty manageable. And we didn’t even have a mess to clean up. Parents who hold super-elaborate super-expensive parties for their kids are overthinking it.

  38. posted by Jennifer P on

    I was very dogmatic about minimalist kids’ birthday parties before I had kids and up through my son’s 3rd–we had a gathering for his first that was mostly about gathering together our circle of friends and family to celebrate this milestone for us, and for 2nd and 3rd we just had dinner and cake with grandma and nearby cousins and brought in a special snack to daycare, where they also do a little birthday parade.

    By 4, he wanted a “real” party, and I was obsessed with the idea that it would be cheaper and somehow more meaningful to have it at home, but in July in Phoenix our backyard options are limited. We managed to keep most of it outside by starting early and setting up a wading pool, slip-n-slide, and other water stuff out back, then coming inside just for cake and presents. We didn’t do a lot of decorating, no planned activities other than splashing around, and fairly basic gift bags, so we kept costs probably under $100 for about 10 kids and their parents. But it was a gargatuan amount of work to get both house and yard into presentable and kid-friendly shape and to clean up all the wreckage afterward. (On the plus side, after mopping up the mud and throwing out paper plates, we did have a much cleaner and more pleasant house and yard for about a month.)

    This year we’re holding it at an indoor bounce place and I actually feel really good about the choice. Unlike some of the other indoor options (chuck e cheese, public pool, etc.), we’re not mixed in with lots of other parties and families so that all the parents have to chase their 5 year olds all over the place. It’s costing us more like $250 (for 15 kids plus parents), but all I have to do is make the cake, throw some cheap toys into favor bags, and sit back and enjoy watching my son have a blast with his friends.

  39. posted by Adina on

    My boys are 8 and 5. We used to do parties, either at home, or at a place like the pizza shop or the bowling alley. We have become inundated with birthday party invitations, and the minimal $10 gifts have started to add up. We don’t have the budget for a $250 birthday on-site parties right now. My boys have enough toys, and our generous families buy the kids plenty of gifts anyway. This year, we offered the kids the option of either having a party, or having a family experience – such as an amusement park. My kids love this idea, and I feel it is such a great bonding experience. My younger son is having a “Toy Story” birthday party this weekend, complete with a trip to the theater to see the new movie, and Toy Story cupcakes with dinner at home. A bunch of relatives are coming in for the day to join us, and my son is very happy to share his birthday with them. My older son has picked out the amusement park he wants to visit for his birthday later this summer.

    We also usually make our own cakes for each other – they are far from perfect, but a really fun way to spend an afternoon. (We do have a small celebration in school with cupcakes to celebrate with friends in a simple, gift-free way.)

    My boys will have great memories from these family birthday celebrations, and they are a great way to bond as a family. These birthdays are certainly very meaningful, because we are celebrating the way my kids want to, and they aren’t focused on the presents. I hope we can continue this tradition into the teenage years….

  40. posted by Marge Wheeler on

    On our young children’s (age 3 and 1) birth date (actual birthday) we have a celebration with just our immediate family members (me,Mom, Dad and sibling). the Saturday before or after which ever is closest, we have an open house style get together, we provide a snack and/or treat and we ask everyone to just come and visit and spend time together (usually a 2 hour window in the early afternoon). We ask that people do not bring gifts but if they feel inclined to offer they can donate to the college savings fund we already have set up. It seems lame but everyone donates every year that wants to give a gift. It leaves me with less clutter of toys and/or clothing and gives my children a bulkier college savings fund which if they don’t end up using themselves I’ve already ear marked for going back to school myself!

  41. posted by Marge Wheeler on

    PS (sorry to comment twice but I left this out and I wanted to include it ) I know of other families that alternate after their children arrive at age 5. So one year is a friend party and the next year is a family party that way the child knows well in advance that they only get to have 1 party. and both are fun for all.

  42. posted by Shyrl Cone on

    My daughter and son are polar opposites when it comes to what they want for their birthdays. My son just wants a few friends to get together, which works very well for me! My daughter (who just turned 9) likes big, fancy go-all-out kind of parties. Our compromise? She doesn’t get gifts – twice she has had a party where the guests are asked to donate something for the local animal shelter rather than bring gifts. Her last shindig raised over $200 plus many bags of food, litter, etc. It made everyone feel good, she got the experience she wanted, and I didn’t have to agonize about all the extra clutter of 25 gifts that she didn’t really need! It’s all about the memories!

  43. posted by Wendy on

    I totally agree about keeping birthdays simple and family oriented. My dilemma is that I recently began doing photography for children’s birthday parties, mostly preschool aged, and I absolutely LOVE it in a way I have never loved a job before. The parents love being able to focus on the day, too, and having (being in!) great pictures. However, the only way I pay expenses is to charge enough that the only people who can hire me are the ones ‘overdoing’ the party.

  44. posted by henave on

    @Maria- (traumatized b/c no showed up to bday due to date conflicting w/ summer vacations). We’ve struggled w/ this too…

    My kids both have awkward bdays- New Year’s Eve & right around Labor Day. W/ the first one (new year’s eve), I tried a few parties at first (very small), but NO ONE wants to go to a kid’s bday party then…tried again moving date up and conflicted w/ Christmas shopping/holiday parties. We’ve settled into a fun routine where they each get to pick somewhere for the family to go for a day trip that we don’t normally do- bowling, nature preserve, rock climbing, etc. We do a small celebration at home w/ the cake and presents (just the 4 of us usually), but they love the outing…and I let them stay up all night on new year’s eve. I do decorate our dining room for them in whatever style they want so it’s still very festive!

  45. posted by the milliner on

    I have to chime in on this one as we just celebrated my son’s 2nd birthday. I’m all for keeping things inexpensive and home based. My fondest memories were of the birthday parties my Mum planned for us – always at home – with a great cake she made and maybe some other special thing, like having a fondue (yes! I grew up in the 70’s). An experience I want to create for my son.

    However, I must admit, I often feel judged for putting in the effort to plan and host a party that others consider to be ‘all out’, and not being more ‘simple’. I’m a creative person. I like to make decorations. I like to create things based on a theme. This is my thing. So why shouldn’t I ‘go all out’ as long as it keeps the end goal in focus: create an experience that’s fun for the birthday child. I want my kid to be wowed at his birthday party. Not because of how much money I spent. But because he had a new experience, and got to do something fun and interesting and unusual with the people he loves most. Creating an adventure, as Erin said.

    Really, the key point I’m trying to make is: Just because you have a more ‘simple’ party, or it’s not your thing to make decorations, and cakes, etc. doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it. It also doesn’t mean I’m doing it to keep up with the Jones’. Some people just like doing creative things. Period. For themselves. For those they love. IT’S FUN. And it doesn’t mean I spent a ton of money, even if it looks amazing (we try hard to work within a pre-determined budget – I use a lot of stuff we have around the house, and make a lot of stuff). And finally, it also doesn’t mean I’m judging your more ‘simple’ party as not up to snuff. The parties I like best are the ones where everyone has fun (esp. the birthday child). That’s it.

    OK, rant over.

    So, details on this years’ party: We had 7 kid guests (5 families) + their parents and 6 extended family members. Smaller than 1st year birthday where we invited friends who have a keen interest in our son, and who our son likes. That was fine, but too chaotic. So we limited it to kids only this year (with their parents to accompany as most kids were 3 & under). Still busy this year, but way less. And moving the festivities on to the deck for part of the party had a huge calming effect. We’ll probably have his party in the park next year – lots of place to run around. Also, next year we might split family celebrations from friend celebrations to keep the themed party even smaller. I’m all for fun, but not so keen on chaos.

    I made the invitation & decorations – did an e-vite this year that I designed, a birthday banner that I made for his 1st birthday which we now use for all birthday celebrations, and plan to for the next 18+ years when I’m hoping to give him the banner – if he wants it :) , and a few other table decorations.

    I made the ‘loot bags’ which did triple duty: they were also the one and only game we had at this party – a fishing game, and they also added to the decoration. So the loot bags were fishing poles made out of sticks & magnets, and 4 fabric fish with metal rings for each kid. We played the game at the party which was a HUGE hit. Then each kid got to take their own game home. It was a fair amount of work to make the fish, but lots of fun, and the huge payoff for me was that the kids loved it.

    Made the cake – surprisingly simple and most of the food for the party was stuff we could just buy ready made (dips & pita, veggies etc.).

    All in all, everyone had a good time (including the birthday boy), we were less chaotic and stressed than the previous year (I even found time to take a bunch of photos this year!) and I’m looking for even more ways to ‘simplify’ next year but still create a great, enchanting experience.

    Regarding the comments about not understanding/liking the loot bag thing. I agree that there’s no point in giving a bag full of CPC (cheap plastic crap) that will just clutter up others houses. But you don’t need to spend a lot of $$ either. But I like the idea/concept that in some cultures, the birthday person gives, not gets gifts. When my son gets older, I’m definitely going to involve him in the loot bag thing as his gift to everyone to celebrate his birthday. Again, it’s the thought that counts not how much $$ you spent.

    And one last note, I’m with the no alcohol at the kids party. It’s a KIDS party. Lemonade is fine.

  46. posted by leonie on

    one of the best parties my second child had was at a local park – (we had to reserve the picnic tables with the park manager) the weather cooperated, I had some crafts for the kids to do, the parents hung out as we barbequed while the children ran around in their Halloween costumes. Everyone had a good time and the cost was minimal.

    I’ve also thrown parties at our natural science museum because I get free tickets there. We would have the kids watch an IMAX, then take them through the dinosaurs, then have a simple meal there and that was it.

    Since then, the boys (10 and 13) have fallen in love with laser quest…The bill probably runs to $300-$400 given the number of children invited, and the food we provide (pizza, chicken, cake).

    We haven’t spent thousands and are unlikely to (highly unlikely). Each party has been great fun and it only last a short time (a few years). My tween this year elected not to have a party for his 12th and 13th, though he’s asked to be have one next year in our newly remodeled home.

    So, whatever works for each child – go for it.

    That said…if anyone is throwing a party with elephants – send me an invite…THAT I’ve GOT to see!!! :-)

    By the way, I’m curious how people feel about gift cards versus actual presents. We tend to give gift cards unless my children know the party giver’s preferences very well. My children have received gifts that they put away in the regifting closet (after writing thank you cards of course). I find that gift cards, or gifts with a gift receipt works best.

  47. posted by leonie on

    @millner

    Yep…agree with you on the loot bag
    this is the only country I’ve lived in with kids where I was confronted with the loot bag. It was and remains a very strange concept that party goers get presents too…

  48. posted by Zengirl @ Heart and Mind on

    Kids birthday parties have gone too far and too expensive. I have two little ones so I know the pressure of giving gifts and receiving it.

    I have many issues with it and wrote about it on my blog. There are no easy solutions. I like simple parties with out any gifts giving or receiving.

  49. posted by JustGail on

    I wonder if the reason parties haven’t gotten so out of hand money-wise is bragging rights for the parents, and not so much what the children want. I have no problem with big parties people-wise, especially when it’s a situation like Jacquelyn’s.

    I also never had a birthday party with my friends – just a cake and grandparents, aunts/uncles/cousins (and not many of those). For our son’s parties, it was at home for a couple of times, then moved on to a kid’s pizza/game place, bowling, etc. Only 4-6 friends, I think I did bags once, certainly nothing more that a few dollars total. He hasn’t had a party for a couple of years now.

    Yes, part of me wants to give the boy everything he wants. But then I also have a responsibility to give him plenty of opportunity to learn how to handle life’s disappointments. He’s been getting plenty of practice lately – “no, we will not buy you a new car”, “no, we will not buy you a 4 wheeler”, “no, I will not buy you $100 jeans”, etc.

  50. posted by Sharon on

    When we were growing up, Mom always did a cake and made dinner special. Sometimes we had family over (all my Mom’s family lived near us). I may have had a pajama party once for my birthday. Otherwise that was it. She would buy us something that we wanted for our birthday but it might be before or after the actual day. She gave me a nice outdoor party with BBQ for my 16th birthday. We never felt hurt or left out. The occasional birthday party was rare and special among our friends. But it was NOT an every year, every friend occasion. You have to keep one-upping it. Make the day special but it doesn’t have to be a KING/QUEEN FOR A DAY party with such high expectations that everything be perfect. That sets children up to expect that for every thing! Then they don’t understand why they didn’t get $1,000 worth of presents and a big party for every birthday. Then it’s the huge Sweet 16 party, then it’s the graduation bashes and trips to Europe, then it’s the Bridezillas and the over-the-top weddings and then they have such spoiled and unrealistic expectations that they are somewhat handicapped for life. It’s important to show your children love but it’s important to keep everything in proper persepective.

  51. posted by Joke on

    I’m 22 now, and when I grew up we never had these huge parties you’re talking about. I only remember one party at Pizza Hut when I was six or so, I already thought that was over the top.
    My friends often recall my birthday parties because we did all this fun stuff! There was always a theme, but we would make all the gear for it ourselves as a party activity, I remember making “Chinese hats” and dressing up as pirates. My mom’s birthday cakes are what everyone remembers most fondly though! She would coat this regular cake she baked with chocolate and then stick all kinds of sweets on it! She would make the cake in the shape of something fun like a castle, with ice cream cones as towers.
    I also remember scavenger hunts in the woods near our house and I always wanted to go iceskating for my birthday party, but I had to wait until my younger sisters were old enough. In my teens, I’d go to the movies with some friends or we’d have a nice dinner at my house.
    My first and only big party was last year: we hired a small place to party for my birthday as well as my boyfriend’s birthday and invited a whole heap of friends. We picked the music ourselves in advance and had a lot of fun afterwards with all the people sleeping over!
    This here looks like a great party: http://www.kitchenstewardship......-ever-see/

  52. posted by Sue on

    My son’s birthday is in January, and we can usually count on snow here in Indiana. The party he remembers most fondly is when we had a sledding party in our back field, and the boys build snow sculptures and sprayed them with colored water. When they came in we had hot cocoa and cake.

  53. posted by the milliner on

    @Sharon, I totally agree about keeping everything in perspective. Having a party is a priviledge, not a right.

    Just because I’m into creating an ‘enchanting experience’ for my kid on their birthday doesn’t mean I want to one-up myself every birthday. As you said, it creates unrealistic expectations. And besides, life doesn’t work that way. Some years you have the time, energy and $ to go all out. And sometimes you don’t. Or don’t want to. Or have other priorities for that year. Or the kid just wants something simple.

    Essentially, there has to be limits (just like with everything else in life). There is not unlimited $ or unlimited time so you have to decide what’s most important and where you want to focus. I’m totally planning to involve my kid in the future when he’s a bit older. Yes, he can pick the theme. And yes we can have fun daydreaming all the wild and crazy things we can do. And then we sit down and pick one or two things to focus on, and take it from there.

    I really don’t believe birthday parties (or gifts for that matter) should be about the birthday kid getting whatever they want. It should be about doing something special, to celebrate a special day.

    And my policy on gifts for birthday parties is the same as gifts for weddings: Don’t spend more than you can afford (or want to), but do take the time to do something thoughtful – a card etc. We love to give books as gifts (with gift receipt if we’re not sure if they have it or not). And my favorite thing to make lately as a gift is a cloth bag for library books with the kids initial on it. Personal, inexpensive (use fabric i have lying around) and useful.

  54. posted by Kerri on

    Has anyone else come across the trend of not opening presents at the party? I don’t really understand it. How awful to get all these presents and not be able to open them at your party. And sad for the gift giver too. We try to teach our children about giving, they try to be thoughtful by picking a gift their friend will like, they want to see their friend’s face when they open it . . . and then the parent says they aren’t opening gifts because [fill in some sort of inconvenience to parent]. My 4 year old has actually guilted several moms into allowing their child to open her gift. She did this all on her own–she isn’t shy about speaking up.

  55. posted by Tiffany on

    Interesting point on the gift opening. I actually like the idea of not opening gifts at the party. I personally think it teached the kids that the point of the party is the time spent with loved ones…not the gifts…
    and…kids aren’t always so tactful when they get something they don’t like…it saves any hurt feelings!

    but, that’s just my .02.

  56. posted by Jack on

    For friend parties, we let our two older children (4 and 6) choose a charity related to something their interested in, and then the friends bring donations for that charity. For my son’s 4th birthday party in May, we collected collars, leashes, kitty litter and other items that we took to the Humane Society.

    Its nice because it takes the pressure off the giver and they can spend as little or as much as they want; they’re not competing with somebody else’s $20 toy.

    As far as we can tell, the kids aren’t feeling “jipped” because the grandparents pool their money at the family party.

    And we end up with less (not zero, unfortunately) junkie toys that don’t fall in line with our values.

  57. Profile photo of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    @Kerrie — I’m like Tiffany and don’t like the gift-opening part of the party. The kid opening the gift always wears his likes and dislikes on his face, and all of the kids can see joy or disappointment with every gift. I like it done in private with the focus on the people at the party and not the loot. When my son starts having birthday parties with friends, I don’t think we’ll have an opening presents publicly part of the party.

  58. posted by Anita on

    I have to start by saying that my birthday falls on Christmas so my situation is a little different. That and I had a very clueless mom so I rarely had any sort of acknowledgement even. When I turned ten, I decided to remind her in April that she had forgotten my bday while she was preparing for another family friend’s party. So I never want my son to feel that way.

    That being said, he’s now only three so I figure I’ve got a little bit of time before it matters much. However, I still have some sort of celebration.

    For his first bday, we had an open-house styled party for about 100 ppl and then had a special dinner for those closest to us. The reason I did this was because my husband and I had been trying to get pregnant for over 3 1/2 years and I wanted to celebrate! I did make it clear that it wasn’t necessary to bring gifts-that the celebration was more for us than it was for him, but of course, he got some stuff, which we waited until after dinner to open, with just our closest friends and family there.

    On his second bday, we invited just our closest friends and family and the few kids he had met at the local library group. We did make party favors, but it was very simple but cute. I made crayons that looked like the letters of each of their names and printed off a coloring sheet from the. computer (the theme was Veggietales). I also asked that if they wanted to bring a gift, to please bring a Veggie movie. This worked great!

    For his third, we were in the middle of moving to Africa, so we just had a dinner at the grandparents house and we asked again for no gifts.

    I figure he’s getting old enough to start having input, but we have just now gotten back from Africa and neither one of us have a job! So i’m sure this year will be small once again! It just depends on where we are in the world in September!

  59. posted by henave on

    @Leonie- I think gift cards are great for kids and adults alike for all occasions. I dislike trying to guess what someone wants and rarely know what they have.

    I am in the no gift opening camp. The best parties are where everyone gets to play, eat some cake and go home. Having to sit through gift opening is too much (esp. for little kids). It rarely goes well anyway- all the kids are too wired as it seems to come right after cake and ice cream!

  60. posted by Lee on

    Our boys are adults now, but we had and went to lots of birthday parties.

    The advice of number of guests equal to child’s age or age plus one is OK. However, if that means leaving out 1 or 2 children from the class, I’d invite them all rather than hurting feelings. Sometimes it’s better to do same sex guests to keep numbers down. Children who aren’t invited may already feel outside of the group, and not being invited to a party or even makes them feel worse.

    if needed, just invite the closest neighborhood kids.

    Don’t give out invitations at school, especially if you decide to not invite everyone. Again, this avoids hurt feelings and a mailed invitation is much more likely to get home and read in a timely manner than one given to the child to take home.

    Gifts should be eliminated. Both of my kids showed their feelings on their faces, no matter what they said. I’d much rather see small gifts be requested for a favorite local charity.

    I hope that the attutude and spending adjustments we make during this economy also affect the size of and activities at children’s birthday parties. I hope this affects weddings, too. That would be a another post.

  61. posted by Kerri on

    Re opening gifts, I’ve noticed it is only parents that don’t want to open gifts, never the kids. I’ve been at parties where the birthday kid was begging to open their gifts. I just don’t think it is fair to place a bunch of presents in front of a small child and then say, sorry, you can’t open them. Just my .02

  62. posted by amy on

    We, as a family, just celebrated my daughter’s first birthday. I went all out on her party. It was a park party, and I had a limited budget, but it was as special and creative as I could dream it to be. It was a joyous experience, and it is a treasured memory.

    I’m sure others thought it was silly of me to spend the time and money celebrating the birthday of a baby who was no more aware of the milestone than she was of the pile of gifts in the corner, but it was a labor of love, and a celebration of the joy she has brought to our family.

    At the end of my life, I want to remember the important milestones, and I want to help make them memorable for my family. Maybe that means a Dinosaur Train cake shared with mom and dad. Maybe that means taking a day to gather cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents–finding a reason to break away from the busy, to slow down, to be together, and to celebrate life. Maybe that means specially made orange-popsicle flavored ice cream. Maybe that means fifty cupcakes lovingly decorated by a dear aunt. Whatever it means for my family, I will continue to pursue constructing loving, memorable gatherings for those whom I love.

  63. posted by Val on

    Most years my birthday was a bunch of us running around in the backyard or a nearby park. Usually the kids would get pizza for dinner. I did get presents, but only a few were particularly memorable. What I still get is the dinner of my choosing with my family and a homebaked cake. Always.

    My least “simple living” birthday party was age 11 where I had an inflatable bouncy house. (My dad works at the fire department, and if you volunteer enough hours running it at the fair and such you can borrow it.) It was complicated (we had to borrow a truck to get it there) but AWESOME. We basically only stopped jumping to eat.

  64. posted by Margaret on

    re the milliner — that’s funny, I never thought about someone having a big party because they WANT to plan and decorate! I HATE the planning and decorating. Well, I don’t decorate, except the cake. I always thought that our parties were not really up to snuff, but my SIL told me once that she thought I had great birthday parties. I think what helps is that the people who come over are just the kind who like to sit around and visit, so even though I don’t plan out games and activities (although I’ll pull out playdoh or paints if a see a kid sitting around who doesn’t look comfortable running around like a maniac with the rest), people have a nice time. And they don’t have to cook.

    We went to a birthday party for a one year old, and my goodness, was it ever regimented. There were certain things they were to play with at certain times. Then they were to sit down and do a sing a long. Then there was a pinata. And the mom seemed really offended if your kid did not follow the schedule. We’re talking under 5 crowd here. Actually, some of her family was there with older kids (probably up to age 10), and they were kind of horrible. They did not participate in anything that the little kids were expected to do, and when they did the pinata, they went crazy with greed. My little one and three year olds each got a handful of candy and I told them, “That’s enough for you, leave some for the other kids.” And they did. It was one of the few times someone said to my, “My, your kids are well behaved.” Apparently another cousin of mine had said she was coming and then didn’t show up. The hostess kept asking when they were coming and why weren’t they here. I finally said maybe something came up or the boys decided they didn’t want to come. In our family, little kid birthday parties aren’t really strict RSVP events — it’s more of a “we’ll try to make it” deal. And the kids in that family were 10 and 12 year old boys, so I can’t qutie see why the hostess was so surprised they didn’t come to the 1 year old girl party.

  65. posted by Steph on

    I’m with you in the “wait for the lavish party until the child is old enough to request it” camp, but why will YOU, and not the one year old, be opening his presies? Kids that age love opening and unwraping things! I gave my daughter a set of Mega Blocks when she turned one, and even wrapped about half of the individual pieces in extra boxes so she could extend the joy of opening things without giving her more clutter (I knew from her preferences at her daycare that she’d get a lot of use out of these!).

    On the subject at hand, my sister is all for big 1st birthday parties as a way for the PARENTS to celebrate having survived the first year, and thus more for the adults than for the little ones who won’t remember much…

  66. posted by Cathie on

    I so agree with this post. My son is 7, just finishing 1st grade. He has been to oh, so many parties, beginning when he was 2 and in Kindercare. We have only thrown him 1 party, for his 6th birthday, but we are acquainted with people who throw one for every single birthday. Lately, though, I have noticed a trend towards more at-home parties, which is refreshing.
    When we lived in northern Virginia, I used to throw a last day of school party for the neighborhood kids. We would buy huge containers of vanilla and chocolate ice cream and all the toppings, and call it ice cream for dinner. That wasn’t all that expensive and became an event for the neighborhood. My grown kids still talk about it.

  67. posted by Adventure-Some Matthew on

    I had this conversation with my wife last weekend! My sister-in-law spent at least a couple hundred dollars and a whole afternoon on my two year old niece. At least half of that money was in decorations put up outside, and we immediately came inside because it was too hot out! More of it was spent on presents, which she didn’t open and wasn’t interested in after the first gift (the third one she actually refused to open, even with help!)

    My thoughts on children’s parties – spend some money, but use the day as an excuse to get together with friends. Make home-made ice cream, grill out, and invite over family and friends. Why waste an excuse for a good get-together? Instead of lavish gifts, give one gift they will enjoy (like a book, not just a toy) and sock the rest of the money away in a savings account.

  68. posted by Daphne on

    Wow! You brought back memories for me. My kids, 16-year-old triplets, always had fairly simple birthday parties. But I made sure they each got their own cake, even when they were little. (Imagine being a sleep deprived mother and making three cakes! What was I thinking?) The most memorable episode occurred when they turned three. I made three LARGE train cakes, complete with chocolate cookie wheels and carrying loads of coloured popcorn. We had so much cake left over I ended up giving much of it to neighbours !

    One thing I wanted to mention — when my kids turned 12, I told them I’d only continue to throw parties for them if they asked for donations to a charity (of their choosing) instead of gifts. They did this without complaint and none of the other moms could believe it! How did I persuade my kids to do that? Honestly, it was easy!

  69. posted by Viv on

    I work in a school in a poor neighbourhood and families of limited means still throw relatively lavish parties, but cut the guest list to make the budget. I’ve seen the hurt when two or three kids aren’t invited. Folks, either just invite a couple of kids, or invite the whole class. Last week I saw the hurt in a little refugee boy’s face when he realized that everyone was talking about something he wasn’t invited to, and it haunts me.

  70. posted by Anita on

    Re: opening of presents, it could also be a cultural thing. In most Asian cultures opening a gift before the guest leaves is taboo, partially because opening a gift too soon can be considered greedy, and partially because emotional reactions are discouraged as a rule. So to avoid both, gifts are only opened after the guests have left. My Taiwanese boyfriend (who’s been living in Canada since childhood) still feels awkward opening presents in front of guests, and always asks the guest’s permission before opening a gift.

  71. posted by Angie on

    Frequent reader, first time posting.

    I try to keep my kids’ birthday parties simple. (Probably because I am not organized enough nor do I have the energy to plan something elaborate in advance!)

    We just celebrated my second child’s (Ellie’s) 3rd birthday and I really wanted to keep it simple, yet fun and creative. We invited grandparents, and 3 children plus their siblings and parents (who are all close friends of ours). We decided to have a garden-themed party. We have a four-year-old daughter as well so we have enough toys and I really am trying to keep the toys under control in our house, so I asked the guests not to bring gifts, but to bring yellow flowers (Ellie’s favorite color) to plant in Ellie’s “yellow garden.” We had talked in advance with Ellie about creating her own garden so she was very excited by the flowers (her older sister already has a “purple garden” that we created last summer). I think most of the guests went to the farmers’ market the morning of the party to pick out a yellow perennial and Ellie received a beautiful assortment of plants. We did give her one gift from the family and the grandparents brought gifts (they just can’t help themselves!), so there was a brief present-opening time, but it wasn’t the focus of the party.

    I was going to make cupcakes but my mom got into the theme and showed up the night before with an “Edible Garden”–she had baked sugar cookies in the shapes of flowers and butterflies, frosted them different colors, put them on tall lollipop sticks, stuck them into styrofoam in a yellow basket, and poured M&M’s all around them. It was so cute and went with the theme, so I scrapped the cupcakes. I did go overboard on the food, but I love to cook so that part was fun.

    I’m not big on the goodie-bags–I really hate it when my kids go to parties and come home with small plastic useless crap. But I do like the idea when what the kids take home is a craft they’ve made. So, to go along with the theme, we had the kids make garden stepping stones–we got a big bag of cement, some baking pans, some glass beads and rocks, and got adventurous with toddlers and cement :) After the stones set for a few days, I delivered them to the parents of the children. When the party was over, my husband dug out a small garden patch for Ellie and helped her plant her flowers. Her stepping stone sits in the center of her little garden.

    I should note that we are not big gardeners at all (nor am I very good at it)–but we like digging in the dirt and the kids really got into it. It was fun, relaxing, and the best part for me is that I didn’t have to find homes for a pile of new toys!!

  72. posted by Ashlee on

    This is a nice birthday suggestion. Keeping it small and simple is the best and my daughter who is 8 has had about half of her birthdays simple like this. We simply buy a cake, splurge on nicer than average dinner ingredients and let her make a wish while blowing out the candles. We would invite no one and just let her open whatever presents we got her. The total cost for these parties usually ends up being like $30. Her favorite party so far has been when she went to the American girl place for lunch. Even though it was $80 for the 3 of us she really enjoyed the experience. On the other hand, this year she is having a party at an outside place and inviting like 15 friends. It seems that we tend to have small gatherings most of the time ( and by small i mean just at home with the 3 of us!) and then on some other birthdays we go all out. I tend to like to mix it up a bit. The problem that I have with at home parties where you invite others cook-out style is that it really makes the workload higher on your part. You have to cook, clean before and after, grocery shop, and plan games or activites to do. To me when I have a larger party it is so much easier to go out and come home to a nice clean house and kitchen! It is worth the extra hundred or so not to have to do anything but enjoy the day with your child. Also, because we are currently in an apartment letting kids out in the backyard to be free is not really an option. So for me, the over the top parties are really the only option if we are inviting people at all. They cost more but I balance it out by only doing it every 3rd year or so. So I usually end up spending about $350 every 3 years on birthday parties which I don’t think is too bad. It will be interesting to see which parties stick out in her memory as she gets older. Honestly I think the way you celebrate bithdays is really a matter of personal style and preference. I like goody bags but since I want to please both parents and children I usually go with one larger “gift” type item and a bag of fruit snacks. I completely understand the waste in getting that pinata filler type stuff that either lands in an already sugared belly or in a landfill because it is so cheap. If I am ever blessed with another baby, I think that the first birthday will just be the old cook-out style party with family and friends over to show the lil one off. The 1st birthday is always for the parents and depending on your personal attributes and preferences you will plan a great party somehow ( for yourself lol!)

  73. posted by Rhonda on

    Great article. Thank you.

    I LOVE doing interesting, detailed and surprizing parties. My children – 9 and 10 have had a multitude of ‘over the top’ parties. I truly love doing these parties, and yes, they are for me as well as my children. BUT they are not for social status and, because of prior planning, they did not cost a lot.

    Creativity, organization, planning and theatrics can pull off an amazing party. Every year the child picks their theme and I create an age appropriate adventure hunt, meal and then decorate around that theme. We have had spy training (and subsequent mystery to solve), pirate, bugs (insects), Tom and Jerry party, Warrior cats, zombie, blue clues, Halloween haunted house and a dog-napping party. I have family/friends act in the adventure hunts, and they *seem* to always love it.

    The parties really should be relatively small (ie 3 or less guests, plus my two children) because of the adventure hunts, but I have done the huge, entire class parties as well. Whew, that is really intense with the adventure hunts!

    I do entirely agree with previous comments. DO NOT LEAVE children out. It is heartbreaking to know you are the only boy/girl in your class who was not invited. Yes, it happened to me once. Either a small group or the whole group. And children need to be properly instructed on the potential impact of discussing the party at school etc.

    I also resist the useless, clutter filled and junk food filled party bag at the end of the party. I try to have a simple item related to the theme, but am hoping to discontinue that now that the kids are 9/10.

    Just this year we have started to request donations in place of a present at the children’s party. My daughter bought a mosquito net, an art set for a traumatized child, and a soccer ball for children in Africa.

    While I am one of the ones who goes overboard pls understand this is one of my great joys of having children!! Some of MY best memories of their childhood is remembering their faces at the surprizes from their parties, and hearing “this is the BEST birthday party EVER mom.” :-)

  74. posted by Day 246 Favourite Five for Friday 3 Sep on

    [...] Unclutterer – Musings on children’s birthday parties [...]

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