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 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/

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. Avatar 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.

  8. 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!

  9. 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!

  10. 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.

  11. 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

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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…

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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!

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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!!

  22. 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!)

  23. 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.” :-)

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