January 23, 2007
Birthday party wars

This sort of thing alternately amuses and horrifies me.

Birthdays Without Pressure is taking aim at the oneupsmanship that drives moms and dads to throw parties that will really, really impress the kids and the other parents, too.

"We feel there's a kind of cultural runaway going on right now around the birthday parties of kids," said William Doherty, a University of Minnesota professor of family social science who had a hand in organizing the group, launched publicly earlier this month.

Birthdays Without Pressure has started a Web site and launched a media campaign.

Among its suggestions for more modest, stress-free party planning: Hold gift-free parties, with a note on the invitation that says any presents will be donated to charity; eliminate theme parties and gift bags for the guests; instead of organizing elaborate activities, let kids play outside or hold a treasure hunt; and invite children only, not their parents as well.

The organization has also started collecting horror stories from other parents to argue its case. Among them:

_ A birthday party for a 1-year-old featured a gift-opening that lasted two hours. The child slept through most of it.

_ Seven-year-olds were picked up in stretch limos to attend the birthday party of a classmate.

_ A 6-year-old guest at a St. Paul birthday party didn't like the contents of the gift bag and declared: "This is a rip-off."

So far, Olivia's birthdays have been immediate-family-only affairs. We've sent her to daycare with baked goodies on her birthday to share with classmates, but have not yet held any by-invitation events, or provided any gift bags. At some point, maybe when she's four or five, we'll have something where she can invite friends, but I foresee a simple play-outside-then-eat-cake kind of thing. Maybe do something like take 'em to a McDonald's that has a play area - the whole purpose of those things is to provide a place for the kids that the parents don't have to clean up afterwards. I don't want to deny her the opportunity to be sociable, but neither do we want her to get the message that it's all about spending boatloads of money.

To the parents among my readers, how have you handled the birthday party issue? What would you do differently if you had to do it all over again?

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 23, 2007 to Society and cultcha

Thankfully, even though our kids have gone to some (in my opinion) over-the-top parties, they never seem to want one themselves. The one that took the most effort on our part was when my daughter, ever the historical fiction buff, wanted to play 19th-century era games, which, of course, were pretty low-tech. (Although, one of the games involved making a large wagon wheel track in snow; since it was early October, I just let the backyard grow long for a couple of weeks then mowed the pattern in. Win-win.)

When the kids were four and five, treasure hunts were fun. I'd make up rhyming clues that would lead them sequentially around the house, eventually winding up where the gift bags were stashed.

While I believe the Gift Bag is now a requirement, we've never done anything too elaborate or expensive. In some cases (like the aforementioned 19th century party), my wife and another intrepid mom helped the girls bead bracelets (both adults already had the beading supplies), and that's what they took home.

Just recently, we've done a couple of parties at Just Jump, which has a ton of inflatable play areas (obstacle courses, bouncers, etc.). These are a tough deal to pass up: They supply the location, invitations, activity, a leader who keeps the kids engaged, and gift bags filled with cheap trinkets, and you bring the cake. You don't have to clean up, and can just wander around and take pictures.

Oh, and one piece of hard-learned advice for younger kids: Cake before presents. It's hard for them to sit through someone else opening a mountain of gifts.

Posted by: CrispyShot on January 23, 2007 8:27 AM

Watch out for the media trap in the article - either you send limos to pick up the partygoers or have no gifts - try selling that one to your 6 year old sometime. Those are the extreme ends of the bell curve which of course reporters love. Only in the news would they give you a choice between giving your 5 year old and her friends a complete spa day (or maybe stripper pole dancing lessons!) and having a no present, 2 hours of meditation party.

The toughest part of planning a kid's birthday party is finding something that your child wants to do that works for a group of kids. The easiest thing is come up with 3 realistic ideas and let your kid choose which one they like - McDonalds, pizza party or the place with all the inflatable stuff. Another cool one is a lightly guided activity like gymnasticss or dance (since Olivia is a girl). As long as the party is about your kid and his/her guests having fun and not about what people think of you its hard to go wrong.

Posted by: Peter Hughes on January 23, 2007 9:03 AM

I've got 3 daughters ages 8, 3, and 9 months. We've done pretty much everything for the 8 year old in Alaska where we used to live and here in Waco.

Her first real party was her third birthday which we threw at our house in Juneau. Pretty stressful to have all those parents standing around in your house and you feeling like you have to serve them too in addition to the kids. I had helium tanks at the house for mixing trimix scuba diving gas and so was able to make large balloons tied to goodie bags. After that birthday we decided never to throw another large one at home and tried parties at the following places:

Gymnastics academy in Juneau: Worked great. Lots of places for the kids to play. Just brought at cake from Costco and that was it.

Private kiddie gym in Juneau. They had birthday packages which worked fine. Nice not having to clean up.

In Waco we've been doing her parties at the Waco Water Park which is a local municipal water park that works great for parties. Her birthday is in July so that's perfect. We invite her class and soccer team. The Water park does a package deal where you just pay about $150 and they give you a pavilion for 3 hours and bring out the cake and ice cream when you want. They also have about 20 lifeguards at that place so you can pretty much let the kids run wild and there is plenty of seating for parents to lounge around and concessions for them if they want their own food.

For middle daughter's 3rd birthday we held it at Kidsville in Waco which is a private indoor play gym. They do lots of parties. Worked great. My daughter had an absolute blast. I don't think 3 is too young for a first real party. Just don't make the food or gifts the centerpiece of the party. Let them play.

Parties that I absolutely HATE (and I've been to many).

Any party at any restaurant with video games like Chuckie Cheese or the like. Usually these restaurants are not as access controlled as the dedicated play areas so you actually have to stay there and watch your kids as there are multiple exits and always some sort of creepy folk sitting around. Chuckie Cheese must be a pedophile's wet dream. There's a larger similar restaurant in Waco called Peter Piper's Pizza that is huge and usually has multiple parties happening at the same time. It freaks me to drop my kid off there as it is so big and uncontrolled that they could just get lost and vanish.

Want to talk about over-the-top parties? Last year my daughter (who was in 2nd grade at the time) got invited to a 50s theme birthday party which was a giant pain in the butt for me as my wife was on-call and I had to get her ready. What was this mom thinking? I dropped her off at the house where a stretch limo picked them up and took them to Fudruckers where I picked them up 3 hours later. All the OTHER little girls were dressed in poodle skirts, sweater sets and saddle shoes with scarves in their hair. It was like seeing daughters of the stepford wives or something. Did they all actually make those costumes or buy them? Where does one actually buy that sort of thing? As a non-Texan dad who is often in charge of dealing with this sort of stuff for my daughter when my wife is working at the hospital I often feel like I'm the only unassimilated person wandering around in a Borg world. I put my kid in jeans with rolled up cuffs, white sneakers, white button-down shirt with the collar turned up, and tied a scarf around her neck. BOY did I miss the mark on that one!

My advice? Find some secure indoor play location with lots of places for the kids to run wild and just pay for their bithday package. NOT a restaurant where regular customers are mixing with the kids. Then don't bother trying to organize games and other nonsense. Just let the kids play for an hour or so, call them in for a snack and cake break, then let your kid open her gifts while those who want to go back to play can do so. Most of the boys will be right back playing while the girls will cluster around and help open gifts. Have a big box ready to stash all the gifts. Get them stashed away and send your kid back out to play. Don't worry about thank you notes for a kids party, too much trouble and no one really does it. If she's young like 3 or 4, sort the gifts when she gets home and box away at least half of them for later as usually my daughters get way way too many gifts to cope with at once.

Oh, and this is important. Have a sign-in sheet for every parent who arrives. Get their name, kids name, and cell phone number and find out if they are staying or leaving. Some parents like to drop off the kids and duck out at parties. Nothing worse than to have a party end and have an extra kid there with no parent in sight when you want to leave and no phone number or contact info.

Posted by: Kent from Waco on January 23, 2007 9:32 AM

I took pictures of my six year old and his friend. I put the picture in a frame and put that in gift bag. That was all they got and the parents loved it.

Posted by: Tammy Atkinson on February 22, 2007 3:54 PM