Remember a gentler, more laid back time when your child’s birthday party was all about having fun? You hung up a few balloons and streamers in the living room; ordered or baked a birthday cake – sometimes in the shape of a cartoon character – and called up the parents of the kids you wanted to invite. At most, if you could afford it, you hired the services of a clown. The other kids showed up with small, inexpensive presents, stuffed themselves with cake and popsicles; giggled and screamed their little lungs out; and had a ball. Then they went home. No gift bags in those days. The kids expected nothing more than to have a good time – and they did.
Then something changed. It was no longer enough to just have fun. Parents wanted each birthday party to be an “event”; something for the kids to “experience”. The Annie get Your Gun syndrome (anything you can do, I can do better) kicked in and ran amuck. Invitations became more and more elaborate; no child who attended the party was to be sent home without a gift bag – and the more exotic (and expensive) you could make it, the more brownie points you scored with other parents. Bozo the clown was passé. Every party needed to have a “theme”.
The race to provide a unique experience at kids’ parties could reach ridiculous proportions and even get dangerous. In December, a four-year-old girl was mauled by a cougar brought in as part of the entertainment at a birthday party for a seven-year-old.
Besides, themes didn’t always work. Michelle, a St.Paul mom, decided on a ballerina theme for her daughter’s sixth birthday, Michelle drove all over to find little dancers for the cake. She put 50 beefeater guards around the edges and gave it white icing with peppermint trim. And what happened? The kids wouldn’t eat it.
Michelle was shattered. Maybe, just maybe, she had gone a bit overboard. But everyone else was doing it, weren’t they. If she threw an “ordinary” party, her kids risked facing taunts from their friends. After long thought, the absurdity of the situation started to dawn on her. It wasn’t long afterward that she joined a group of St Paul parents determined to end the birthday party arms race. ‘Birthdays Without Pressure’ was born. This loose federation of parents, who have had enough, is taking aim at the one-upmanship that drives moms and dads to throw parties, with the principal purpose of impressing the kids and the other parents, too. Never mind if it left them with frayed nerves and exacerbated tempers.
William Doherty, a University of Minnesota professor of family social science, played a big role in organizing the group. He says, “We feel there’s a kind of cultural runaway going on right now around the birthday parties of kids.”
‘Birthdays Without Pressure’ suggests that birthday parties should be more modest; and the planning should be stress-free: It wants to do away with the ubiquitous gift bags. Some members want to do away with presents altogether, asking parents to put a note on the invitation that says any presents will be donated to charity. It recommends the elimination of theme parties and elaborate activities. Instead, kids just are encouraged to play outside or hold a treasure hunt. Finally it wants to reverse the trend of turning kids’ birthday parties into society events: invite children only, not their parents as well.
Another mom, Linda Zwicky, expressed her frustration by lashing out against the gift bags that have become a staple of kids’ parties. “I just found myself wondering, you know, does he need another pencil? Does he need another rubber ball? Does he need another whistle?” But when Zwicky began planning her son Wyatt’s third birthday party, she found herself engaging in the same kind of one-upmanship. “I was going to do gift bags, but I was going to do them right,” Zwicky recalled. The party had a train theme, so she got sticks and bandannas and made “hobo packs” that included animal crackers and bubble solution. Zwicky said that party was a turning point for her. She helped found ‘Birthdays Without Pressure’.
What the members want, in essence, is a general agreement that not every party has to be more memorable than the last. “Why are we feeling the pressure to do all this?” asks Julie Printz, another parent in the group. “Let’s come up with ways to do this that’s in your comfort zone, and have a broader spectrum of what’s acceptable in terms of kids’ parties.”
When Wyatt turned four, Zwicky put on a modest affair: No theme. No gift bags. Simple games involving milk bottles and pennies. “The kids had a great time,” she said. “That’s the thing – the kids don’t care what kind of effort and planning you put into it. They’re kids.” Surprise! Surprise! Back to the future.