Birthday parties.

Let me start by saying that I know a lot of you have just finished first birthday parties or are preparing for first birthday parties – those do not count in this rant. First birthdays are your excuse to do whatever you want to do – no matter how absurd it may be. 🙂

We went to two second birthday parties this weekend. Both different in many ways, similar in some. Here is a brief recap:

Party 1 was for a kid at daycare with Gus. It was at the daycare provider’s house (kid mom and provider are best friends) and was a barbecue  with water balloons, a pool, and tons of outside fun. There were maybe 15-20 kids there – maybe 40 to 50 people total. It was fine – a bit hard to socialize but Gus had fun. I would say the highlight for us was when there was a pinata and all the kids went to hit it and Gus went to the table where they had been sitting and ate all their leftover food. That’s my boy! It was an interesting crowd of people. They served miller lite and one dad kept telling kids to “man up”.


Party two was a lot of fun. It was for a kiddo who has a mama I adore but we aren’t super close. There was a ton of stuff to do, good beer, a bouncy house, and ponies. Gus loved every second of it.


Now both parties were totally fine but they were a bit odd to me. Kid 1 clung to his mom the entire time, super overwhelmed by everything there. Kid 2 had fun but never rode the ponies. I’m not sure what mom spent on party one but I know what mom spent on party t2 and, in her words, it wasn’t bad because it was under $500.

So this brings me to my point: When did kids start getting elaborate birthday parties? Why are we doing this? I am not spending hundreds of dollars on my kid’s birthday party and luckily now he is 2 so doesn’t have any idea that that’s the going rate. Yesterday was a day with ponies and while we talked about the birthday he doesn’t fully understand that. But what happens when he does? Most kids in our friend group are a bit older than Gus so he will forever live in a world of indulgent birthday parties followed by his lackluster celebration.

For Gus’ birthday we plan to announce to friends the week before that we will be at a park from __ to __ if anyone wants to come play. I’ll probably bring cupcakes to the park. There will be no circle gathered around him while he opens gifts – I hope there will be no gifts. After the park we will invite a few families back to our house to make pizza with us. That’s it. That will be his birthday. Because honestly – that’s what he wants. To play with his friends. I don’t want him to worry about being anything other than himself. Let’s get real, I don’t want to worry about him being anything other than himself.

The other part of this is that I think birthday celebrations are for parents, too. Cleaning my house for days before hand, or staying up until midnight preparing things, is not my idea of a celebration for me. I want to sit on a blanket in the sun and watch my kid run around. I don’t want to “host”, I want everyone to just be free to do whatever. I saw my friend yesterday drinking champagne after the cake was served – her duties were over. I don’t want duties to start.

I’m really big on “to each their own” on this one. It may not sound like it here – this is not a judgement of how other people do things though. For some folks that is the experience they want and need. I am just not one of them. The problem lies when we, our communities, start these trends. When is Gus going to start feeling slighted because he gets less? I worry about that but also am not willing to up my game in order to make him feel better. His birthday is a celebration for our family and we’ll celebrate in a way that makes all of us happy. Sure, renting the kid gymnastic place (we’ve been to that party) or ponies or bounce houses would make Gus happy but he is also thrilled to ride bikes to the park on sunny days and eat fruit and chase a ball. To me that’s what childhood is about and aren’t these parties suppose to be a celebration of just that?

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Posted on July 25, 2016, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 33 Comments.

  1. I had ONE crazy birthday party. It was my 6th birthday and the Olympics were in LA, so my mom busted her ass to make a HUGE Olympic themed birthday at the park with my entire family and all of the kids from my class at school. I spent half of the party sitting under a tree crying. (Lots of back story there involving divorced parents / drug addict father.) Other than that, every birthday I ever had as a kid was me, a 2-3 friends and a pizza. That’s all I ever asked for. And I was HAPPY. I didn’t care about what all of the other kids were doing. I wanted my low key birthdays. Point being, maybe Gus just won’t care what the other kids are doing. I certainly don’t plan on having blowout Pinterest-perfect parties for Charlotte every year. I don’t have it in me. I see us planning a lot of summer vacations during Charlotte’s birthday week!

    • As a child we got non family birthday parties in Kindergarten and 7th grade. I think the reasons why are because those years having parties and building friendships are more important. They were still rather simple. My K one we made hats out of newspaper. The 7th grade one was a slumber party with 5 or 6 girls. The rest of the time it was just cake and ice cream with the family + grandparents. I never felt I was missing anything but my friends were never having parties with ponies…

  2. Thanks for this. It’s really good to see and just at the right time for us. We’ve been planning to rent a local gym studio to just let the kids go nuts. But I keep flashing on Darwin’s first birthday: party canceled, the beginning of the 5 months of illness hell. And we just had a park area reserved, so the hardest part was calling people to cancel. I’m starting to think a giant watermelon or two at the local playground is sounding pretty darn good.

    Thanks for the perspective at just the right moment

    • I mean, gymnastics places are fun, don’t get me wrong. And, in my opinion, because of last year y’all can go as crazy as you want. But kids love simple joys and that’s okay. We have friends who have taken their kids to Enchanted Forest when they are younger than Gus. I just don’t get that. Right now he loves simple pleases so I’ll save my dollars until I need to do more to impress him. 🙂

      • Yeah, I don’t get that either. Unless it’s just an excuse for them to do kid things?
        My parents took us to the Disney parks (with my grandparents, I think?) when I was tiny, but that’s just my luck being the second child. It was really for my brother. I don’t remember it at all.
        Of course, we’re going to save a ton on the fact that Linnea will be able to believe that the ENTIRE WORLD (known to her, obviously. Wouldn’t want to come across as the isolationist/ignorant American) celebrates her birthday…

  3. I feel this and love this! I am with you on pizza, beer and grandparents and or close friends. However I am married to a woman who enjoys crafts and parties and comes with a large group of invite one friend you invite ALL of them. This has caused many a “discussion” anytime a kid has a party. I think she is finally coming over to my side that it is just to damn much work and money.

    This also falls along the lines of treats after sporting event. What is wrong with orange slices and capri suns??? Now it is full on treat bags that are pretty much a $20 sack lunch with toys. Every parent trying to outdo the next! Sorry to rant just a subject I have strong thoughts on..HA!

    • I think if people are into it, more power to them. It is so not my thing. But that said, it is hard because it sets the bar for everyone else. Tell her she can do it now but she can’t be a jerk to other kids’ parents when the littles are school aged. 😉

  4. Agh my “friends” all totally judged me for not having a smash cake and photo shoot for beans first but my box mix caterpillars were good enough for me.

  5. Also I want to come eat cake in the park

  6. Hehe, I like doing the party #1 style, but with about half as many people. Now we just plain can’t afford to do all that for 3 kids, so it’s cake and ice cream with nana and papa until they get a friend group they want to celebrate with.

  7. Roo’s second birthday party is in 2 weeks at our place. I am making a cake she picked out and putting out a range of easy nibbles. Apart from that, nothing. I haven’t even invited people properly, not even a Facebook invite, lol. Will be close family and friends, only a couple of other children. I’m very happy with it and I’m sure that Roo will be too.

  8. We aren’t going all out for J’s first birthday – we bought some ladybug decorations and are having a barbecue with family at Di’s parent’s newly acquired trailer (they’ll be visiting from NZ).
    We can’t afford ponies. Even if we could, I don’t think I’d want to send the message to J that extravagant birthdays are how you are shown that you are loved and cared for. When she gets old enough to notice the difference between her birthdays and friends’ birthdays, I feel like maybe she’ll be old enough that we can explain why we don’t do that.
    My birthday parties growing up were fun and not super indulgent. It’s strange that there is so much spectacle about parenting these days. I keep reminding myself that having a photographable experience is not the point – hard, because I’m a sucker for peer pressure and also I like things to be visually appealing.

    • Okay, I just re-read my comment and it does sound super judge-y. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with having planned parties that are photographable – I think maybe I was conflating excess with esthetics. But seriously, I hope that I never find myself spending $500 on a birthday party. (And again, out pops the judge-y.)

  9. Yeah, we did a big 1st birthday party with friends and relatives from out of town. For 2 we just had our friends and their kids (6 kids total) over to our house to play and have cake. No stress. I didn’t cook a thing nor make anything I saved on Pinterest. My kind of party. Those ponies were pretty awesome though.

  10. Well this is timely. I’m working on a post that is sort of (maybe? maybe not…) related to this idea of parenting peer pressure and kids’ perception of the choices we make for them. It will probably go live later this week.

    But in the meantime, I think the most important point you made is not the excess itself, but rather, your observations about the respective birthday kids of honor. I have no doubt that you’re raising Gus to be aware not just of the world around him, but of himself as well. I cannot imagine that you will be making decisions about his future birthday parties without his input. By three, Clementine definitely made her opinion known about what she did or did not want to do and whom she most wanted to invite. Even if Gus does think he wants a larger party than you’re comfortable with some year, he will probably also know WHY he wants it. And if he doesn’t, surely you can tease it out in order to decide whether or not the underlying reasons are worth sacrificing your ideal/making the investment. I can think of dozens of parents who refused to buy into the Disney Princess madness (to give a possibly more low key example) only to find themselves throwing a Frozen-themed party for their kid when they realized how important it was to them (the kid) and how special it made them feel. Or others whose natural “party hearty” instincts were quashed by their introvert offspring. I think the key is to plan the party that will be special to the guest of honor. We would never do a huge party for Clementine, introvert that she is, but Julia, if her first year of life is any indication, is likely to be a real social butterfly and loves being showered with attention by lots of people in rapid succession. But I think they know pretty early that having fun isn’t the same as feeling special. Even if Gus did love the extravaganza at his friend’s house, that doesn’t mean he will equate it with The Way Birthdays Are. And even if he does, you have plenty of other reference points to inform a larger discussion. And even if he does talk you into something more extravagant than you want, you can help him understand the implications of that investment. Like, I remember wanting to invite lots of friends to go see a movie or a play or something and my parents explained that all those things cost money and I had to decide which thing was more important to me–lots of people or the show itself. I think I took two friends with me to the show. You (and he!) will figure it out.

    I was so annoyed at myself for giving in to letting Clem bring a less healthy snack on her day to bring snack for the preschool class last year–until I realized that she wasn’t pushing for junk food primarily because she wanted it (I mean, she did, but it wasn’t the main reason) but because she was taking her friends’ dislike of the cheese she brought very personally and refusing to eat it at home. I didn’t like how this food she loved had become loathsome to her because of the associations with complaints at school so I decided we could relax our rules a bit and do goldfish (or whatever) and fruit instead of cheese and fruit. Not that this is the same as what you’re describing, but well, you made me think of it and I don’t think it will make it into my post on the subject. 😉

    My main points are: 1) You know lavish affairs are not the only way celebrate a kid and given how you are raising your son, should not doubt that he will too. 2) The fact that you made note of how the birthday kids were reacting to their own parties is huge. Sounds like you were more tuned into that than some of the grown-up hosts, i.e., parents.

    • Yes! You totally hit the nail on the head! If he grows to want a big party, great, but that is going to be our standard style of park play date. If he wants to feel special and be the center of attention, great, we can have a few friends to do something special. The boy at the first party – the poor poor birthday boy – wasn’t happy. The girl of party two had a good time (even if she didn’t like the ponies). They are two opposite kids who were given similar one size fits all parties.
      Gus is outgoing – much more so than either of us. I never want to squash that while also not leading him to believe that he can have whatever extravagance he wants.

  11. I can’t recall ever comparing birthday parties as a kid or feeling slighted, and that eases my mind a lot, because big/elaborate parties are not for us. But then, no one in our town did crazy expensive parties for little kids back in the day, so maybe we didn’t compare because the differences weren’t that great?

    Regardless, nope. Nothing against anyone who does them for their kids – we’ll happily celebrate any kid at any type of party. But our kids will definitely have low key “at a park” or “BBQ in the backyard” type of birthday parties, especially when they’re at an age where they couldn’t care less. My favorite was 2 years ago at a fenced-in park playground (ECFE school) a couple of blocks from our house. The one & two year olds couldn’t wander off, so adults could relax and not hover. The kids wore themselves out with balls, bubbles, perfectly sized playground equipment and food. And zero stress or house-cleaning involved. WIN.

    Kids just want to play, be merry, and feel special on their birthdays. So far, ours are happy to do that in a no-frills way. I’m good with that. If they ask for something fancier in the future, we’ll try to accommodate (within reason and financial means). But I’m not about to start them down that path myself.

    • Oh right. That’s where I was going with my comment. Kids notice and compare things at a young age, but I think it’s really hard for us as adults to not conflate “compare” with “contrast.” I.e., just because they mention that their party isn’t like their friends’ parties doesn’t necessarily mean they wish it were. Similarly “why does Friend get X, Y, or Z thing?” doesn’t necessarily mean “why don’t I have it?” Most of the time, they just want to know why! I sometimes follow up with “how do you feel about that?” or even “do you wish you had that too?” and just as often as not, the answer is “no, not really.” I feel like young kids are pretty concrete–whatever is happening to them right now is their reality and other things that happened before, after, or somewhere else might as well be an entirely different world. It’s often us as adults who read judgement or (because I can’t think of the word I really want) alternative desires into their comments.

  12. I wrote a big long response but I’m going to blog it instead. I totally agree with you and hope that I can make Gus a shirt for his birthday.

  13. I get what you are saying here and I agree to each their own. For me, I really enjoy the planning of a party and looking for ways to make it special without too much work on my part and definitely not too much money. I have found a few ways to make it a special party without making it all about stuff. You have probably read these, but I thought I would share them.

    For the first few years instead of presents we did a book swap, we asked each kid to bring a new or used book wrapped. Everyone gets to open a present and take it home, no goody bags. We had that party with 4 other kids and their parents at a nearby playground with a fountain to play in and I made monkey cupcakes. Our nephew asks for donations for the animal shelter instead of presents. Also, the general advice for kids under 5 is to invite 1 more kid than the age of the birthday child. We kept all birthday parties for ages 2-4, other than the big first birthday with family, to less than 6 kids. I have also read some families that have big parties for specific years and all others are just family. So ages 1, 10, 18 they have a big party. I like that idea too. For the 5th birthday since our kid has a summer birthday we had a big party because it was sort of the pre-school graduation celebration, get ready for kindergarten. We had about 12 kids and a bounce house. Still, it was only food, some big boxes to make forts and color on, and the bounce house in our front yard.

    When it comes to gifts, we have always had the kids go with us to help pick out a present for their friends, help them learn to think of what the other kid would like. My 9 year old loves to watch her friends open the present she got them. We love seeing her enjoy making someone else feel good. We have asked parents to allow us to stay a few minutes after the other kids have left so that our kid can watch her friend open their present. We almost always have her open presents with her friends, but we try to keep the parties small so that is managable. Now that she is 9 her last 2 parties have had up to 10 kids, but usually not all the kids gather for present opening. We grab the kid that gave her the present when she opens it, and then snap a picture of her with that friend and the gift so she remembers who gave it to her. Then that kid goes back to playing and she pulls out another present. I feel like that helps put the focus on the friendship instead of the gift.

    My older daughter loves crafts so we usually have some sort of activity that gives the kids something to take home, or send home the decorations like balloons and paper flowers. I try to avoid the goody bag of candy and junk. Although one year we did a rainbow tea party for 5 kids and all the candy I had set out as a decoration was set out to be scooped into pails the kids could take home full of candy. I still get teased by one of the parents we are friends with for sending her daughter home with so much candy. I love to make the party a theme, but at the same time, I have used an old sheet as a table cloth and most of the decorations are either reused every year, or homemade. One year the decorations were primarily tissue paper flowers and my daughter decorated her room with them for weeks after the party. Now that my older daughter is 9, she loves helping me plan her party and make the decorations. I adore making a cake or cupcakes for the party myself. It is probably the one thing I spend a lot of time on, but again, I love this. On her third birthday my older daughter decided everyone should get a candle in their cupcake, just like hers, so we have pictures of her going to each kid and letting them pick out a candle and put it in their cupcake. Since it was just 4 other kids for a party at our house we could accommodate that and I loved it.

    I’m not trying to be defensive, I love that you feel that everyone should do what works for them and I completely agree. I try to point out to my daughter that we don’t have to do it all and we follow our heart on what is right for us. Its ok not to go to every school event, or to send in a store bought food item. The important part is the relationships we have.

    I guess in sum I just wish that we could all appreciate what each other do without feeling like we have to do the same. I don’t want people to think I’m trying to compete with them over birthday parties. I do it because I really enjoy it. When parents comment I’m quick to say thank you, I really love doing it, but only for special occasions.

    • You bring up something that is important for me to remember – that for some folks this is fun! And those folks should be able to do what is fun, even if it isn’t fun for me. The key is teaching out children not to expect what other’s have just because they have it.

  14. We just had a family day out, the three of us, for the first two birthdays. Couldn’t see the point of a party when he didn’t have the words to understand what a birthday was. First couple of birthday parties can surely only be for the parents. Which is fine if it is what they enjoy.

    We’ll maybe do a party for the big third!

  15. I feel like I have split the difference between a big party. I have had a party for Alice from age 2-5. 2 was at the transportation museum, 3 was at a playroom at the mall, 4 was at the butterfly house and 5 was at a gymnastics studio. In all situations they were 90 minutes, and I just showed up with a cake and the kids ran around and played for an hour, then ate cake/opened gifts, then left. I didn’t have to do any work or anything, but it wasn’t cheap.

    I think I do a big party for her because I feel guilty, it’s just me and her and we have no family nearby. I want her to have something special for her birthday to designate it in some way. I already feel like with the divorce and since I work and bouncing between houses that I don’t see her all that much and I want to give her something special in the form of a party.

    If she didn’t like it, I wouldn’t do it. She loves her birthday and starts talking about what kind of party she wants 6 months in advance.

    • I do think I need to remember that there are people who like doing it and for some folks that’s the thing they do and it’s totally lovely. I get the reasons why you do it and love the idea of just showing up with a cake!

  16. Hear, hear! I live in SoCal now, and almost every party I attend is like a miniature theme park. To me, all that preparation to stress out my kids would be … exhausting and dispiriting. I’m aiming to have quiet gatherings where people just feel content.

    That being said, the five-year birthdays will be a little bit wilder. I know Li’l D still remembers his fifth birthday at an actual small SoCal theme park, and it was worth the extra hassle. Once every five years. 😉

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