Dr. Bill Doherty, a therapist and director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota, decided children's birthday parties were out of control when he overheard a 9-year-old boy at a party store tell his mother that he liked a set of decorations. Her reply? "It's not your color scheme."
In 2007, Doherty and some local moms founded Birthdays Without Pressure, a website that raises awareness about the excessiveness of children's birthday celebrations and offers tips for more pared-down parties.
"Birthday parties were getting out of control and were becoming too big, too expensive, too stressful, too competitive," Doherty said.
Over-the-top birthday bashes aren't just a Hollywood problem, or one that exists only on reality television shows like TLC's "Outrageous Kid Parties."
Sure you might not be throwing down $40,000 for a "Wizard of Oz"-themed party like these folks, but if your school mandates that the entire class be invited to every party (and you have more than one kid), odds are you've been touched by the beast that is the modern birthday party.
"It's everywhere," Doherty said, pointing out a 2008 study that found even low income families spend lavishly on birthday bonanzas for their kids.
And just like the contentious debates over breast vs. bottle feeding and working vs. stay-at-home parents, when it comes to birthday parties, parents can get awfully judgmental.
Two weeks ago, one mother wrote about feeling torn about who to invite to her daughter's party on a blog called DC Urban Mom. She was contemplating inviting only two-thirds of the girls in her child's class because she was tired of hosting so many guests. She asked the community if this was acceptable or not, and received this reply:
"Tired of hosting 15 girls instead of 10? Then you sound lazy and to be honest with you, you kind of sound like a mean girl grown up. It seems to be more about you and how "tired" you are of having the unpopular girls around. Maybe it is no big deal to you but I bet it would be a huge deal to the uninvited. I bet this attitude of yours rubs off on your daughter."
According to Los Angeles-based party planner Leesa Zelken, CEO of Send In The Clowns, moms aren't just feeling pressure to outdo each other, they're feeling pressure to outdo themselves.
"Sometimes I really think it's just to reinvent their own 'I'm the best mommy wheel,'" Zelken said. While Zelken helps plan her share of extravagant parties, she's recently encountered a few moms who are self-conscious about their lavish celebrations.
"I think that people recognize that there is a backlash against this, that it's cause for chatter behind closed doors,” said Zelken, who suggests parents try co-hosting a party with another family to cut costs and problems with over-scheduling.
"I don’t think the kids ever mind. In fact, I think they really like it," Zelken said.
Linda Kaye, who runs Partymakers, a New York-based party planning business, suggests parents shop at discount sites for presents that they can stockpile.
"If you can go to your closet and have stuff, unisex gifts that are age appropriate, it becomes less of a chore," she said.
Doherty recommends getting to the root of the problem by teaming up with other parents to set gift spending and party favor limits -- and even getting schools involved since they often dictate the invite rules. But, he warned, make sure you're not the lone trailblazer.
"I heard a story about a mother deciding not to do party bags," Doherty said. “All the kids at the party got upset and one said, 'This is a ripoff!' The party girl burst into tears."
Doherty said he tells parents that they might want to consider hosting a party with a no-gifts rule to alleviate the financial burden on families who often hopscotch from three to four parties over the course of a weekend. (Though he warned that many parents will bring presents anyway, and that could make the ones who followed the rule feel uncomfortable.).
"Say on the invitation, 'Please no presents, if you bring one it'll be given to charity,'" he suggested. "If somebody brings a present, you say, 'You didn't have to do that,' and then you remove it so that the other parents coming in don't see the presents. Little things like that are important to making it work."
Above all, though, Doherty said parents should think about what's important to their individual family and act accordingly. If celebrating in a big way is something you value, that's fine, but don't host a blowout bash just because that's what your neighbors are doing.
In the same vein, if you're feeling like you need to spend one birthday-party-free Saturday as a family, you're well within your rights to do so.
"You have to know where your priorities are," he said. "This is not like declining a wedding invitation for your best friend's daughter. These are annual things … It's a matter of giving yourself permission to back out."
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