I'm not sure exactly when I realized I wasn't in Kansas anymore. It may have been when the perky Little Gym employees gathered twenty-five kids in the center of a room of miniaturized gymnastic equipment for a half-an-hour of maniacal running, jumping and skipping to insanely loud music. Or it could have been the arrival of adults dressed as princesses, cartoon animals, and superheroes hired to lead groups of small children on treasure hunts and teach them the Hokey Pokey.
More likely it was the tables covered with presents and the three-tiered professionally designed birthday cakes. Whatever it was, I recently found myself wondering: When and why did kids' birthday parties become such high-octane, deeply managed showpieces?
My birthdays were simple affairs. Someone would make a cake, family members would sing Happy Birthday and I'd get a present or two. When I hit elementary school, I was allowed to invite a few friends over for games or a movie. Except for the occasional Bat Mitzvah or Sweet Sixteen, my friends did the same.
I carried on my family's minimalist tradition with Little Dude. His first birthday was a 15-minute event squeezed in between lunch and naptime. The only guests were my parents, an old family friend and Little Dude's babysitter. Little Dude had a homemade applesauce raisin muffin. The last three birthdays have been pretty much the same, although he's graduated to homemade cake with icing and we now invite a few of his best friends. We also serve wine because Loving Husband becomes Jittery Prisoner during kiddy parties.
Noticeably absent from our fetes? A magician, reptile wrangler, fancy decorations, loud music, and a gift table.
I've come to realize, however, that we're in the minority. So far this year, Little Dude has been invited to ten birthday parties. I realize that by writing all of this, he may never get another invitation, but what the hell?
Little Dude's birthday schedule even includes a day with three parties in a row -- all timed to create a perfect storm of overstimulation and a constant sugar high. Of those ten parties, only two are at someone's home. The others are being held at local pools, gymnasiums, party centers, pint-sized arcades and inflatable bouncy house extravaganzas.
Little Dude's preschool classmates' parents are thoughtful and generous people who usually invite the whole class to birthday parties. The kids play like maniacs, the adults mill around, content to let someone else organize the fun for an hour or two, and everyone eats pizza and cake. Because I have a high threshold for controlled chaos, I'm the designated birthday party chaperone in our family. (I never tell Jittery Prisoner that I actually enjoy these events, because I want to earn sympathy and bonus points for handing the household birthday duties.) Little Dude loves going and celebrating with his friends and I'm always grateful that he's included.
A note to Little Dude's friends' parents: I'm going to say some things that might upset you in the next couple of paragraphs. Please don't shun me and please keep inviting Little Dude to the parties.
Because, you see, all this amusement doesn't come cheap, and, as fun as these events are, I can't bring myself to spend hundreds of dollars for a party my kid is going to forget about in 24 hours. So we have Little Dude's parties at home. This means that we can't invite all of his classmates because his birthday is in the winter and our house isn't set up to entertain twenty-seven kids and their parents. Neither is Jittery Prisoner. But even if we had our own indoor gym, we probably still wouldn't throw giant parties. I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, but I want to be sane at the end of the day. And huge kiddy parties feel like a visit to the asylum most of the time.
In addition, I don't want Little Dude to expect a huge pile of stuff for his birthday. It makes me uncomfortable, especially given the buckets of toys he already has. He's coming perilously close to being featured on an episode of "Hoarders" -- a birthday bonanza would definitely tip him over the edge. My goal is for Little Dude to remember his birthdays because he chose his favorite cake and played with his friends, not because it took him an hour to open all the presents. I think he'll be fine, if, for as long as possible, I avoid making the celebration of his birth something overly materialistic.
My biggest fear though, is that if I give Little Dude big parties when he's really young, it'll launch an arms race I can't win. If his favorite cartoon character stops by on his third birthday, and the fourth is held at a local gymnastics center with his entire class in attendance, what will he request for his fifth or sixth? By adolescence, will his expectations be so high that nothing short of a wedding reception will do? If you've ever seen "My Super Sweet Sixteen", you know what I'm talking about. I'm not sure how you scale back once you go down this path.
I don't want Little Dude to feel entitled to massive parties -- I want him to keep a sense of perspective about his birthday and the celebration that goes with it. One of the best pieces of advice that I've gotten regarding birthday parties is that a kid can invite as many kids as he or she is years old. We try to roughly follow that.
But I've sipped at the birthday crazy cup. I once spent hours making a dump truck cake for Little Dude's third birthday. We also always end up with a few more kids than we intend, and I give out goody bags with the best of them (although I try not to include candy -- but that's a topic for another time). I don't know exactly where the line is between a reasonable celebration and a decadent mess, although I'm certain that the folks who appeared on "Outrageous Kids Parties" have crossed it. Compared to a $30,000 princess party, I think the rest of us are doing just fine.