Defeating the kids birthday party industrial complex

    How can families celebrate birthdays without feeding into a multi-billion dollar industry that creates a broader culture of entitlement?
    Kids birthday parties have become a multi-billion dollar industry. But can one-year-olds even remember the occasion? (
    Kids birthday parties have become a multi-billion dollar industry. But can one-year-olds even remember the occasion? (

    Seamus turns a year old on July 18. Phew, my work here is done.

    Just kidding. In fact, the work is only getting started because now his dad and I have to throw him a happy first birthday party.

    Thankfully, I get a magazine called American Baby every month. I do not subscribe. The mail carrier just marches it to our house every month with its perfectly coiffed, perfectly dressed and perfectly happy chubby babies on the cover. The inside has articles featuring their perfectly color-coordinated and constantly exercising mothers. The whole thing seems to exist just to make me feel inadequate.

    So, of course, the most recent issue featured ideas for one year birthday parties. The first thing that got me was the baby in a beautifully hand crafted birthday hat with her name on it ($25 on Esty) in front of a cake. Should one-year-olds be eating cake? I kind of don’t think so. I want my baby to hold on to his hard won teeth for a while before they all rot out of his head.

    “Every good kid’s party starts with a theme,” so the magazine says. But the only themes it suggested were pennants, rainbows and cardboard boxes (okay, that last one is kind of cool). Of course, each one involves intricate invitations, elaborate welcome signs, color-coordinated party accessories and theme-appropriate games that would necessitate hours at Michaels, AC Moore or the Dollar Store — topped off with more hours spent hand crafting items for the party. More than one of the featured parties had a photo-booth.

    Who is all of this for? It can’t really be for the birthday girl or boy. I know my son is brilliant, but he would not remember the rainbow or pennant or cardboard box birthday party the next day (or even a few hours later). If we decided on an Arabian Nights theme and hired dozens of belly dancers and had hookahs all over the house, he still would not remember it. He is a baby for crying out loud.

    These perfect parties are part of the party wars that fuel a multi-billion dollar industry in this country. You can go in all kinds of different directions and still lay out the big bucks — from a sophisticated affair at your home to the mayhem of Chuck E. Cheese or Bounceland, from Esty’s hand crafted party favors to big packages of plastic things made in China found at the Party Store, from lawn games and polite conversation to rented magicians and puppeteers. The kids birthday party industrial complex is keeping our economy humming along. Oh yeah, and you need to provide swag bags to all the guests and everyone needs to bring a gift for the toddler of the hour. What? Can’t we just say no swag bags and no gifts and call it even?

    Our six-year-old is turning into quite the party-hearty. We have gone to a lot of kids birthday parties in the last month and so I have a newfound appreciation/dread of the medium. One was a pretty simple affair with snacks, some arts and crafts projects, and cupcakes with candles. Rosena brought a nice gift and took home a swag bag full of bubbles and baubles. The birthday girl sent her a thank you card in the mail the next week, which was very sweet. And I thought, “Oh, these parties are about teaching manners and etiquette and appreciation. I love it.” I wanted Rosena to send a thank you letter for the thank you letter, but decided that was a little much.

    The next party kicked it up a notch with a Moon Bounce and a Star Wars cake with a Jabba the Hutt made out of ganache (it was way more delicious than you would think gray cake could be). We didn’t know any of the parents at this one, but made conversation for a few hours while the kids bounced and slid. Another mom talked me into going into the Moon Bounce and in that moment everything made sense. It was so much fun! “Okay, I get it,” I thought. I was secretly glad that our backyard is small and sloped and incompatible with even the smallest Moon Bounce. They cost hundreds of dollars to rent for an afternoon.

    The final one was a blow out bash with a Moon Bounce, a snow cone machine, a cotton candy maker, a professional face painter, a professional air brusher, pizza for everyone, an hour-long magic show and a drop-in appearance by Tinkerbell. It was one for the ages. Rosena had a blast; she wore her face paint for the rest of the weekend. Including renting the venue, the shindig must have cost the parents a couple grand, at least. I have no right to judge how parents spend their money. At least the kids were outside. Better they spend it on snow cone machine rentals and local magicians than handing it all over to FAO Schwartz or the American Girl Store (for the big bucks, you can plan parties at both of these iconic spaces).

    At the American Girl Store, parents can arrange for their birthday girl and her friends to have a Deluxe Birthday Celebration, complete with a meal which includes a “signature pink-and-white cake and ice cream, special goody bags and doll tiaras for each girl, a commemorative keepsake for the birthday girl, a fun table activity, and a craft — all in a private dining room. Make her day even more memorable by adding a Doll Hair Salon service or party photo to the experience.” I’m going to say it is upwards of $60 for each girl. Here was the line that got me, though: “Parties last 90 minutes.”

    My husband and I wonder how to relate to all these birthday parties as Rosena gets older. Do we buy girl and boy presents in bulk to save money? Do we RSVP “no” on principle? Do we make a point of leaving the swag bag? Do we organize the parents at our school to put the kibosh on the birthday blowouts? If we want to take that route, we have some support at the University of Minnesota. Their Department of Family Social Science actually has a website called “Birthdays Without Pressure” that is trying to tone down out-of-control kids’ parties by getting parents to talk to one another and approach birthdays differently. They say that the current approach helps to create a broader culture of entitlement, envy and drive for more of everything. We agree with that. The website also has lots of ideas of how families can build a culture of celebration, appreciation and fun without putting on the Ritz or breaking the bank.

    For Rosena’s sixth birthday last year, we rented a room in our church, made the cake and most of the food, and invited her whole kindergarten class. It was a three-hour affair, which is why I scoffed at the American Girl Story 90-minute party. Rosena’s birthday is right after Christmas, so we asked that no one bring gifts (and they mostly complied). There was no theme, no color palette, no party favors and no swag bags. The kids bobbed for donuts, made balloon hats and wands and did three-legged races (which are kind of dangerous, as it turns out). I worried that we did not have enough activities, but I need not have wasted the energy. It turns out that in January, kids are starved for physical activity and they just want to run around, which they did for the better part of three hours. Rosena had so much fun and so did all the other kids. She was a great host too. It took some work and it did cost a little money, but it was worth it. Rosena still talks about how happy she was that so many kids came, how much fun she had and how cool the cake was. Plus, no presents means no thank you letters to write, which she appreciated.

    So, back to Seamus’ first birthday: What theme would Seamus want? He likes bananas and grapes and blueberries. He likes balls and musical instruments and being with his family. He likes taking baths and wriggling out of his diaper and dancing. Can that be a theme?

    I just got some advice that first birthday parties are not for the birthday boy or girl; they are for the parents for surviving the first year of the baby’s life. So maybe we will have a gin martini theme and have all the guests give us foot rubs. Doesn’t that sound like a birthday party you’d like to go to? Everyone is invited!

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