Birthday Party-Palooza: How Did We Get Here?
By Jen Holman
For my 14th birthday, my parents threw a surprise party in our church’s fellowship hall. That’s the one and only birthday “blowout” I recall having. No, no—I don’t want your pity. I tell you this to make the comparison of just how far we’ve come in one generation.
Remember when kids’ birthday parties were family affairs with cake and ice cream and nothing else? We were thrilled if our parents got crazy and agreed to a slumber party. I remember in the sixth grade, a friend’s birthday was at the KOA pool. We talked about that party for months afterward. But these days, a party isn’t a party unless someone’s rented War Memorial Stadium, invited everyone from school, church and the neighborhood, and shelled out a mortgage payment on a DJ, gourmet cupcakes and $10 party favors.
Remember the MTV show "My Super Sweet 16" that documented over-the-top birthday-zillas? The world watched in awe as kids barely old enough to drive were showered with extravagant gifts and enormous parties that cost as much as weddings. Well, extravagant parties aren’t just for teens anymore.
How did we get here? Is the trend a result of keeping up with the Joneses? Is it guilt? Is it our crazed obsession with providing “cushiony perfectionism” for our precious children? I really don’t know—I’m asking.
The extravagant and expensive party trend isn’t limited to the U.S., either. Last year, a 5-year-old in England made international news when he received an invoice by school backpack express for $24. He was a no-show for his classmate’s ski-themed party and the “hosting” mother sent him a bill!
I’ll be the first to admit I’ve fallen into the over-the-top party trap. Just last year I hosted a spa party in our home that nearly caused me to have a nervous breakdown. Wait, no. Not “nearly.”
What used to be small affairs with cookies, lemonade and family have morphed in a very short time into gobbling party machines that take far too much time and energy to plan, and far too much money from both the organizers and the parents expected to buy gifts. Like we don’t already have enough stress in our lives, now to prove we love our children we must research, plan, execute and bankroll the perfect, completely original birthday extravaganza. Sadly, the value of using our own two hands to DIY at least some of a party seems to be a dying art—and what a money saver! I know I’m not alone in asking, “But where would I find time to craft something?”
While I’m offending everyone I know, and my children may never be invited to another party, ever, let’s go ahead and talk about party favors and goody bags. I just don’t get them. I know they used to be thank-you’s for attending parties and bringing gifts. But now, with so many event-type parties, aren’t they redundant? My kids are thrilled to attend a bounce house or swim party and to get their grubby hands on juice boxes, cake and ice cream. Receiving parting gifts on top of all the fun really isn’t necessary. And, for me at least, the toys and candy in goody bags only serve to add to the burgeoning piles of crap that my hoard-y family has already accumulated. I’m a conservationist at heart, and every time I see a plastic "Thomas the Train" adjustable ring I die a little inside.
Just to put this into perspective, let’s recap: Parents are providing a destination party and/or entertainment, cake, snacks, ice cream, drinks and goody bags for 30 children? Stop the madness! Pretty please, can we make a practical parent pact to end goody bags forever?
Maybe birthdays are the new dinner parties, and that’s how we rationalize them. Maybe celebrating our children’s births are how we get to know their friends’ parents outside of school. It’s not a bad way to spend more time with the people who’ll be in our lives for the next 10 years. There’s more time to talk when we’re not in a mad rush to work or to remain unseen in our workout gear.
But parenting is relentless—and often thankless—work. Adulting is stressful and expensive. Partying should be none of those. Now that I’ve made my point, you’re all invited to Dickey-Stephens Park this fall for an African safari-themed petting zoo featuring real, live tigers! Snow cone and food trucks will be on hand, as will pumpkin-shaped horse-drawn carriages and Uber drivers who’ll give free rides home after the local craft beer tasting (parents only!). Prior to the fireworks display, Meghan Trainor will perform her hit song “No.”
Sounds great, right? I know. We’re all doomed.
Jen Holman is often irreverent and frequently imperfect. But she’s happy, by God, and that’s what matters. She livesin Little Rock with her husband and three children, striking that delicate balance between inspiration and frustration. Jen has published three novels under the pen name Jen Crane, the second of which was selected by iTunes/iBooks as “Our Pick” in fantasy sci-fi.