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What The Hell Happened to Children's Birthday Parties?

09/03/2015 15:39 GMT | Updated 06/05/2015 10:59 BST

From pony rides to Olympian-hosted gymnastic extravaganzas, how have children's parties become about the "biggest", "best", and "most" rather than having good old-fashioned fun with the actual birthday kid?

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When I was growing up in the '70s in a Pittsburgh suburb, my three brothers and I would celebrate our birthdays outdoors, with a handful of friends, the neighborhood kids and some of their parents. Dressed in my finest '70s garb (halter top tied at neck and back with matching polyester shorts and cork-soled sandals), I would race across the backyard in potato sacks, enjoy a water balloon toss, and play pin the tail on the donkey. And because I had the only Mexican mother in the neighborhood, our parties featured a homemade piñata filled to the brim with tootsie pops, gobstoppers, lifesavers, and an assortment of plastic doodads that probably cost no more than five cents each.

After we tired of organized games, we would run around chasing each other by foot or on our banana-seat bicycles (without a helmet, and probably sporting a dunce cap birthday hat with elastic around our chins) while occasionally stopping at the wooden picnic table for some Kool-Aid or a handful of Cracker Jacks. Often times the hose would make an appearance and we would end up soaked. Pure kid heaven.

Fast forward 35 odd years, and I'm the one organizing birthdays for my three kids ranging from six to 12 years old. Judging from the birthdays they've been to, I would need to spend a good chunk of their college savings to fund similar ones, aside from the intense time investment. For starters, my youngest in Kindergarten gets invited to almost every birthday party of every kid in her class. That's 24 parties this year! And so far there's been a stunning variety - from a real "My Little Pony" pony rides, to the most gargantuan climbing wall I've ever witnessed, to a gymnastics party with an Olympic gymnast hosting the five year olds. What? Most of these parties involve at least 24 kids, but usually more like 30, and she hardly ever sees the birthday kid throughout. How could she? They are either ten feet above on the climbing wall or getting instructions from a Marie Lou Retton wannabe. Of course the kids never open their birthday gifts during the party as there are far too many to open in the allotted time.

On another note, many of these parties are often "themed" and have pretty rigid structures. Sure, let's go climb the world's tallest indoor climbing wall with 30 other kiddies, have pizza and drinks, blow out candles and eat cake, but make sure you pick up your kid in one hour and thirty minutes or else! What? There is no actual "playing" going on at some of these parties. It is scheduled and you'd better get there on time, or your kid will miss the party briefing and you won't have time to sign the waiver form.

I know people who spend in the neighborhood of $100 and more for birthday cakes and give away treat bags that look like Santa Claus sacks full of toys; a huge expense when you multiply it by 30! Add all the drinks, pizza, snacks, fruit and other giveaways at the party plus the actual cost of ponies, renting out a climbing center or hiring an Olympian gymnast, and it must get totally crazy. And for what?

I'm not convinced that kids even notice the difference, or even enjoy such huge events, and certainly not at five or six years old. It's the difference between flying to the Bahamas for a family holiday or driving up to Lake Erie to go in the water. Of course an adult could tell the difference, but a five-year-old couldn't care less where they are as long as they can splash around and their basic needs are met. Kids get excited just to see their friends outside of school, there isn't much need to bring in 500-pound mammals and spend weeks planning for an elaborate celebration with two or three dozen kids.

At the risk of sounding like a middle-aged nostalgic, what the hell happened to children's parties? Why do people do this to themselves and their children?

Is it to one-up their friends? To keep up with the Joneses? To show their kids how much they love them? Are they including all the kids in the class for fear of hurting anyone's feelings? Seeing as most party invitations come through electronically these days, it's easy to avoid handing out invitations at school and not having one for everyone. On top of which, isn't that just how life goes? Not everyone can be a best friend, and not every party is for everyone.

I fear it's become such a part of the norm within certain circles, that the days of "normal" birthday parties (yes, the potato sack ones) are soon long gone, just like the Commodore 64 and Donkey Kong.

What I really want to know is what a 10-year-old's birthday party is going to look like when they had real ponies and real-live Disney princesses show up at their fifth birthday party? The standard has gotten crazy high. And what exactly does one kid do with 30 presents in one day? It's all too much on so many levels. I've even heard of children "registering" for their birthday party gifts, like one does for wedding gifts. Gasp.

A friend of mine has just recently started birthday parties with her young one and is inviting no more than 2 or 3 kids at a time. One guest for every year of his life is her rule. Not a bad starting point if you ask me! Sounds totally reasonable. And seeing as she lives in a posh neighborhood of Northern California, good luck to her if she's going to continue that tradition. Once the kid reaches elementary school, all hell could break loose on the weekends and she might find herself hiring the original Bozo and handing out organic canapés to a few dozen third graders.

My only solution for nostalgic birthday parties is to try and recreate my childhood celebrations, and ignore what the Joneses may or may not have to say about it. Invite a few kids over, set up a treasure hunt in the yard, play bocce ball or kill a piñata with a wooden stick (mine sadly are of inferior quality to the ones my Dad made but no kid has ever complained yet), have cake and let them run around and play. It usually works out quite well and no one actually wants to leave.

I might try a few different tactics soon including inviting one or two friends and taking them to an amusement park for the day (older kids) or to the zoo for the day (younger kids). Sure, it's still an expense, but I see it as a memorable experience with a cherished friend or two, and not a one-and-a-half-hour extravaganza that involves no real time spent celebrating the actual birthday kid or the occasion.

To my surprise, last week another invitation came through for my daughter. This time though, I may have found kindred spirits. A party at her friends' home, with only a few other girls, painting pieces of homemade pottery. I may just show up myself and bring a few bowls of Cracker Jacks to share.