It hasn't exactly been a quiet news month, with no shortage of events around the world to feel frustrated, saddened or passionate about. Yet this week's most read and talked about story has been about five-year-old Alex Nash who was sent a £16 invoice for failing to attend his friend's birthday party.
Maybe it's the fact that it is such light-hearted news that has made it so appealing – a welcome change from terrorism and murder. And despite the stern faces of Alex and his father Derek used across the media, it is undeniably amusing; the idea of charging a five-year-old for not turning up to a birthday bash, then threatening to take his family to the small claims court if they don't pay up. Plain bonkers is what many people have called it.
Then there's the fact that the tale is salacious. Rather than simply talking to each other at the school gates, one parent went running to their solicitor and the other one went running to the media.
"It's strange enough that the birthday boy's mother, Julie Lawrence, would go to the lengths of seeking legal action over a child not turning up to her child's birthday party, but almost unbelievable that she would then ask the school to place an invoice in the boy's bag rather than seek out the parents to talk to them personally," one mother points out. "Then again, who would think to call the BBC about a note from another parent?"
But I think there's a fourth reason that this been such a widely read story – especially among parents – and that's the fact that it strikes a chord with those whose frustrations and irritations about the world of children's birthday parties have been simmering for some time.
Now, these fed-up parents are not a homogenous group. In fact, their aggravations are as polarised as the parents in the news story. The first group – presumably like Julie Lawrence – have just about had enough of putting so much effort into organising a special day for their little cherub, only to find that other parents don't answer, forget or just don't bother bringing their child along on the day because, as in this case, they get a better offer. In her case, she splashed out on a pricey party at a dry ski slope in Plymouth, Devon.
"Mr Nash needs to learn how to behave in society," insists one such parent. "If you accept and invitation and fail to turn up, you should be punished to the full extent of the law. This kind of rudeness must stop. Excuses about diary clashes and lost contact details shows Mr Nash to be an absolute cad. He must pay this invoice, write a full apology and thank the party host for the valuable lesson he has been taught."
Another parent points out that when her son turned eight, she sent out invitations to the whole class of 29 children a month beforehand. "Yet a week before the party, I'd had just 14 responses. Some more answered when I sent up a chasing email, but six never answered at all and two of those who said they'd come didn't. It cost us a lot of money and it was both disappointing and annoying."
On the other side of the coin are those parents – presumably like Derek Nash – who wonder why on earth families bother to have such expensive parties in the first place, let alone inviting children along that they hardly know.
"Is there some kind of one-upmanship going on with the activities you do with five-year-olds on their birthday parties going on these days?" asks one bemused parent. "What's wrong with party games and cake?"
Indeed, the "my kid's party is better than your kid's party" has become an increasingly worrying trend, with the cost of the average children's birthday party having soared to an average of £309. Experts believe parents are under pressure to throw good parties so that their child will be popular, with entertainment and party games alone costing an average of £63.43.
The next biggest spend, according to the study by VoucherCodes.co.uk is food for tiny tummies, setting parents back around £55, whilst hiring a venue now sets parents back an average of £48.73.
Parents apparently spend an average of £25.35 on an outfit for their child and even party bags – which used to contain little more than a cheap toy and slice of cake – now sometimes include the latest children's film on DVD or designer branded clothes.
"I'll be honest, I wanted my daughter to have the best seventh birthday party the school had seen. We even got a limousine to get the girls from our house to the venue," says one mum. "Now I say it, I realise it sounds a bit daft and spoilt on her part, but we could afford it and she'll always remember it."
One mother points out how this is all very well – and what a treat for those who get invited – but actually, it puts pressure on the parents of the invited children. "You wind up feeling obliged to buy an expensive outfit and present," she explains. "I have also felt under increasing pressure to change my plans if my child isn't free on the date of a party she's invited to.
"One time, we'd booked a weekend away with my parents and I told the mother as soon as she'd given me the invitation, saying sorry that she'd need to rule us out. She responded. 'Oh, you see your parents all the time. Isn't there any way you could change it?' I was gobsmacked."
But she was not as shocked as the mum who forget all about her son's friend's birthday party and got a public shouting-at in the playground. "In some ways, an invoice would have been preferable," she says. "At least I'd have done without the playground scene that caused many parents to turn around and watch. Yes, it was wrong of me to have forgotten, but we have busy lives and I dropped a ball. I apologised, but it wasn't enough for her."
A party is supposed to be a celebration, says Kirsty Armstrong, childcare expert at Tinies.com. "It is a voluntary celebration that people either attend or don't attend," she says.
"I really feel for the parents who had to pay for the invited child who did not attend, but children are frequently ill, fall asleep at unexpected times, are tired from the night beforehand, fall over and hurt themselves the same day, and present – even to the most organised parents – an unknown realm of possibilities where schedules are concerned.
"The invoicing is wrong and has not created any comfort for the child who had a non-attendee, nor for the relationship between the parents."
What do you think? Have children's birthday parties become too lavish and stressy?
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