River Dad, Happy Birthday to [Your Child Here]!

Recently, my children attended three birthday parties in one weekend. The weekend before, we’d had two, and there was another the weekend after. That’s six birthday parties in three weeks, some of them even hired soft play designers to create playground areas for these parties.

imagesThey were evenly distributed – three for my daughter, three for my son, and were all, or at least nearly all, parties for good friends of my children, so it wasn’t as if we could skip out on any of them, even if we wanted to. Besides, what child doesn’t love a good birthday party? It’s one of the true joys of youth. So we went to party after party after party after party…

As a parent of under-age urchins, I understand that I live my life to serve their every need. Their social calendar is my social calendar. I get that. But at some point, there’s a need to re-take control of my family’s weekend.

“What’s on tap for this weekend, Honey?”

“I’m taking Daughter to Barbarella’s birthday party this morning, you’re taking Son to Lando’s birthday after lunch. Tomorrow morning, there’s a party for Albus that we’re all invited to, but someone needs to take Son over to Gaston’s birthday around noon.”

“Who’s Gaston?”

“I don’t know; I think he’s in Son’s class. Also, Daughter’s invited to a party for Rosemary starting at 6:00 pm.”

“An all-pizza weekend! Awesome! See you on Monday.”

Maybe it’ll come and go in phases. Maybe our children will only befriend kids whose parents got frisky between the months of June and August. Otherwise, at the rate we’re going, we could easily shell out over $1,000 for obligatory birthday gifts in a single year. And some of these kids we don’t even know! There should be some sort of rule, like the value of the gift you give should be proportional to how well you know the child. If it’s one of those parties where every child in the class is invited, the kid gets something you’d find at the bottom of a Happy Meal. Conversely, if this is the third consecutive year you’ve gone to the child’s party, you always invite them over for your kid’s parties, you and the parents are friends who act as emergency babysitters from time to time and you’re pretty sure your son is going to deflower their daughter in twelve years, they get a life-sized, personalized American Girl Doll. Anything in between rates a Bakugan.

I think back to my own childhood and I don’t recall so many high-impact birthday parties. Sure, one reason is that I didn’t have very many friends, but also, I think, Birthday Party Mania has grown out of proportion to what is reasonable. Back in the day we’d go over to some kid’s house, give him a Star Wars toy, have some mom-made cake, pin the tail on Yoda (it was the times), and go home. No bouncy castle, no hired entertainment, and no goody bags. (Goody bags? What is that about? Do we really have to bribe our friends to come to our parties? Free cake and pizza isn’t enough?)

In the modern world, however, it feels like such simple-minded pleasures won’t suffice. I blame capitalism. A bunch of businesses discovered that, in these busy times, people will pay money to have other people entertain their children’s friends for an hour and a half. No longer does Mom (like Dad ever lifted a finger) have to worry that she has enough activities planned to keep the munchkins occupied for an entire party. Just write a check and show up. So we have parties at kiddie gyms, craft stores, bowling alleys, nature centers, entertainment complexes, the mall, martial arts studios, the zoo, schools, almost anywhere you can safely pack 25 kids high on a sugar buzz.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. I had a blast at the bowling party, loved watching my kids tumble and swing from the parallel bars, I totally dig the zoo, and of course Build-a-Bear rocks. But like anything else in the highly-competitive world of parenting, it creates pressure. Keeping up with the Joneses was bad enough, now I’m keeping up with their kids. Is it enough that we hold the party at the aquarium? Do we need to arrange for each kid to French kiss the sea lion? And what kind of goody bags do we need to procure? Is a packet of goldfish crackers enough, or should we include Blu-Ray copies of Finding Nemo?

You know what we like to do for our children’s birthday parties? Just throw a big party, period. At our house. With adults as well as kids. One cooler filled with juice boxes and water, one filled with wine and beer. Sometimes my wife creates a “scavenger hunt” of questions based on everyone coming to the party, so the kids spend an hour going around to each other and the adults asking questions and getting to know everybody. We whip out a cake, get the kids all jacked up, then lock them away in the basement to scream, dance, play, scream again – childhood chaos. And while the kids are in what passes for a padded room, the adults sit back, relax, have a glass of wine, and talk about … well … about our kids. When the party’s over, we send everyone home with a commemorative trinket, a funky rock from our back yard, and the makings of a hangover.

It may sound simplistic and cheap, but I’ve found over the years that our parties (and other home-based parties we’ve attended) are the most fun. Sure, we have to clean up afterwards (we generally just light a well-contained fire in the basement and let the flames purify and sterilize the room), but it ends up feeling more personal. And let’s face it, your five year-old isn’t gonna go into therapy later in life because you didn’t throw a massive party at the Renaissance Faire for him and 37 of his closest friends, classmates, and kids he met once in the park.

Remember, birthdays are days we celebrate the magical moment when your child was rudely shoved or pulled out of the most wonderful, comfortable, safe place he or she will ever know, and exposed to the cruel, harsh reality of life. Give the kid a hug, some cake, and a Star Wars toy (never out of style) and you’re golden.

This year, we’re especially golden because we’re hiring a guy to come run a kiddie drum circle for 45 minutes. We’re gonna rock out!

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About the Author: David Neilsen