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Birthday Parties as a Competitive Sport

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Celebrations & Traditions

Have you attended a child birthday party lately? Did it have a theme? Were there favors, paid entertainment, or fancy food? Was the party held at a paid-admission venue? Did your child or the birthday child have to dress up in “party clothes”?

If your answer to any of this is “yes,” then you and the people your child hangs around with are victims of a birthday party arms race. It’s time to draw a line in the sand and refuse to ruin your family budget over an event that is stressful, overblown and, really, not that much fun.

It’s more fun, if you’re a kid, to go to a simple party in someone’s backyard or a neighborhood park. It’s fun to run around with your friends, to eat cake and ice cream, bat at a piñata, and watch the birthday child open gifts. It doesn’t really matter to a child if the gifts are handmade or bought at the Dollar Store. A birthday party is an event, not a shake-down.

It’s an event for children, not an event for adults. With the exception of a child’s first birthday, which really is a gathering of grown-ups and only incidentally a gathering of children, the entire event should be centered around what kids like, not what adults like. Keeping your child’s birthday party at a child-size level, based on the age of your child, is the key to keeping things in proper proportion.

What can you do if things are already out of hands in your circle? What if your own child has come to expect bigger-and-better birthdays every year? Here are some ideas.

  1. Time the party so that no meal is expected. Don’t run the party over the lunch hour or dinner time.
  2. Keep the treats simple: cake or cupcakes, ice cream if you like, boxed drinks or water. Don’t serve anything different for adults that accompany their kids. No need to offer canapés or drinks.
  3. If you use paper plates, cups and napkins, go for the simplest products you can find, not the fanciest or most expensive. Children won’t care if the plates are plain white. If you like, use a pretty table covering to dress up the table.
  4. Set a time limit for the party that matches the attention span of the guests. For two- and three-year-olds, this might be 45 minutes to an hour. For older children, an hour or hour-and-a-half. No child’s party should run longer than two hours.
  5. Hold the party in your own backyard or at the niftiest public playground or other free venue you can find. Don’t pay an admission fee (and never hold the party at a paid-admission venue then expect parents to pay their kids’ own entrance fee).
  6. Keep the focus on fun, not on gifts. Gifts are nice, both the getting and the giving, but they are not the reason for celebrating your child’s big day. Help your child and other children keep things in perspective. This means, of course, that every gift and every giver must be acknowledged graciously. Don’t let your child rush through the present-opening without connecting to her friends.
  7. Make it clear if parents ask that you’re intending to have a simple celebration. Do this without making any comments about any overblown parties your child attended recently.
  8. If your child is invited to a big-blow-out party consider if you want him to attend. Will he have fun? If the party is likely to be not so child-centered as your child might like, feel free to decline the invitation and send a birthday card or something similar instead. An invitation is not a summons. Think of your child’s preferences first.

Children’s birthday parties in some neighborhoods have got out of hand. This cannot happen without adult involvement. The way to dial things back is to dial things back yourself.

Your child and your child’s friends will still have a good time. And other parents may be grateful for your excellent good sense.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.