Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Hostess With the Mostest


Stacy Snyder - parentunplugged - The Hostess With the Mosteest - kids' elaborate birthday cake
Birthday Celebrations for our kids have reached a new level of absurdness. From the money spent, to the gifts given to the guests, to the elaborate event planning before the party, we parents we have lost complete perspective when it comes to kids parties.  Gone are the backyard birthday parties where kids have fun by playing whatever comes naturally to them at the moment, before a birthday cake is devoured on the porch, sometimes even without the need for a custom party plate.  Pin the Tail on the Donkey is all but a figment of our imaginations, as we watch our 4-year-old party guests dress up as fairies and then choose the outfit they want to take home as a party favor.  And forget about asking your child to actually choose a few friends of his own to invite to his party, as today we feel obligated to invite the whole class of kids, and often more!

When I lived in Texas, I thought maybe it was a geographical issue and that Southern people just spoil their kids with these crazy parties.  Over the five years we lived there, my daughter was invited to hair and fashion parties, Cheerleading parties, Little Chef parties, and Santa Sleighride parties.  The Grand Poohba, though, was the Cinderella party, where a three-year-old’s mother hosted a princess party for 30 kids and their parents, where a catered lunch was served on rented miniature kid-sized china, which was placeset on child-sized linened tables with matching chairs and each girl got her own princess cake with a miniature doll in the middle of the cake skirt.  The girls were instructed to wear princess gowns so their clothing would match the makeup artist’s masterpieces drawn on the children’s faces.  Of course the event was catered and photographed, as mid-way through the party, a real-life Cinderella arrived in a Pumpkin Coach drawn by a horse and took each girl for an individual ride around the neighborhood kingdom.  

I thought I had seen it all in Texas and had truly convinced myself when we moved back to Chicago that this type of excess didn’t exist in the Midwest where I had grown up.  I was proven wrong in baby steps.  The off-site craft-house parties for the whole class were mixed in with the house parties in the basement.  The museum parties didn’t seem so extravagant when wedged in-between the pizza parties where the birthday girl was allowed to invite one or two friends.  I was brought up to speed, though, when a fellow mom told me about her twins’ upcoming birthday beach party.  Anxious to hear about it as we had done a beach party a few years back for my daughter and 8 of her friends with a bucket of chicken and some dollar-store sand buckets, I was shocked to hear that the party had been for 200+ people!  She had provided lunch for all and toys for the 80-some kids.  After recovering from the staggering reality of the size of the party, I was able to ask why so many people for a kid’s party.

“Well, there are two of them,” she said in earnest.

God Bless you all for your creativity, hard work, and good intentions.  The sheer extravagance, though, whether it’s in quantity, quality, or monetary, is almost more than I can comprehend.  I worry about our children and what that immoderation says to them.  I worry about what effect the money spent on parties these days has on both our children, as well as on our fiscal responsibility as parents and citizens. 

I often wonder if it’s really the horrible economy that holds us back from living the American Dream or if it’s the sick need we have to overindulge our children. While a $500 Pump-It-Up party for a 6-year-old may be a drop in the bucket for a wage earner supporting a family of 4 on $250K per year, it could be the difference between a college-level class, a family mini-vacation or a new set of tires for the car for a wage-earner bringing in less than half as much.  Yet I tend to see most parents, regardless of earning potential, planning and executing the big parties.  I don’t know if it’s more about keeping up with the Jones’ or somehow thinking you’ll be a better received parent by your child if you give them huge elaborate parties.  Some parents just like big parties.  As long as I can remember, there have always been some parents who do it up big for parties.  It’s just that now it seems to be the norm, across all socioeconomic backgrounds.  I talked to a young mother recently, who was planning her child’s birthday party for family and friends at an off-site location.  She felt it completely acceptable to plan a paid party, even though the utilities are currently cut off in her home and she has no job to support her family. 

The biggest issue of all for me with the grandiose birthday festivities for kids, though, is the expectation you set for your child for future parties, which then equates into expectations for life.  If Johnny gets a $175 party at Chuck E Cheese for 20 of his closest friends at 7, what does he expect at 8?  Is it an extreme sports party or a sporting event?  As the birthday ages escalate, so do the child’s expectations of greatness for their parties.  By 10, it’s no longer a paint-ball party expectation, but a DJ’d dance party cruise on Lake Michigan.  How can you top that at 14….a limousine ride and VIP backstage passes at a popular concert for the birthday girl and her besties?  Pretty soon you’re spending a grand on a freakin’ birthday party for a kid!

A birthday party is meant to celebrate the day of a child’s birth.  I can’t imagine there’s much celebration going on with the parents who are responsible for planning, executing and crowd-controlling the elaborate birthday parties they’ve put together for their kids.  And the kids, although they're most likely having a blast, aren't necessarily feeling special or revered in the throws of people or activities.  The kids, no matter what they say or do, will be fine with any sort of recognition you provide for them, even if just a family dinner together or a special outing with a close friend.  They only way they won’t be happy with that is if you set them up to expect bigger and better.