My 3yo son was recently invited to a birthday party by a little friend whose family moved here from Italy. We arrived at his house and found a dozen or so friends, neighbors and family members gathered on the patio. The boy’s father was playing the guitar and singing a children’s song in Italian while the kids danced around him, sort of a hokey-pokey/ring-around-the-rosey mash-up. There were balloons and party hats. Soda and paper cups. Rubber balls and sidewalk chalk. A beautiful homemade fruit tart that served as the birthday cake. All in all, a pretty simple affair.
Having celebrated birthdays in many cultures – from my first birthday in Scotland to those of friends in Germany, France, Mexico, Greece, and England – I have noticed a few things. Some elements are the same the world over: a celebratory feast featuring a special, eye-catching dessert, candles, singing, presents.
But I feel like we Americans went off the rails at some point. A mom I know almost went into shock when her 6yo daughter requested a spa party at a local salon – for $600 for 10 little girls. When did chartering a party bus or renting out a rock-climbing gym become the norm? When did goody bags for every child get added to the mix? And what about catered lunches and cakes that look like they should be featured on the Food Network?
Listen, I’m not one to talk. I get as birthday-crazy as the next mom. Just a few weeks ago I was losing sleep – really! – over renting a moon bounce. I was getting gray hairs over goody bags, stressing out over fruit plates. My “simple” at-home party began morphing into a Tori Spelling-type event. I had to cut myself off from Oriental Trading Company and Party City.
I’m not saying at-home parties are great and “destination parties” are not. I’ve been to bowling parties and birthday parties at art museums that have been a blast, and at-home parties that were over-the-top and overwhelming. While I generally favor home parties, we held my younger son’s birthday at a kid’s gym this year. We brought the cake and paper plates (and, yes, goody bags) and the gym staff did the rest. No muss, no fuss. The kids had fun, and I didn’t even have to clean my house!
But know this: the amount of money, effort, stress, and time on Pinterest you spend on your child’s birthday party have ZERO correlation with the amount of fun he or she will have. For my 6yo’s party this year, the moon bounce worked out and was great. (Hooray for Certifikid!) But when I asked my son what his favorite part was? He said the water balloons. A $1.99 impulse buy at the party store.
A hot day, a hose, some boys, some balloons. And cake, of course. That’s about all you need to make a memorable birthday party. And if you know someone who plays guitar and sings with an appealing accent? You’re golden.