Is it Time to Reboot American Birthday Parties?

by Abby on June 20, 2012

Birthday partyMy 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.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Corey Feldman June 20, 2012 at 9:25 am

I will admit doing the little gym parties and such for my little ones. But I agree, sometimes backyard parties are the best. Sadly we don’t have tons of space, we have cats and some kids have allergies, and my kids are winter born.


Abby June 20, 2012 at 3:09 pm

It’s true. Winter birthdays are a whole ‘nother ballgame.


Ali June 20, 2012 at 10:10 am

I like the water balloon party idea. I’ll have to borrow that one when my son is older.

My husband and I are all about simplicity, so we try to keep stress to a minimum when planning gatherings (hot dogs and hamburgers on paper plates). Plus, bonus, we have a ‘splash pad’ at our local park, which is awesome! Kids have so much fun at parks. All you need is sports equipment, and someone who is willing to organize a game.


Abby June 20, 2012 at 3:10 pm

Yes! We did a park party last year. And it helps to have Fun Dad organizing obstacle courses and such. One tip: specify BELOW the neck for the waterball toss. 😉


Stacy S. Jensen June 20, 2012 at 11:11 am

For my son’s second birthday, we didn’t have a party. We had a late lunch at a restaurant, went to the zoo in the rain and fed giraffes. A few days later we had a playdate with a mom’s group. No presents. A sandwich spread. Decorated cupcakes. One of the mom’s was surprised (and a little disappointed) I didn’t have a candle for my son to blow out. He loves flames, so I decided to not do that. Oh, and he refused to wear pants the entire day. It was lovely.


Abby June 20, 2012 at 3:11 pm

Fun! No pants? Sounds like a boy after my sons’ own hearts.


Angie Mizzell June 20, 2012 at 2:23 pm

We’ve always had home parties for Dillon (and always had a secret beer stash for the parents) except this year, we had his party at Chuck E Cheese because Cate was only 9 days old. Hello? More meds please? But even still, we didn’t order the party package. We just grabbed some tables and did our own thing. Blake’s birthday is in the summer, so we are having the party at a friend’s swimming pool. (And water balloons are on the menu!) The thing that gets me is how expensive it all gets… even when you’re trying to keep it simple!

What’s a moon bounce? Sounds fun. 🙂


Abby June 20, 2012 at 3:13 pm

Summer birthdays are SO much easier. And you’re right, everything does add up. For our park party, I ended up buying a canopy at the last minute for shade. That went back to Home Depot after! A moon bounce, aka bounce house or bouncy castle is a big hit with energetic little kids who love to jump. We got a mini one ’cause our yard’s small, but it could still fit 6 kids.


Kathleen Basi June 21, 2012 at 7:46 am

I’m with you 100% about the over-the-top nature of birthday parties. We’re especially curmudgeonly because we don’t do a party every year. Sometimes we just invite grandparents, or have one friend over for the night.

I love the splash pad idea, though I’ll never get to use it as the birthday spread in our house is November to April. 🙂 But we’ve done every party we’ve held at our house. Once we did a Batman party (here’s the link about that one–oddly, it still gets hits regularly: ). This year we did a Spiderman party for Alex, with a mad lib, honey-bread spiders (bears for the girls), and Spider-Spider-Man (i.e. duck-duck-goose). The kids were wild with excitement.

And don’t even get me started on party bags. I loathe those things when they come home. I have trouble imagining a parent who feels otherwise–complete junk, without purpose, just so kids feel like they “get” something out of the experience. The sheer environmental un-stewardship of it raises my blood pressure.

It’s definitely higher maintenance to do a home party b/c of cleaning before and after, but I think it’s more personal. And you could always do the home kind of party at the park, too.


Abby June 21, 2012 at 8:57 pm

I gave in to the goody bags, but only included stuff that would get used up — temporary tattoos, stickers, art supplies, candy. It still seems like a huge waste of money, though. My son wanted to know why HE didn’t get one. Um, because you got a party & a whole truckload of presents instead?!


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