Let them just eat cake: Modern birthdays are too much for everyone involved

By Linda Zwicky| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Marriage and Family
Limos, tiaras, and Build-A-Bears, oh my! It’s time to rein in the birthday madness and return to some old-fashioned fun, games, and values.

Our family’s initiation to the new era of children’s birthday parties began when our first child was 9 months old. I accepted an invitation to a birthday bash at an exclusive club. More than 40 guests attended a catered affair to celebrate an infant’s first year on the planet. The entertainment, presumably for the over-2 crowd, included a storyteller, and the evening was capped off with an impressive display of fireworks.

If you have been out of the children’s birthday loop for a while, you may be thinking that this is an isolated birthday tale. Think again. Long gone are the days when a simple cake and ice cream event at home with a few friends was the norm. Today we have outsourced theme parties with large guest lists, matching balloons and decorations, rented play equipment delivered by trucks, hired entertainment, and expensive take-home party bags.

What’s going on here? How did celebrating the day our precious children were born become a source of pressure and stress and often a display of excess? What has driven families to participate in this birthday trend?

In today’s consumer culture, bigger and better is the norm. Birthday parties have become a new profit sector, and companies are capitalizing on parents’ willingness to provide a once-in-a-lifetime experience every year.

My children, ages 6 and 3, frequently receive invitations to parties at gymnastics facilities, children’s museums, indoor playgrounds, skating rinks, and the mall.

I live in the Twin Cities, home of the Mall of America. I can quickly name 10 businesses that cater to kids’ birthday parties. Thankfully our young daughters, made-up and dressed in sequined tank tops and boas, no longer can dance and sing like Britney Spears in the window of Club Libby-Lu, which recently closed.

But Build-A-Bear Workshop still offers youngsters an opportunity to stuff, dress, and accessorize a bear. The average cost per guest for these parties is about $35, cake and ice cream not included. The average number of guests is 10. You do the math.

Modern societal pressures have left families more harried than ever before. The number of activities that families are involved in has increased, contributing to the time crunch they feel. An outsourced party is cause for a sigh of relief. No stress, no mess, leave it to the pros.

There are still brave mothers who host their child’s party at home. Some of these mothers stay up until midnight for several days, planning and frantically trying to recreate Martha Stewart’s “simple and easy” extravaganza.

I am guilty as charged for my child’s third birthday. I had a theme, entertainment, and gift bags. I created individualized invitations using paper shapes to form a train engine. An actress friend of mine took the children on an imaginary train trip to Florida, and my musician husband played train songs on the piano. I used four pound cakes to make a train cake. Since I felt required to give a parting gift, I fashioned a hobo’s sack with a stick and a bandana filled with bubbles and animal crackers. As I led the hobos out the door, I felt stressed, exhausted, and wondering what compelled me to hold this extravaganza.

After talking with other parents, I discovered that they, too, were experiencing pressure to provide just the right touches at their child’s party. A sociologist from the University of Minnesota, Bill Doherty, helped us form a citizen’s action group to address the issue we later labeled “out-of-control birthday parties” (birthdayswithoutpressure.com). Our group seeks to increase awareness of this problem and its consequences, and asks parents to act according to their values when it comes to birthday celebrations.

Should Catholics think twice before hiring a birthday limousine to take an 8-year-old and his friends to a water park? Yes, we should! It’s time that Christian families examine our values and begin celebrating birthdays consistent with them.

Catholics in the United States are called to work for economic justice in the face of ever-widening income gaps. That gap yawns like a chasm at yet another birthday party where the child opens present after present, barely acknowledging who gave the gift and what they received. A princess ball at the local country club for a 4-year-old mocks concern and love for the poor. Some children have no health insurance, while others are handing out birthday invitations referring guests to local toy store registries.

Our children are overwhelmed by an abundance of toys that have to be stored and managed. And children still envy friends who get lots of loot. I am not the first mother to carry my child out of a party crying because Johnny got a new toy that she or he wants.

God’s commandments teach us that envy has no place in the human heart. It is hard for our children to internalize the 10th commandment when they are surrounded by excess.

Children have come to expect the customary Chinese-made toys, pencils, stickers, and those choking-hazard rubber balls in a bag at the end of each party. My children delight in these items for about 10 minutes. Then the junk just clutters the house. I have begun to secretly consign the loose debris to the trash bin. They never notice.

Catholic social teaching is a bedrock of our faith. A home filled with excess toys and a wastebasket full of plastic junk does not demonstrate stewardship and care for the earth. We are called to protect our brothers and sisters living on the planet. Do we wonder how, where, and by whom those cheap toys were made as we assemble a dozen gift bags before the big bash?

We are raising our children to be self-centered little consumers, and we are encouraging the development of a strong sense of entitlement. When your child is a teen, how do you top the princess ball that was held for her at age 4? We are asking our children to reflect on the formation of their Catholic principles in a world of excess. The social justice teachings of our faith are being disastrously undermined.

I sympathize with parents today. We feel pressure to make our children thrilled and happy by throwing parties that meet escalating community standards. Some people may think this is a problem unique to the upper-middle class. A study featured on our website suggests that this is not true. All parents want their children to feel special, particularly on their birthday.

It’s time to take birthdays back from a culture of excess that promotes envy and greed. It is hard to buck this birthday trend alone, though. We must band together with packs of parents to confront the party monster. Parents must begin talking to each other and discussing ways to change our birthday culture. Perhaps we can agree to not give gift bags or to encourage alternatives to combat the mounds of gifts a child receives.

Parties for charities are growing in popularity. Humane societies sponsor pet-walking parties that end with cake and ice cream. Feed My Starving Children is an organization where groups of kids can pack food for children in need, while listening to great music, talking, and celebrating. We recently received an invitation requesting food pantry donations in lieu of gifts. Throw a craft party and make teddy bears and cards for children who are critically ill. Children taught to care about others at a young age will continue to help others as they mature.

Parents need to be intentional about the ways they celebrate their child’s birthday and the invitations they accept. A friend’s 6-year-old daughter recently returned from a makeover party asking, “Do you think I’m sexy?” My daughter is not going to that party!

My children were very young when I had my birthday party epiphany, so I haven’t heard much grief from them about restricting their activities. When they do ask for things that we are not comfortable giving, the phrase “This is how we do it in our family” accompanied by an age-appropriate explanation of our family limits and values usually works.

We can help create a world consistent with our Catholic values, one birthday party at a time. Forgive us, Father, for indulging our children in over-the-top birthday parties, for we knew not what we were doing.

Feedback

The most extreme party I’ve ever attended or heard about was...

When the mother paid to have the local fire department bring the fire truck to the party.

A first-year party for triplets that included an Elvis impersonator, huge blow-up toys, a clown, and so on. What does a 1-year-old remember?

A limousine picked up seven girls from school, allowing the uninvited students to witness it, and took them to the mall and back to a sleepover.

Ten kids and their parents at Disneyland overnight.

Traveling 200 miles for an “American Girl” party at “her” store.

A couple hired caterers and rented an entire circus troupe, complete with an elephant for riding, for a backyard party for their preschool child’s birthday.

Those sweet-16 parties that have been on television (My Super Sweet 16, MTV) and end with the child getting a sports car.

For an 80-year-old woman at a fancy hotel where out-of-towners stayed, lavish appetizers and drinks, seated dinner for around 150, a band, and a fantastic video of the honoree. It was equivalent to a lavish wedding reception.
 

My biggest concern about over-the-top birthday parties is...

It just feeds the same attitude that has made our sacramental celebrations—from Baptism through weddings—into “events.” We’ve lost our sense of joy in life itself and of God in the everyday and replaced it with the momentary displays of consumerism. “Love equals money” seems to be the message.

Producing spoiled brats.

It makes kids more insular and unaware of poverty around the world.

Environmental waste.

It is all about me, me, me!

My guess would be that most of the costs are going on parents’ credit cards. We are a nation that lives beyond our means.

That the expectations are so high that families that don’t have a lot of money (including ours) are under a lot of pressure to spend money to make their child feel special.

When I was a child, my birthday was...

Simple. We had our favorite meal, homemade cake, and one special gift.

I had only two or three parties growing up with about 10 friends. These parties were infrequent because we didn’t have a lot, but my eight brothers and sisters were a built-in birthday party.

A few neighborhood friends for ice cream and cake. When I was older, we had a sleepover, too.

A home-cooked meal with my siblings. My mother always included a dish of noodles—for long life!

A family affair. I got my favorite food for dinner and no chores for the day!

Christmas Eve. My family always sang (off-key), and I got one extra gift. My mom would apologize for having a birthday so close to Christmas, but I always felt especially blessed to share my day with Jesus. That’s still the best birthday gift possible!
 

A birthday party that most expresses Catholic values would...

Validate a child’s importance to the family and provide an opportunity for members to express their love and appreciation for his unique contribution to all present.

Perhaps include saying grace before eating and discussing the saint of the day or the saint of the birthday girl or boy.

Make sure each child in the class is made a part of the festivities.

Involve giving something back in terms of service or donation of resources.

As long as you live a socially conscious life every day, I think the birthday party you choose that doesn’t break your budget and celebrates youth and healthy play is all OK.

Be a celebration at home, focusing on the “birth” day—pulling out baby photos.

Since my mom died, I have become aware of how important my birthday must have been to her. Perhaps shifting the attention to include mom would help make birthdays less of selfish feasts.
 

General Comments

It is not over-the-top to outsource the party. Should we also feel guilty about serving dessert when there are starving children? This author makes moms feel guilty. You just can’t win!

It’s fine to “make a big fuss,” but given the current condition of the global, national, and people’s personal finances, we need to re-learn how to do so simply.

I think the big spending party arose out of lack of time for two working parents plus guilt that a parent is not at home.

A child’s Baptism day is a more Catholic celebration and worthy of attention, too.

Let’s not put religion with birthdays! Let the kids have a good time.

A friend hosted a birthday party where each guest brought $2 instead of a gift—one for the birthday girl and one for charity. Very nice!

We have a wonderful daughter-in-law who feels obliged to throw outrageous parties for our grandchildren. She exhausts herself and the children with what I feel is a misplaced sense of love.

I love birthdays because they celebrate the lives of people I love. I believe they should be celebrated within the family who cares about the individual.

This article appeared in the April 2009 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 74, No. 4).