Let's make birthdays happier

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By Linda Zwicky    
Parents are taking out all the stops to wish their little ones a happy birthday. But a simple celebration, this mom argues, would relieve the stress on families, our community, and the wider world.

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 awhile, 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 is 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 supersize-me culture, bigger and better is the norm. Birthday parties have become a new profit area, 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 think of 10 businesses that cater kids' birthday parties. Club Libby-Lu features a party package in which our young girls are given makeovers. Shoppers at the Mall of America may observe our young made-up daughters in the store's front window dressed in sequined tank tops and boas dancing and singing like Britney Spears. Build-A-Bear Workshop 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 children and parents are involved in has increased, and this contributes to the time crunch families 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 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 it asks parents to examine their values and act accordingly in regards 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 those beliefs.

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 began to secretly consign the loose debris into 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 items 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 in today's supersizing culture. We feel pressure to make our children thrilled and happy by throwing parties that meet escalating community standards. Some people may question whether 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 sporting a sequined hat and 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.

Linda Zwicky is a mother of two living in St. Paul, Minnesota and a member of the Birthdays Without Pressure Project Group (birthdayswithoutpressure.com)