Nothing gets me going like hearing parents obsess about their kids' parties, as if the children need the lavish materialism heaped upon them. Most little kids prefer the gift wrapping to the gifts. This whole issue drove me nuts when our kids were little, and that was before Kid Party Planners and the so-called Kid Party Arms Race Escalation. You can't expect children to speak out on this issue, since some of them are pre-verbal.... The parents have to take the lead and demonstrate good old common sense. The rule of thumb in our day was that the number of guests should more or less equal the number of years of the birthday child. Three 3-year-olds is a crowd, that's for sure.
There is a new, and welcome, trend towards no-gift parties reported on in the NYTimes this week. I think this is on the right track, but the featured party for a 4-year-old reported not the formulaic 4 guests, but rather 44 kid guests, plus their parents, pretty crazy, if you ask me. The fire-truck theme was perfect, however, and the gifts (of cash) went to the local firehouse. Some experts reportedly disapprove, feeling that non-gifts is somehow stingy or rude. Like a 4 year old NEEDS 44 gifts!
Our friend Anya loves to read and for one of her childhood birthdays she asked friends to bring books which she then donated to a literacy program. She later on replicated this on a larger scale for her Bat Mitzvah. How sensible. How wonderful. What a great role model. Who cares if some parents don't "like" this sort of thing [perhaps because it makes their kids look typical and greedy?] or if it makes the birthday kid look a little uncool? Kids are so inundated with stuff at every turn that they will barely notice if a little less comes in, plus they will still receive gifts from their parents, grandparents and other family members.
One argument made against such parties is that they deprive the guests of the opportunity to give a gift, itself a learning. I don't think having your parents schlep you to some big box store to buy a manufactured, highly-marketed toy is much of a learning experience. Plus I've read about parties where the gifts remain unopened and the family hauls all the loot home to open it privately, because they don't want to make the guests jealous. So what do the kids learn from this about giving? They mostly learn about buying, not giving.
Here are a few suggestions from a now empty nest mom:
- 1) Keep parties small.
- 2) Remember that simple fun is what kids actually like. They do not require themes, just a few props get their imaginations going. One of my favorite parties my son attended was a home-spun Wizard of Oz party where you could dress up like any character and the games were based on the story.
- 3) If you are suggesting contributions or gifts for a cause, like $ or books, you might ask each child to create a birthday drawing and at the party put all the drawings together into a big poster size birthday card. Children love having their work displayed.
- 4) Kids love stories and books, so a la the Wizard of Oz story, you can read a story to them that will suggest a theme, and then do an activity based on the story. One happy memory is reading about Homer Price and the Donut Machine (Robert McCloskey) and then taking the kids out to a donut shop. If you ham things up, kids are responsive. Going to a donut shop seemed very exciting to 6 year olds, who each go to pick their own donut flavor. Not caviar. Donuts.
- 5) Kids always like physical activity. One of my sons' best parties was a hike through the local natural area. The pickup was at the trail head. I was astonished that many of his 10 year old guests had never been on a hike!
- 6) My daughter had any number of activity at-home parties. We allowed one off-site canned party for each child; all other birthdays were at home. One bomb was a quilting bee. I loved the idea of their making simple doll quilts, but it turned out none of them knew how to hand stitch, so they couldn't baste any of the patches together. Whoops, wrong century. A happy party she had was a Cinderella party. All the guests came in costume and her big brother and his friend did a puppet show. Hardly professional - they were 10 at the time - but the kids were perfectly mesmerized. Ten year olds seemed grown up to them.
Last observation. Gift giving to kids is so prevalent that I couldn't find places for everything for all the stuff that landed in our house. It seemed like no one felt like they could be guests in our home without bringing A Little Something for our kids. All those Little Something puzzles, stuffed animals, toys, games, and trinkets cluttered up the house and rarely interested the recipients. So do your friends with children a favor - if you want to do something nice for their kids, bring them something consumable (but not too junky) or provide an experience, like taking them somewhere or playing a cardgame with them when you visit. But skip the stuff!
Let's hear your birthday celebration stories!