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Moms Talk Q&A: Are Kids’ Birthday Parties Out Of Control?

Ideas for your kids' birthday party.

My 5-year-old will turn 6 soon, and as he wants a shark-themed party, I’m thinking about renting the animatronic Jaws from Universal Studios. It’ll cost us about $250,000 (the shipping! the crane! the water tank!), but it’ll be so worth it to see the kids’ faces when the fake great-white lunges out of the backyard “lake” onto the deck, causing it to erupt into flames.

OK, none of that is true—except for the fact that my soon-to-be-6 son will be feted at a shark-themed party. The trappings most certainly will not include pyrotechnics nor 25-foot great white sharks (live or otherwise). I can’t even decide about whether to spring for a $16 piñata, for pete’s sake!

But although I’m not spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, I will probably spend more than I should. And I might have spent it at one of the popular local party locales like Teamworks, Gymnastics Academy of Boston, the Discovery Museum or the Bowladrome —if I weren’t so, well, averse to planning ANY SINGLE THING in advance.

Yes: booked, booked, booked and all booked. So, at-home we’ll be, just like last year. And, also just like last year, we have invited my son’s entire class (and here’s where the spending-too-much comes in). Although I struggled with this, my son really (or, in his words, “reallyreallyREALLY”) wanted to invite everyone—as has been the arrangement at the last seven or so parties at which he’s been a guest.

After all, “I love everyone,” he says, adding, “well, maybe not everyone—sometimes [NAME WITHHELD; YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE] does not act very nice.”

But to be honest, it’s more about me—and my worry over hurting anyone’s feelings. Although my son’s kindergarten teacher has a strict policy about not discussing parties in class, he’s come home hurt after learning he wasn’t invited to a classmate’s celebration (again: YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE).

And yes, I know: that’s part of life. We have to make tough decisions sometimes, you can’t be friends with everyone, and etc. And while I certainly don’t begrudge any parent (or child) for keeping a party small, I figure my son will soon narrow his invite list to just boys. And I don’t mind doing one more year with the whole class.

It helps, of course, that I happen to be one of those people who loves to throw a party, and will almost certainly be up late the night before crafting shark fins out of recycled Styrofoam, sticking these amazing things to our toilet seats—and a host of similarly ridiculous things that are totally fun for me. 

But, with 20 kids, I’ll keep it pretty simple: games, cake and a homemade favor.

No pre-party spa treatments, no $2,000 nine-tier cake, no horse-drawn carriage rides (a la the 6-year-old Gracie, whose $32,000 party was featured recently on TLC’s “Outrageous Kid Parties”). No $2,500 Kabuki workshop, no Dolce & Gabbana goody bags, no embedded Wall Street Journal reporter (via the hilarious “Universal Invoice for a Manhattan Child’s Birthday” that ran on McSweeney’s web site recently.

I asked some other Acton moms what they do to keep their children’s birthday parties manageable. Here’s their advice:

If you want to keep it small, follow the rule of invite as many friends as you have years. “I’ve basically sold it to my kids that the fewer people they have, the cooler the party,” says Sorrel Sammons, a mother of three. “For instance, they’d rather go to Kimball Farms for mini-golf and ice cream with eight kids, than have a huge party an indoor play facility.”

Stacey Smith has a similar approach—“I usually try to invite the number of kids of their birthday plus one-half,” says the mother of two, adding that her son’s last birthday party was his favorite yet. “We went to a hockey game with just a few friends—name on the Jumbotron with a visit from the mascot for autographs, and the day was made.”

Leave your own friends out of it. Although it’s tempting to invite your own friends and their kids—even if the latter are not close with your own—making the party about the guest of honor (and whomever he or she is closest to) will help keep things simple. That said, if you live in Manhattan, please feel free to invite me to your child’s soiree (other items from the McSweeney’s invoice: sushi for parents, $827; open bar for parents, $2,300; Reiki masseuse for parents, $550; Elvis Costello acoustic concert for parents, $35,000).

Bring it home, baby. Renting out some of the local party spots can run you between $200-$300—plus food, decorations and favors. For Mira Greenland, it’s easier and more affordable to hold the event at home. “The last number of parties I’ve had for my daughter have been at home,” says the mother of three. “This year a dance party, last year a movie night in their jammies and the year before a rock-star party. So simple and super fun.”

Use it as an opportunity to help others. Does the pile of gifts your kid receives make you feel sick? Consider an alternative. “Twice we’ve been to parties where the children opted to have their gifts in the form of a donation to our favorite charity,” Sammons says.

“How great is it that my kids had to read about different causes, pick one that is meaningful to them and then write something small in the card about why they picked it?”

The caveat: “Of course, I tried to get my kids to do this at their parties and they refused,” she admits. “I’m not sure how to sell it to them.”

Make gift-giving special. Usually, the all-class parties don’t allow for enough time for opening gifts. Mother-of-three Carolyn Imperato came up with a great way to show appreciation to gift-givers.

“We take either a group party picture or one of each kid with the birthday boy or girl and their gift,” she says. “We put contact paper on the pictures and make them into thank-you-note postcards.”

Rethink the goody bag. “I, for one, can’t stand all the little crap that builds up around the house from the goody bags that my kids come home with,” says Greenland. Her solution? Creating a CD of favorite tunes and giving each party guest one as a favor.

“We love sharing our favorite music with friends—and then also end up with CDs for ourselves that will remind us years down the road what we listened to in years past,” she says.

Another idea? Forgo favors altogether (gasp!). I, for one, am definitely going to return the 20 Spined Pygmy Sharks and miniature aquatic habitats I planned to pass out to our party guests.

I hope it doesn’t ruin my son’s life. 

If you have any ideas, please feel free to leave a comment below. 

Me March 24, 2011 at 12:15 AM
Have a book party. Party guests bring a book for the birthday kid and they receive a book instead of a goody bag. Or if your son likes baseball, for example, go to a local ball field for a game, and then each kid gets a new baseball and baseball cards.
Barbara Marsh March 24, 2011 at 12:33 PM
When my kids were growing up, we always had a themed birthday party at home with extended family ... Cousins, Aunts & Uncles. Themed meant the decor of the cake, paper plates & goodie bags ... not hired entertainment. They each had a "Friends" party only 2-3 times while growing up, some off-site and some not. I could be wrong, but I don't think either child felt deprived. Their birthdays were still very special, just not "over the top." Kids just want to have fun and feel special and that can be accomplished without hiring The Big Apple Circus for your child's 3rd birthday. It's tough for parents though ... Busy schedules mean less time to be creative and that often results in a tendency to overcompensate.
Elaine March 24, 2011 at 01:17 PM
My daughter's 4th birthday falls the day after Easter and we're going to forgo a party entirely and just celebrate with the family during our Easter celebrations. For my son's 7th birthday, we're taking a few friends for a movie night. He's been desperate for a Jump On In party, but when we shared this idea he was excited. Birthdays are a chance to make the birthday boy or girl feel special - and that doesn't need to cost a lot.
Sarah Corbett March 25, 2011 at 02:01 PM
LOVE the idea of a book party; thanks, Niki!
Sarah Corbett March 25, 2011 at 02:03 PM
Great point, Barbara. There's definitely an overcompensation factor at work for a lot of people (like, um, me!).
Steve Zany June 10, 2011 at 12:41 AM
Hi Sarah, I enjoyed your article so much, that I discussed your insights on my blog where I strive to pass along best-in-class kids party ideas with moms and dads. You can find the post at http://www.zanymagic.com/news/2011/06/three-kids-party-ideas-that-make-your-plans-easier-less-costly/ Thought you'd like to know that I found your insights of value and worth sharing. Warm regards, -- Steve Zany

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