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Parents, unite! Ban birthday party blowouts

Published by Reuters, May 5, 2008

Latest Family Life column is parental call to arms to stop the madness around kiddie birthday parties. Si se puede!

It starts with all the best intentions. You buy a birthday cake. You arrange some entertainment - a clown maybe, or one of those inflatable bouncy castles for the front yard.

Next thing you know you’re surrounded by shrieking children and an obscene pileup of gifts, wondering whether your insurance rider covers bouncy-related injuries. And that creepy guy in the clown makeup - did he come with a background check? Meanwhile your precious birthday girl rips though her presents with the grace and thankfulness of a rabid orangutan and, when the party’s over, looks up at you with icing-stained cheeks and announces, “It just wasn’t magic enough.”

Welcome to the deepest inner circle of parenting hell - the kiddie birthday party.

Who knew a simple celebration could generate so much anxiety and overindulgence? Most adults remember a time when kids’ birthdays meant ice cream and a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. Today children have come to expect lavish orgies of gifts, gimmicks and goody bags.

Petting zoos and costumed characters quickly give way to karate parties, princess parties, disco parties and amusement park weekends. The most privileged kids come to expect over-the-top blowouts complete with catered feasts and stretch limos (exhibit A:  “My Super Sweet 16,” MTV’s grotesque reality show about spoiled teens and the parents who enable them).

Some parents now host half-birthday parties for those kids for whom one celebration a year just isn’t enough. Other parents register for gifts online or specify minimum values for gifts on party invites. You’d be completely horrified if you didn’t on some level understand: they’re just covering costs. Lord knows it ‘aint cheap hiring a litter of purebred puppies or an acrobatic troupe, to say nothing of a chocolate fountain or Hannah Montana lookalike.

Clearly the only birthday parties that count these days are those that can be seen from space.

Blame lies almost entirely with parents, says William Doherty, an education and human development professor at the University of Minnesota, who last year banded together with a group of local parents to start a group called Birthdays Without Pressure.

“It’s all about the adults,” he says. “Kids start lobbying later, but this all starts because a certain group of parents desperately want their kids to feel like the most special people in the world. That’s maybe five percent of parents. And the rest of us get pulled along because we don’t want our kids feeling like they get any less.”

The solution, of course, is a party revolt, an uprising against the forces of extravagance. Think of it as a disarmament campaign. We parents can step back from the brink of insanity, but only work if we act together - unilateral disarmament (that is, one well-meaning family taking steps to simplify while others continue to go hog wild) will only serve to make us look cheap and make our children feel unloved.

So join this simple three step plan to stop the madness.

Step one: immediate and total ban on goodie bags. There was a time, not so long ago, when kids got genuinely excited by those little sacks of toys and do-dads that they routinely receive on their way out the door of a birthday party. That time is long gone. Now we’ve seen for ourselves the catalogs that sell kazoos and tattoos and superballs in bulk for less than a cent apiece. All these sad little bags do for us now is inspire worry about sweat shop labor and toxic plastic fumes.

Meanwhile our kids have taken to carting off their bags with the entitled nonchalance of a celebs departing the Golden Globes, then spilling the contents all over the back of our minivan. A ban on goodie bags will not only reduce waste - it puts the emphasis back where it belongs: the kid celebrating the actual birthday.

Step two: drastic reduction in entertainment. Petting zoos damage lawns. Bouncies encourage brawls. Magic is lost entirely on little kids; older ones think magicians are dorky. And who doesn’t yet understand that clowns are terrifying and belong in the circus where ringleaders with whips and guns can keep them under control? Better to give kids a ball or a hose and a big open space. They’re a lot better at creating fun than any performer desperate enough to work your kids’ lousy party.

Step three: consider a present-free party. Does your child really need another load of soundchip-activated playthings? Do you actually have room for them? The advocacy group Birthdays Without Pressure suggests telling guests “presence/ no presents” or “gifts are by no means necessary, but any gifts will be gratefully received on behalf of (name your charity).”

Such a move may trigger eye rolls or even hurt feelings in kids at first, especially in those accustomed to giant spectacles or bounties of gifts. But we must do what we can to bring the over-the-top parties back to earth. In the process, we may just get back some of that birthday magic.

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