Redeeming Birthday Parties #1


Photo credit: Angela Humphrey from The Sponge

One of the birthday constants in my family growing up was Dad writing a poem – usually rhyming couplets, but sometimes a haiku – in each birthday card. I wish I had kept more of them.

You can tell families apart by how they celebrate birthdays. What’s important in your household? Must there be presents? Is there always cake, or is there another key food treat? Do you write cards, and if so, what do they say?

The private world of family birthdays is one thing – there, we find plenty of variety and different flavours of celebration. But when it comes to the public celebration of children’s birthdays, there’s much more pressure, it seems, to conform to some key social standards about how a party should be run. Parents of older children speak of real anxiety about this stuff.

How do you hold competitive games for a generation of kids used to receiving accolades for participation? How can you distribute a respectable party bag that isn’t full of landfill-fodder? And speaking of junk, what on earth do you do about food, with allergies so common and household diets so much more divergent than when we grew up?

SBJ has suddenly dived into the world of children’s birthday parties, with four in two weeks recently. The three I’ve been to this year were delightful affairs – what nice events to be part of! The parent-hosts were impressively thoughtful and creative in how they chose to do things.

That thoughtfulness and creativity is hard work, though, in the world of birthday parties. How do you approach the tricky questions to do with social conformity, consumerism, expense, generosity, gratitude, social skills, introverts and extraverts, healthy living, and more? Nightmare!

I don’t know about you (well, I do, a bit, actually) but I have enough anxiety and pressure in my life as it is, and I’m determined that celebrating the existence of my beautiful boy won’t be another source of stress. How ridiculous would that be? So I want us to crowdsource the important questions and wise answers to this stuff together, please.

What do you want for your children? What’s the point of all the hoopla for your family? What pressures have you felt from other families? What have you agonised over or worried about? What have you seen or been part of and thought ‘never again!’?

Please give your answers, advice and tips, too. Feel free to link to resources you have found helpful or tell us stories of what has worked well for you or in families you know.

If I were planning a birthday party right now for SBJ – let’s say for his sixth birthday, as far away as that is – I have a long list of things I would want to talk over with you guys, or some ways I would want to challenge the norm. I’m going to hold my list for a second post, and add to it whatever you suggest today.

What do we need to consider and do differently to redeem the (potential) madness of birthday party culture?

PS: Have you spotted the new Sacraparental Facebook page? It’s full of extra links, thoughts and resources, as well as alerts when there’s a new post here. Check it out and invite your mates if you like what you see.

Do you want to use one of these shiny sharing buttons?

28 comments on “Redeeming Birthday Parties #1”

  1. Roger Driver-Burgess Reply

    I don’t do party bags – don’t see the point of filling a bag with little junky things for the sake of it. We will often have a treasure hunt with prizes that match the theme of the party; or a “pass the parcel” with a central prize with an activity to share (like bubbles), and the kids can take those home along with a balloon and the piece of birthday cake that they couldn’t eat. My big birthday tip for small kid parties is that you will be exhausted afterwards. Make a plate of sandwiches ahead of time to eat for dinner after the party so that you can just lie on the floor and recover instead of cooking dinner.

    We try to make the games non-competitive to avoid melt-downs. One of our four-year-old parties played musical bumps for about half an hour without any winners – everyone just bumped when the music stopped and then we started again. If the game can’t be non-competitive it could be done in teams. Our treasure hunts are usually done as a pack, with instructions to share reading out the clues, and that everyone has to arrive at the next clue before it can be read. There will be enough treasure to go around. But when our daughter turned 21 we thought she could stand a bit of competition and so that treasure hunt was a race to the prize!

    As for food, in general I think that all the food should be designed for the person with the most restrictive diet. Although a traditional buffet party table gives the guests more choice, there is also more for little ones to miss out on if they can’t eat everything; so a dinner party with everyone eating the same can be an easier way to cater.

    Carolyn on Roger’s Facebook page.

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Thanks, Carolyn! So many great thoughts here. And what a kind attitude to those with dietary restrictions (though I know achieving this is more difficult for some than others).

  2. Rochelle Reply

    We’ve found our kids’ first few birthdays to be very much ‘family’ affairs and we’ve held them variously in a regional park, pub, church hall and play centre. Some have been quite large (esp as Miss 4’s birthday is New Year’s Day – a nice day for a family picnic), but as Miss 4 gets older, I’ve been down-sizing them. She also has a fair bit of input into the party. We tend to make or email invitations etc.

    Like Carolyn, I don’t really do goodie bags but do do wee ‘prizes’ of stuff that can be used. For Miss 4’s last birthday, we had a treasure hunt for some little packets of crayons and then did some colouring and had a pass the parcel that was rigged to make sure that everyone got some bubbles that we then went outside and blew.

    • not a wild hera Reply

      I like the useful prizes. Angela did something similar at R’s birthday recently and I thought it was awesome. The kids we are living with find the world-globe ball we scored in the treasure hunt irresistible!

  3. Jennie Reply

    One way we have tried to get around the ‘commercialism’, peer pressure and general related plastic junk is by having parties that are an adventure or an outing, with occasional related take-home. Party at playground – Maidstone park in upper hutt was a good one we did as a joint 2nd &4th party (birthdays 3wks apart), a biking party at Avalon park where take-home was a bike bell, a craft-based one for my older girl where they took home what they made. General aim to have fun doing things with friends rather than competitive games/ too much food-focus or present focus. Have had some kids question it, but don’t generally feel have to explain myself, and have been able to have conversations with our own kids about what’s more important – time together or more stuff to clutter their rooms until it gets tossed out?

    Having party out somewhere also means you do food simply picnic style, come home and don’t have to tidy up your house! Having said that, for 5th birthdays we have had home parties… Both ended up kids playing happily with duplo or dressups for ages, with little need for structured games. I think we overcomplicate it by buying into the ‘must-dos’ of others, but guess we all need to figure out what are the ‘basics’ that make it a ‘proper’ birthday:-)

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Hi Jennie! Thanks for all of this!

      I’d be keen to hear more about your experiences of kids ‘questioning’ what you’re offering. I’m interested in what kids’ and parents’ expectations really are out there.

      I really like your aim of ‘having fun with friends’, which seems so obvious when you say it!

  4. Rachael W Reply

    I have really fond memories of picking a birthday cake out of a Woman’s Weekly birthday cake book that my mum would then make. That’s probably more difficult these days though, with pinterest pressure abounding!
    I think friends and games are probably the essentials that make a kids birthday fun. Special food, that’s different from every day, is also pretty high on the list- but that could be simple fairy bread or fruit cut into fancy shapes, so doesn’t need to be too stressful/unhealthy (Granted, the nutritional value of fairy bread is minimal….).
    Bouncy castles, paying a clown, or taking everyone somewhere fancy- those would be on my purely optional list.

  5. dancinginthespirit Reply

    We’ve worked out that family birthday presents on Mummy and Daddy’s bed first thing, with cards, is a good tradition for us. We also have birthday cake delivered at this point by the small boy for Mummy and Daddy’s birthdays, in the absence of a party – cake for breakfast…yum!

    Anyway, for the kids, a good rule I heard is that for a home based party, is that there should be the same number of kids as the child’s age. So for D’s 4th birthday he had just a few little people and a couple of even littler siblings and a parent, and it was lovely! So civilised, and we actually got to have real conversations with the children and parents, and enjoy it!

    For at home parties we have generally just out out little stations of various toys and the children have just amused themselves brilliantly. I did have pin the tail on the Gruffalo one year but we never used it as they were having too much fun already! Really little ones tend to struggle with games, even pass the parcel. I’ve been to a couple of slightly ill-fated parties run terms of games, one where the mum was adamant that there would be no rigging of the pass the parcel, which resulted in one child getting three go’s and the birthday boy getting nothing and being in floods of tears. Another one was where the dad was gamesmaster and everything was competitive – there was nearly a sweepstake on how many children would be in tears by the end – not just for losing, but for getting bumped etc, and just being forced into a competitive situation with children they didn’t know.

    My thing for parties is that I just love a theme! The last couple have been, Toy Story, the Gruffalo, and then Knights, Dragons and Princesses (which gave the girls and boys a bit more choice of dress up than the usual straight gender divide. Although typically they all chose according to tradition!). We tend to start off with choosing a cake and build it around that, or sometimes the other way around!

    The party bag thing bothers me. Children really do expect it, but that’s not to say they always get it! For a birthday party near Christmas one friend wrapped up Poundland toys and each child had to pick from a bucket – one toy, one child and they loved it. Went home with that, a balloon and a piece of cake and whatever craft they’ve made. We’ve done decorating a paperbag with stickers to be the party bag, then again, cake, pass the parcel prize, a craft, and maybe a few sweets or some stickers.

    For food we have a little friend who is a coeliac, so previously I’ve laid out triangles of bread, mum has brought her own gluten-free bread, and then they’ve been able to pick from chicken, bits of ham, cucumber, tomato, cheese etc and make their own. Sandwiches cut out in shapes go down well but can leave a lot of wasted edges depending on the shape. For the last birthday the kids had lots of running around at a softplay hired just for us before sitting down for lunch so they all had a great appetite which was fab! The only game we did was pass the parcel, otherwise they decorated picnic goblets with jewels, decorated shields, coloured in knightly pictures and played in the softplay – it was great! And I was so blessed to have an army of mums to help me clear up afterwards! One thing I wasn’t prepared for was the few parents who left their 4 and 5 year olds without a word and then came back and collected them – that was a shock! I was glad I didn’t end up with 20 children for me and J to look after on our own! I had assumed the age for dropping them off was somewhat older so it hadn’t even occurred to me to specify on the invite…now I know, but still not sure what I would say for 6 yr olds. Any suggestions from anyone else?

    I think that’s it from my experience, the first few were family and friends (with lots of out church family as D would say) tea parties, then a small little-people party at home, then a bigger off site party once D was at school. Next year we might just go out for the day with a couple of friends, tho Feb isn’t the best time for farm parks etc…! Who knows. There will be cake, there will be family and friends and there will be fun! there will also be presents, though hopefully fewer next year (he was inundated this year having had so many children to his party and each child often giving multiple gifts, which was crazy! He hadn’t even got the energy to open them all once we got home! I prefer that we open them apart from the party so it’s not a mad frenzy and we have some hope of knowing who brought what! There’s also no chance then of embarrassment for parents in terms of what they have chosen to buy/been able to afford to buy). My favourite bit is making the cake and being creative there, but that’s just me!

  6. Laura Reply

    I’ve thought about this a wee bit as some friends of mine have kids turning 1-3 years old currently. At this stage the kids really aren’t aware of what is going on and so the excessive consumerism is lost on them! Instead I think these birthdays should be acknowledged by the parents as a celebratory “We-made-it-through-another-year” type events with their close friends and perhaps (this might not be popular) not the kids? Or the kids in a less central role.. maybe.

  7. Angela Reply

    Oh gosh. What a topic. My brief thoughts are
    I really object to take home bags just for the sake of them and I have heard others object, but never actually been to a party without them! I don’t like the general concept, I don’t like a bagful of lollies/sweets, and I don’t like toys that break before you get home. At our first proper party this year, i thought hard over it, and provided a paper bag for kids to take home what they won in the games, plus leftover cupcakes. I also don’t like the fact that every kid gets a prize in pass the parcel, but that is a lost battle. I am thinking of putting an extra special present in for the winner, while all the others get a smaller prize.. I’ll let you know how that goes!
    And then there’s the cake. I love food and making and baking and all, but I just have absolutely no desire to decorate amazing cakes. Just none. We’ve had three parties with pebbles (smarties) on the icing, and this year an icecream cake with berries. Hoorah! I love not being in the fancy cake business!! But it seems to me that pretty much everyone else loves it – I’ve only ever come across one Mum who did it because she felt she ought to – most people seem to really enjoy it.
    Finally, i very nearly didn’t put photos up on Facebook of our party, because I don’t like the idea. While it’s a good opportunity for those far away to see what you’re up to, for those nearby it can feel a bit we-had-an-awesome-party-and-you’re-not-a-close-enough-friend to-have-been-invited. In the end I put up some of the kids because it was a lazy way of sharing with those who were there, but didn’t put up wow-photos of the food.

    • not a wild hera Reply

      I’m glad you joined in, Angela, because of course one of the parties I loved being at was your boy’s 🙂

      I think your version of the party bag was INSPIRED.

      Yes to the concern about photos. I did the same at SBJ’s first. One thing I hadn’t thought of for parties of younger ones is that (except in Judith’s case above where the parents deserted!) you invite four kids and get fourteen people – because parents have to come with kids, you quickly get heaps of people. There are plenty of close friends who we didn’t invite to SBJ’s party, because once you have family and godparents, there’s barely any more room in the building!

  8. Claire Shirley Reply

    I’ve also been thinking about this recently as I have Penny’s third birthday coming up. The main thing I’ve thought about are presents, life is so expensive for people without feeling required to bring a present to parties, yet I assume we all like buying presents for the people we care about.

    My thought for Penny’s birthday is to ask people to bring a farm animal plastic toy for a farm yard kit – either pre- loved or from an op-shop, or perhaps a similar concept, an item for a dress up box. Then its inexpensive, Penny has a present she’ll use and like, and hopefully people fell they can be creative.

    But I’d be interested on peoples thoughts, because perhaps people prefer not to give gifts at all, or to be able to feel free to choose what they want to give.

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Claire, I think this is a GENIUS idea.

      I’ve seen a few different ways that people have guided present-buying, and all have been gracious, thoughtful and helpful.

      I really like the idea of being invited to contribute to a set of something, as you suggest. It’s always good, as a giver, to know what you’re giving is likely to be useful/fun/appreciated, so I can’t think of anyone in our generation who would take that the wrong way.

      I tend to think of birthday presents, beyond immediate family, as entirely optional and always say on invitations – for anyone – that presents are not needed or whatever wording is appropriate for the occasion. I know for kids most people will want to bring something, but I think it’s really important to give explicit permission to not bring a present.

  9. Ginnie Parker Reply

    Slightly older birthday party favorites for me included going fishing at the tiny island in Nelson’s harbor with a few friends and eating damper and going to the Saturday morning flea markets each with $5 of spending money to buy breakfast foods. They worked out cheaper than trying to cater for fussy girls, or have the invetiable sleepover where you watch too many trashy movies and prank call boys.

    • not a wild hera Reply

      I love these ideas!

      (Though I am a little concerned at your American spelling for a harbour in NZ 🙂 )

      Spending money is a great idea – what a buzz young people get out of making their own decisions, right?

  10. Alex Reply

    Looking back, I think we probably started doing birthday parties too early. The first one we had was for Marcus’s second birthday – at home, with half a dozen other children and their parents, mostly those from our antenatal class. I’ll freely admit that the main reason we had it was a combination of (ridiculous) guilt that we hadn’t really marked his first birthday and wanting to do something fun for him ahead of the (very imminent!) arrival of his little sister. So I made a teddy bear cake (Victoria sponge with cupcakes stuck on for the ears and nose!) and we did do pass-the-parcel, though it really didn’t work all that well. I can’t remember what we did for party bags that year, but I probably did do them just because everybody does – I think I may have bought a couple of small collections of board books and put one in each bag with some bubbles and a balloon.
    He enjoyed his party so much we ended up basically re-running the same one for his third birthday, only that time he was more vocal about participating in the planning, in particular the choice of cake – a green, chocolate T-Rex. So that made it easy to theme the party around the cake (dinosaur cut outs for colouring, dinosaur shaped sandwiches and a dinosaur biscuit cutter in the party bag with a mini dinosaur notebook giving the recipe for our favourite biscuits). Apart from pass-the-parcel we didn’t really play games, though – we had some bubbles in the garden, and otherwise they just played with his toys.
    Last year’s party was readily themed around his choice of cake too – a request was put in early for a dragon cake, so we did a knights and dragons party with lots of craft activities (including decorating paper party bags with stickers). We did play games like musical statues and “traffic lights”, but I tried to go for reward rather than elimination and gave out stickers for the “best” statue etc rather than forcing children to sit out – most of them were just enjoying the dancing and not bothered about winning, so it seemed nicer (and I did try to make sure that everybody got at least one sticker!). And then, because Marcus had had a party for his second birthday, I did one for Isabelle the following weekend along almost identical lines and with a chocolate owl cake (that looked remarkably similar to the teddy bear from two years previous!)
    I’ve wrestled with the question of pass-the-parcel too, and have ended up going with the default option around here of a small bag of chocolate buttons or box of raisins or similar in each layer and a “proper” prize in the middle. I try to rig it so that everybody gets a layer, but then leave the middle one completely to chance. The problem with doing it that way, though, is that it takes so long!
    This year both children have been requesting their cakes since about June (both birthdays are in September!), which means I’ve had plenty of time to plan their construction, which – I’m a little embarrassed to admit – I do enjoy. I’ve opted out of running separate parties myself this year and we’re going to a soft-play/gym with some of their friends – conveniently, given how close their birthdays are, a lot of Marcus’s friends have siblings around Isabelle’s age, so a joint party will (hopefully) work. I’ve struggled a bit thinking of what to put in party bags without a theme to arrange them by, and have been pondering particularly the question of whether it’s more important to put something in the kids will enjoy (Marcus’s favourite ever party bag toy is a cheap plastic whistle that’s still going strong months later, more’s the pity) or something that I approve of… I think I’ve decided that this time there’ll be a small pot of bubbles, a party hat and a piece of cake, and maybe a small wooden toy if I can find something suitable in time.

    • Alex Reply

      An addendum on the subject of posting pictures of cake online (at the risk of just talking to myself):
      I am about to start icing my son’s cake for his birthday tomorrow, and have been agonising about whether it is acceptable for me to post pictures of the result on Facebook. I have decided that – on balance, for me – it is. Decorating birthday cakes is something I enjoy doing and take pride in and I think it’s ok for me to want to share them with my friends. I had thought about restricting the audience for the pictures (as I do with some on FB) but that feels a bit presumptuous (never knew that word had two “u”s!). I’m often surprised by which of my friends do – or don’t – comment on things I post on FB, so I’m not sure I’m the best judge of who might be interested in seeing them.
      I’m sorry if some of my friends don’t want to see them, or feel put out by them. But, as with everything on Facebook, they can always choose not to look.
      Right, back to work 🙂

      • not a wild hera Reply

        Ha! I love the insight that the communist version of pass-the-parcel takes longer!

        I’m really sorry if this post has helped you be embarrassed about enjoying cake-making. I think it’s AWESOME that you do. I think I just worry for the people who feel pressure to do a fancier job than they would enjoy, partly because of social media. Am still thinking how to express this properly, because I don’t at all mean you should hide your cakes under a bushel!

        More soon…

  11. Alex Reply

    Ha! Understood. Good luck with the box-unpacking and sermon-writing.

    Don’t worry – I would have done the agonising anyway, with or without this post. I do know what you mean, and I really don’t want to have any part in any sort of cake competition – implied or otherwise.

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