Heart to Heart with Adele: Children’s birthday parties


Dear Adele,

My question deals with children’s birthday parties. We have a toddler, a six-year-old son and an eleven-year-old daughter. In our suburban middle class neighbourhood, birthday parties have become enormous monsters, capable of eating up to $1000 by the time parents pay for a commercial venue, food, transportation, invitations, loot bags, and photos. We are finding it financially extremely onerous. In addition, we seem to be expected to invite a whole class or team, half of whom may not RSVP or even come. That is, in some ways, even more upsetting because our children feel so badly about the rude indifference to them by their friends and classmates. We are desperate for suggestions. Help!!!



Dear Desperate,

You are not alone! The birthday party monster has gotten completely out of hand for most families like you. Expectations for these lavish expensive events for large numbers of children has escalated in direct proportion to affluence in our society, two-income families, and much smaller numbers of planned children born into them.

Parents now often delay having their one or two youngsters and think once they arrive, that providing them with absolutely everything they themselves never had, is going to produce better children and adults. They are unfortunately often misguided in that, and their children can become overindulged, spoiled, and entitled brats.

I heard of a child recently who had 30 invited guests to a commercial activity costing close to $30 per child and never uttered the word ‘thank you’ once. I heard of another who had a party on the weekend for family and relatives, a second one at a commercial establishment for his whole class and a third one as well, for kids on his hockey team. I heard of a toddler birthday party with a dozen toddlers and their parents, which totalled 36 invited guests.

If this is what you are up against in terms of neighbourhood expectations and peer pressure on your children, your perceived parental obligations, and your family budget, I suggest that you grab hold of the reins and bring your runaway horses to a full stop. Decide you are not going to buy into this nonsense. Take the next off ramp. Just decide to say ‘No’.

Better to teach your children what real value friends are, what budget constraints look like, and that they are loved but not the centre of the universe.

Aristotle identified three kinds of friends in life: Recreational friends, transactional friends, and value friends. Privileged children have tons of recreational friends in their schools, in their places of worship and in their extra curricular activities like sporting groups, dance troupes and clubs. They also have lots of transactional friends where they exchange a benefit for one, for a benefit to the other. But true value friends are rare, hard to find and harder yet to keep. These kinds of friends stick by you through thick and thin, accept you with all your warts and would come to help you on a Saturday morning at 2 a.m. in a freezing rain storm. This group is the kind of friendship you want your children to understand is best, both to give and to receive.

Children will learn this when you have much smaller parties with value friends only invited. The value friend will not fail to RSVP or cancel on him or her. Wild horses would not keep a value friend away. A value friend does not need to attend commercial establishment to enjoy the company of his real close buddy. He would love a simple sleepover, joking and talking far into the night. The memory of a special hand made gift or card and the good times shared by such lifetime treasured friends, will be remembered and appreciated when one of them attends the funeral of the other, half a century later.

Here are my suggestions:

Tell everyone who asks or needs an explanation that your family just does not do the big party thing. Tell everyone you prefer very small celebrations and gatherings with only most intimate friends in attendance. Tell them your children feel the same. Thank them all for any invitations to these kinds of parties but it is just not your thing. Your child will not be attending or giving those kinds of events. Wish them a ‘Happy Birthday’ and add, ‘I am sure it will be a wonderful affair.’

That should suffice.

As for your own family, keep the same principal in play. For your toddler invite one mom or dad to bring one favourite small friend over for a birthday playdate of about two hours. Let Grandma and Grandpa drop in to watch the children play or suggest they come for dinner to see the birthday child and have some cake. One inexpensive toy, perhaps a new car or truck, in a dollar store bag with lots of tissue is all that is needed for gifts. Take photos with your own device.

For your six-year-old son, invite only six children whom he knows really well and likes a lot. Usually children can function well in groups which match the number of candles on the cake, to the number of guests. Host it at home. Allow the boys to have some free playtime with your son’s toys. Then plan a few group games the winners of which get dollar store prizes. Then make mini pizzas together and decorate the cake. Sit the lads in a circle and let your son open each gift one at a time and coach him in how to give eye contact, smile and thank each friend for the gift and for helping him celebrate his special day. Let the children stuff their tummies until they can eat no more and send then home. On the weekend have the grandparents to dinner and share a homemade birthday cake. Surprise your child with one reasonably priced gift which he has talked about for some time. Take memory pictures with your own device.

For your preteen daughter, I suggest a home party with an even number of close friends and family. Keep the number to about eight or less, so your girl can give attention to each of her guests. Chat with your daughter before the event, explaining the kinds of things a great hostess always does. Teach her how to greet a guest at the door. Teach her how to introduce one guest to another and how to get them started in a conversation. Tell her of her responsibility to spend time with each guest and how to ensure everyone will have a great time. Teach her how to keep a group cohesive and how to keep the conversations fun and positive. Educate her about how to express genuine appreciation for gifts.

Consider hiring a dance teacher, a recreation student or high schooler with personality and pizazz who enjoys dancing, to teach the girls to dance. One could teach them for a couple of hours to do some hip hop, maybe some old fashioned rock and roll, or even to belly dance or do some Zumba. Such a person will keep your daughter’s party hopping for two hours of dancing in your living room or family area for about $50. After, let the girls gather around your island or kitchen table to make homemade pizza. While the pizza cooks, open the presents one by one. After the pizza, serve a homemade cake, let your preteen make a wish on the 12 candles as she blows out the flames, and then send bid the guests adieu. Have your folks for dinner and a cake, on the weekend and give your daughter one reasonably priced gift she has wanted for some time. Take memory photos with your own device.

I hope these birthday party ideas solve your desperation, Desperate. They much better address the financial and social needs of your children and put you back in the driver’s seat on this common parenting conundrum.

Sincerely, Adele

I'm looking forward to your questions! Email me at maryadeleblair@gmail.com and please put Heart to Heart in the subject line. Note that all columns will remain anonymous.

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