Juggling act: How kids birthday parties suddenly became a big deal

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News
Kids birthday parties used to be more tame. They aren't anymore.

When my son turned 8, his cousin posed a birthday question to him. Why, she wanted to know with a perplexed look on her face, had she been invited to his "friends" birthday party?

"You have two parties," she explained matter-of-factly as if this was the case for every child in the world. "One with your family and one with your friends."

Children's birthday celebrations, especially for those in the upper middle class, have evolved dramatically over the years. What was once a small gathering with just family, cake and a few presents are now big bashes on steroids with more than friends, family members and presents than some people have at their weddings.

As more parents work -- especially moms -- guilt looms large about the time we don't spend with our kids. No wonder why we want to give our kids everything under the moon when a birthday rolls around.

And private sector spurs parents on. There are yoga studio birthday parties, Lego bashes and salon gatherings where little girls can get manicures. My son had one classmate who celebrated her birthday with a rented movie theater and invited the entire class of more than 25 students (all of whom also brought a present). Who just rents a bounce house anymore? Boring.

My own family has been swept into the birthday madness. For my son's birthday one year, we had a group party at a gymnastics facility in Troy. The kids bounced around on the map and uneven parallel bars and then got to jump into a foam pit.

Another year we had a party at our community's local science center. A naturalist introduced the kids to different animals -- my son pointed out that he was a fan of Kermit the Frog -- and even took a little hike. 

There are the major upsides to having your kid's birthday party at an outside facility. The biggest: no cleaning. Everything from setup to cleanup is handled. You simply write a check, buy some party favors and let the kids go bananas. Sign me up.

But I sometimes wonder if we're setting up our kids for disappointment by making a big deal out of every single birthday. Yes, birthdays are a big deal, especially when children are younger, but eventually it may be time to tone it down.

I grew up in a big Irish Catholic family of six. Birthday celebrations followed a fairly simple recipe. The birthday kid got to pick what we had for dinner -- we didn't go out to dinner -- and Grandma came over. And of course there were presents and dessert. We didn't know any differently and we were content.

The Emily Post Institute has a good guideline for kids' birthday parties: Keep the guest list to a reasonable number. And a good guide is one guest for each year of your child’s age, plus one.

My daughter turns 12 this week and we'll be celebrating by doing -- and eating -- some of the things she likes best. We'll go swimming, eat pancakes and, of course, have cake.

Like most things, less often is more -- even when it comes to birthdays.