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Stop the Birthday Party Madness

It’s a teddy bear picnic. There are cardboard bear tracks leading to the backyard. The table, the paper cups and plates, and the napkins are festooned with bears. There are teddy bears dressed in their bear best seated throughout the yard. There’s even a life-sized Smoky the Bear cardboard cutout in the middle of the lawn. This birthday party is an extravagance of bears. A dozen young guests arrive clutching their own teddy bears and their mom’s hands.

But, where’s the birthday girl? Three-year-old Bethany is in meltdown. She’s crying in the kitchen and won’t come out, despite coaxing and pleading from mom and grandma. The buildup of the last few days has left her wired. The expectations in the air have overwhelmed her.

Meanwhile, Mom is near meltdown herself. She was up most of the night making bear cutouts and bear favors. Grandma is doing her best to comfort daughter and grandchild while tactfully indicating to guests that it would really be more helpful if they occupied themselves for a bit.

Other moms rally as moms do. Some start a game. Others bring out the snacks. Mom’s best friend gives her a hug. Grandma shoos everyone out of the kitchen so she can tend to the birthday girl who eventually emerges, rubbing her eyes and trying to smile. The kids warm up to each other and start to notice all the bears. They decide they need to be included in the party so gather them up and make a circle. Whew! Another birthday debacle bear-ly avoided. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)

With all due respect to the magazines I scan at the grocery checkout counter, they, and we, have created a monster. Once upon a time, birthday parties were about a few games, some modest presents, and cake and ice cream. But the magazines highlight cakes in the shape of Fenway Park or Barbie in a dress and feature party themes that require the skills of a professional planner. In some circles, it seems that a birthday party doesn’t count unless the yard is transformed into a theme park, there is live entertainment, and every kid is presented with a bulging “take home bag” lest he or she feel deprived in the face of the birthday kid’s gifts.

Here’s the little secret nobody talks about: Lots of moms would love to get back to something more laid back and simple. Lots of moms are far too stretched by the constant balancing act between home and work to spend days making party favors. Lots of moms would happily forgo the expense of the clown or magician or Snow White on roller skates. But who wants to be the mom who only serves cupcakes and sets up a badminton net when everyone else is hiring a band or hosting the birthday party at the local arcade? It’s hard to go against the tide solo. It’s tough to feel like we’re letting our own kids down by keeping things within what our own budget or stress level can manage.

I think it’s time for a mom revolt. Our worth as moms isn’t measured by the extravagance of the party. Our love for our children isn’t measured by the length of the guest list or how many sleepless nights are spent cutting out bears or pirate ships or fairy wings. Our children’s enjoyment of their special day doesn’t hinge on the shape of the cake or a personal appearance by the Hulk. “Special” isn’t synonymous with overwhelming!

Please understand: I’m not signing on as the Scrooge of birthdays. I do believe that there is something very important in celebrating each birthday year. Recognizing a child on his or her birthday goes back thousands of years for a reason. Birthday occasions are a way to say to a child, “We’re so glad you’re here!” It’s wonderful for a child to feel singled out and special. It’s important for kids to see getting older and bigger as a positive event. I’m merely suggesting that we don’t have to break the bank or break our backs to make it so.

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Stop the Birthday Party Madness

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Stop the Birthday Party Madness. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.