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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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Back to the sane and simple:

It will probably require a little groundwork. Our sense of fairness comes into play if all the other parties feature reverse gift-giving and live entertainment. No mom wants to be seen as too cheap to reciprocate what her child has experienced at other people’s events. No one wants her child to be known as the one who gave the lousy party. Do some quiet talking with the other parents or invite them over for coffee and planning. Talking about it ahead of time makes downsizing parties a group project. Talking about it when there is no party date due for awhile prevents the awkwardness of changing the rules when someone has already booked the magician.

Agree to go back to the very sane party rule of one guest per year of a child’s age. Experts have been telling us for years that this is what children can handle.

Overstimulation for much more than an hour is a recipe for chaos and tears. Agree to keep parties for little kids short as well as small. 45 minutes to an hour and a half of fun is about all that young children can manage before they need a quiet time.

Young children aren’t necessarily party animals. Different kids have different comfort levels with groups. No hosting parent should be asked to handle a withdrawn, tearful child or a wild one (other than her own). Agree that parents of children under the age of six will stay for the party. This gives children the reassurance of a parent onsite and provides an instant trip home if a child can’t handle the party scene.

Brainstorm ways to keep the entertainment simple. Summertime in the suburbs or the country lends itself to a sprinkler in the yard. City kids can have a party in the park. Winter time in the Snow Belt can be a time for making snowmen or meeting at the local hill for sledding followed by hot chocolate. A simple craft project can keep everyone busy and happy — and gives them something to proudly take home. Hokey? You bet! Let the kids play. Have some refreshments. Provide some balloons or party hats. Don’t forget the cake and candles. It’s a party!

If you and your friends really can’t stand not giving a bash, here’s a radical idea: Leave the kids out of it. Making things saner for kids doesn’t have to mean giving up on parties. Have wonderful, over-the-top adult get-togethers every now and then instead.

Most important: Remember what kids’ birthdays are for. A child should get special attention, caring, and recognition on his or her special day. That could mean a favorite breakfast, getting out of chores for a day, being able to request a favorite meal, finding an “I love you” note in the lunchbox, and being toasted at dinner. Children who hear us say “We’re so glad you’re here!” in many ways throughout the day are kids who grow up feeling valued and cherished. That, after all, is what these celebrations are supposed to be about.

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 1, 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.