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Party Favors

I’m doing something utterly outrageous for my son’s third birthday party this month. I mean completely over the top. In fact, I’m pretty sure all the moms will be copying me next year.

Here’s what I’m doing: Almost nothing.

I know. Crazy, right? Kids’ birthday parties today tend to be more high-concept galas than low-key shindigs, replacing the once-popular cake-and-presents model with the full-blown dog-and-pony show. Sites like BirthdaysWithoutPressure.org have sprung up to protest the trend, arguing that elaborate invitations and themes, inflated guest lists, wedding-scale entertainment and extravagant party favors make for stressed parents and spoiled kids.

“I’m tired of being exhausted and tense on my kid’s birthday,” admits a friend of mine. “Especially if it is pointless — which it is.”

The woman spent six years trucking in horses and hiring musicians for her daughter’s parties only to discover afterwards that her kid “does not in fact remember the band or the pony or the fairytale castle or the pumpkin-patch trip. None of it.” They can’t even jar her memory with photos of the events, because they didn’t shoot any. “We were too busy running around conducting games or passing out prizes.”

My boys and I weren’t invited to Suri Cruise’s second birthday bash, which reportedly cost $100,000. But we’ve attended parties where the “favor” (a portable art set with paints, pastels, and brushes) was nicer than the gift we brought (a favorite paperback book).

And we went to a casual backyard party where guests could hug a screeching orangutan and ride an African bull elephant. The five-year-olds weren’t interested in the beasts; there was a far more enchanting bouncy house in the side yard.

Why do we go wild over kiddie birthday parties?

“When little Hannah has a princess bouncer and frost-your-own cupcakes at her party, and lucky Liam takes the whole class for a ride on a real fire engine, you sort of feel like you might need to step it up a little,” says another mom I know, whose pet peeve is the guest goody bags that are de rigueur at modern kiddie fetes. “When we were kids — and yes, I realize I sound ancient — you were happy to get a homemade cupcake. Now you have to give kids a present for coming to your kid’s party? What IS that?”

It’s nonsense, that’s what. And I’m over it. Sure, in the past, I’ve hand-delivered message-in-a-bottle invitations all over town for a pirate birthday, and manned game stations across the yard for a carnival party. But this year, I’m not playing the one-up-manship game with my fellow party-planning parents. I’m setting the bar back at the bottom — down where my pre-schooler can actually reach it — with a simple backyard scamper fest. No inflatable jumpers. No themed tablecloth or dazzling Disney centerpiece. No pi–ata, magician or face-painter. The only entertainment I’m hiring is Duncan Hines to work his Supermoist magic on my son’s fuss-free single-layer cake.

Even my gal pals who typically throw Birthday Extravaganzas have lauded my newfound laziness.

“I know my kids feel very special to receive the royal treatment,” says a friend who once threw a Harry Pottery party with a sorting hat, potion station, life-size chess board, wand-making table, sorcerer’s stone hunt and backyard Quidditch match. “The problem is that each year we feel the need to either top the previous year or declare a ‘pass,’ as if the birthday isn’t as important this year. I find myself praying I don’t have to host a Star Wars Bar Mitzvah complete with R2D2 serving the food!”

Feelings of maternal inadequacy have no place in party planning. They’re uninvited guests and should be blown out like birthday candles or popped like balloons.

If you thrive on throwing birthday banquets, knock yourself out. But those of us who have to answer to our envious invitees would ask that you toss a little restraint into your goody bags from time to time.

At least that’s a favor we can all enjoy.

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Published inColumnsParenting
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