NAMB: Is this a birthday party or a wedding?

1 May

Is it just me, or are birthdays for small children getting utterly out of control?

I don’t mean out of control like my 7th birthday, where I invited every girl in my class to sleepover and all twenty-two of us paraded around the house in our PJs playing toy instruments at 11 PM. My poor parents.

I mean out of control like you realize that March is too late to start planning for your kid’s 2nd birthday…in July. I mean out of control like, you’re starting to wish you had an event planner to manage the various elements of your soiree.

This is clearly just my opinion, but seriously: if you are using words like “element” and “soiree” in reference to a birthday party for anyone under 50–even in your head–you need to #checkyoself.

I mean, I think we all know on some level that children’s birthday parties have become some sort of toxic cocktail of perfectionism, one-upmanship, and Pinterest. And I’m hardly the first to make fun of the phenomenon of over-the-top birthday parties and borderline insane parents (see the now-infamous birthday list email, or how about the kid that didn’t show up for a party and got an invoice for his cost incurred). But if my social media feed is any indication, the trickle-down effect of these crazy, wedding-like extravaganzas is very, very real.*

*seriously–I just witnessed a 30+ comment thread on custom themed birthday cakes in my actual life. No, not whether they’re necessary, but the best place to get one.

Ask for pictures from a child’s birthday party, and instead of a bunch of smiling kids you’ll see forty angles of lavish table layouts. We’re talking blowouts for kids who are turning 1, 2, 3….ages where they still think playing in the bath tub is the height of good-time fun. Who is this shindig really for? Look in the index under parents, impressing other.

We need to stop the madness.

In that spirit, I have created a primer of good and bad words for children’s birthdays. To hammer the metaphor even further, we’ll play it like Red Light, Green Light. Next time you find yourself in conversation about a birthday, notice what key words pass your lips and follow the directions accordingly:

Green – go for it!

Cake – No party, indeed no birthday, is complete without cake. Go hog wild and let the birthday kid pick the flavor! Ice cream is always good too.

Mess – Accept it, embrace it, encourage it. Have you ever been to a fun party that didn’t get a little messy?

Invitations – I’m really old fashioned and like paper invitations sent via snail mail*. Even if they come from a pack at Target, it’s awesome. I mean, when you see an envelope in the mail with your name on it, you know you’re really and truly invited somewhere. I’m not against Evites per se, but I do get a little wistful when it seems like parents are putting more thought and effort on things like themed labels for the food (and taking pictures of said labels) than they are on requesting the pleasure of a guest’s company.

*tangent–I said the phrase “snail mail” to an intern the other day and he had no idea what I was talking about. Is that an old term or something??

Improvise – Story time. Last year P and I went to the Starlight drive-in and there was a birthday party parked next to us…probably a dozen 13 year old girls, split among two or three mini-vans. The party fare consisted of a few pizzas, a cookie cake, a couple of six packs for the parents. No decorations, no party favors. During the long wait to get into the gates, they got out of the cars and played with–you’ll never believe it– a ball. Like the kind you get out of the bin at the grocery store. The entire group, including the adults, was raucously laughing the whole time. The whole thing was on point, without reeking of planning. I bet you your deposit at Legoland they didn’t even have to make a reservation.

Red – Stop Right There

Fondant – I agree those cakes shaped like unicorns and cars look cool. Hell, I watched like 40 back to back episodes of Cake Boss at Northside while I was waiting to pop out T. But #truth, that stuff tastes like the bottom of a shoe. Whatever happened to buttercream?

Deposit – Does anyone else think it’s weird that in one generation, parents went from showing up with ten kids at whatever McDonalds had a decent playplace to laying two bennies down to reserve the party room at HippoHopp? (which is basically a glorified playplace, if you really think about it). Super-screaming red light if the words “non-refundable” are attached.

Dessert Table – Uh….you have a cake, right? Dessert. Bam.

If this is the 3rd birthday, what will the wedding look like?

Schedule – Think about it from a kid’s perspective. School, piano practice, the dentist…those delightful activities are examples of things that are scheduled. Leaving a few things up to chance makes it easier for you and fun for them (see improvise).

Registry –  Not to get too Emily Post, but I really do think this is gauche. Yes, it’s an unspoken rule that you bring a gift to a child’s party. But it’s the giver’s prerogative to choose the gift (and the price of the gift). I swear, half the time I see a birthday registry the stuff on it is high-priced–I’m talking in the $100-$200 range. If you want your kid to have a new kitchen set, that’s what grandparents are for (or here’s an idea– buy that ish yourself). If people are asking you what to get, by all means offer a suggestion–the $15-$30 range is reasonable, although even less is fine too (who doesn’t love some new playdoh?).  I’d even be OK with an Amazon wishlist, as long as you only send it if someone directly asks for it. And whatever you do, don’t provide links on your invitations to a registry. People don’t even do that on a wedding invitation! (Do they? Please tell me people have not started doing that).

Yellow – Proceed with caution:

Custom – Having the baker put your kid’s name on the cake? Yes. Hiring three different bakers to make customized cookies, cupcakes, and dirt pudding in individual ramekins? Overkill.

Game – It’s not a bad idea to have a few activities planned in case things start out slow. But this isn’t a baby shower. If it takes more than ten seconds to explain the rules, forget it. No rules works too–stuff like a bucket of water balloons or even a big roll of butcher paper and finger paint is plenty fun.

Favors – Something to say “thank you for coming” is a very nice touch. But most parents agree that a goody bag of tiny plastic crap toys is kind of annoying. People just do it because they feel like they have to.


On the other end of the spectrum, we have personalized and/or homemade favors that seen to scream “I’m overcompensating for something.”

Apparently, this includes a personalized note and homemade hair bows. Good grief.

A lot of parents get overwhelmed between the two and don’t give favors at all. But there is a happy medium, if you get creative. On a related note, thank-you cards for gifts are great for character building.

DIY (see also: homemade) – I know some of you maams are crafty and genuinely enjoy (and have time for?) making doilies, and if that’s you, go for it. But if you find yourself up at 4 AM the night before the party, cursing because you can’t find the right pastry tip to ice the clam macaroons or you’re only halfway through the 100 DIY bathbombs for baby’s magical mermaid party, you’re only hurting yourself.

I don’t make this ish up.

I say for us non-Martha Stewart types, pick one thing to make yourself (the cake, the invitations) and get thee to a Party City for the rest.


I’m not saying parties need to be like they were “back in my day” (#getoffmylawn). A few things, like donations in lieu of gifts and the slow fade of the watch-the-birthday-kid-open-presents tradition, are standout achievements of modern birthday parenting. Things evolve and that’s fine. But when it gets to the point where moms are feeling like they might be depriving their child if they don’t arrange for a candy buffet and miniature fruit bouquets, that’s a problem. For your child, it is and it should be all about the experience–just ask the girls at the Starlight Drive-in.


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