My favorite childhood party was in 1979.
The entire first-grade class of Walnut Hill Elementary was invited. All the kids piled into the back of my dad’s red pickup truck, and we all spilled out at a small North Dallas park, where we ran around and played Red Rover and ate cake to celebrate my seventh birthday.
That party was better than ice cream at Swensen’s or rides at Penny Whistle Park. I didn’t need anything complicated — just time with friends.
The birthday party scene has grown up since then. I can’t count the number of times I’ve taken my children to Pump It Up, Main Event, Strikz, Chuck E. Cheese or one of a handful of gymnastics centers for a friend’s celebration.
I do know that all of those parties add up to thousands of dollars spent to entertain little kids. To make them feel special.
I’m no stranger to the big party scene.
When I worked full time and Cooper was in day care, I threw extravagant parties — handmade invitations, thoughtfully procured goodie bags, elaborate cakes, craft stations and more, all tied to the carefully chosen, unique-to-Cooper theme.
I reasoned that Steve and I worked hard all week, that I owed it to Cooper to devote time to make his the BEST BIRTHDAY EVER, that we could splurge on our child, that you only turn 1 or 2 or 3 once.
When I shifted to a hybrid stay-at-home/work-from-home life, I continued to throw extravagant parties for Cooper and Katie. I reasoned that part of my stay-at-home job was to celebrate big and small occasions with gusto.
And now, in my single widowed mom life, I set aside money for extravagant parties outside the home. I reason that once a year my children deserve a big celebration all about them. (Though I’m a little more relaxed on trying to create the BEST BIRTHDAY EVER.)
I’m afraid we’re all celebrating a bit too much.
Have you seen the elaborate ways young men are asking young women to homecoming dances? Some of the inquiries are more extensive than marriage proposals.
A boy might write and perform a song and post it on YouTube, with the big question at the end. Or dress his little brother in a suit, put a sign in his hands (“WILL U GO 2 HOMECOMING WITH MY BROTHER?”) and have him knock at the door of the intended girl. Or hold a giant poster during live broadcast of theToday show for the whole nation to see.
And if the girl says yes (man, I hope she does after all that work), the celebrating really begins. Giant homecoming mum, the size and shape of an adolescent alligator. Pre-dance photos with a gaggle of teens in a home with a grand staircase or in a neighborhood with a picturesque body of water. Dinner out. Dance. Party after.
All these well-meaning but over-the-top displays are what happens when we’ve celebrated our children too much. Of course they have to have the BEST HOMECOMING EVER. Something has to top the over-the-top birthday parties we’ve been throwing them all their lives.
It’s not too late to scale back. I’ve seen what can be our future.
One day after school this week, Katie attended a first-grade birthday party. Walker told his mom that he wanted to feed the ducks and play. So Mom sent emails a week in advance, and we all gathered at the neighborhood park.
There was not a licensed character in sight. There were no electronics. No goodie bags filled with junk to be thrown out or forgotten. Just some playground equipment, a pond and sunshine. And kids climbing, shrieking, swinging, sliding, bouncing, running.
They took a break to feed the ducks and fish and turtles in the pond.
Then they returned to playing.
They took a break to eat a cookie and drink some juice.
Then they played some more.
When we left, I gave the birthday boy a hug and told him that it was the best first-grade party I’ve been to in a long time.
Probably since 1979.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.