Have kids' birthday parties gone too far?

Kids’ birthday parties – you either love ’em or hate ’em. OK, perhaps hate is a strong word, but I’m sure most mothers who organize them (and it is usually moms – sorry dads) do so with some amount of trepidation; or if you’re like me, with a lot of trepidation. 

I will admit that I went all out for my son’s second birthday. I hired a balloon entertainer, ordered helium balloons and banners, as well as a fancy cake and food.

I also made food and provided booze for the parents; my husband even made a playlist of fun music for the kids (“Shake it Off” by Taylor Swift is a big hit with the toddlers in case you didn’t know) and put together carefully planned loot bags based on the girls and boys who attended.  

I did not love the process of planning a birthday party. I am not one of those moms who create art projects out of nature or what have you, and I dispensed with the game portion of the party altogether. 

Luckily, it was held outside under the gazebo at my complex, and the weather cooperated. It was a beautiful, sunny Cayman day right before Christmas, and some of the kids even went swimming. A hit by all standards, it seemed like everyone enjoyed themselves – everyone but me, of course, and my poor husband, who had to walk on eggshells for days leading up to the party.  

“Lisa, you are crazy. These kids aren’t even going to remember this party! Who are you trying to impress?” He was right, of course, but after thinking about his question for all of 10 seconds, I yelled back, “ME!!!”

And that’s the nub of it. As a new mother and a perfectionist, I wanted it to go off without a hitch. I really don’t think I was competing with anyone, at least not at a conscious level, because many friends of toddlers kept their birthday parties simple with a few friends and family, some cupcakes or store-bought cake, a few nibbles and juice boxes. So why was I being such a momzilla? 

Although there were a couple of cancellations due to illness and prior commitments, there weren’t any no-shows; and at any rate it wouldn’t have cost us any extra as the party was in our backyard, but what if we had rented a facility and had to pay in advance? I recently read about a U.K. couple who was billed £15.95 (US$18) after their son failed to show up to his classmate’s birthday celebration.

Tanya Walsh and her partner Derek Nash were taken aback when their son Alex, 5, arrived home from school with an invoice – tucked away in his backpack – for missing his classmate Charlie’s big day, which was held at a local indoor ski slope center (which subsequently required pre-payment). After refusing to pay, Alex’s parents were threatened to be taken to court. The two mothers even had a war of words on Facebook, with Charlie’s mother claiming she received verbal confirmation by Alex’s dad at the school gates that Alex would attend.  

Few of us would be so bold or rude to do what that mother did, but it did make me wonder how I’d feel if I was the one left paying for all the no-shows, or, conversely, the mother who was given a stern “lesson.” 

I guess it could be worse. Everyone knows a parent who nonchalantly shows up with all her kids in tow without asking if it’s OK or even bothering to RSVP for the kid invited. Luckily, I’m not at the point of parenthood where the adults can just drop their kids off and disappear for a few hours, but I know that this is coming in a couple more years.  

I hear parties get easier and smaller as the kids get older, but the guest list remains a tricky situation.  

Do you invite the entire class of kids or a select few? How about the neighborhood kids? You never want to leave one or two kids off the list from a class of, say, 20, because that’s just hurtful and hard for kids to “shake it off,” but is it ever anyone’s intention to hurt a wee one’s feelings? You have to cut the list off somewhere, especially if you’re on a budget. 

Speaking of budgets, the latest trend is asking friends and family to pay for your kid’s birthday party through crowdfunding sites such as GoFundMe. Since 2010, birthday-related campaigns have raised close to $1 million from more than 20,000 donors for celebrations.

Social media, whether Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest, has influenced this crowdfunding trend. The little green-eyed monster comes out after viewing photos of friends giving fabulous birthday parties for their kids, so other moms want to do the same for their own. In other words, it’s the modern-day equivalent of keeping up with the Joneses.  

I have a problem with this trend. Unless you are in need of food or a roof over your head, or someone in your family is gravely ill and you need help with medical bills (or if you really need the funds to help back an invention or innovative business idea), a crowdfunding site is not the place to beg for money for an over-the-top kids’ party. If you can’t afford a party, treat the kids to the movies or bowling and a slice of pizza. I bet they would be just as happy and it harkens back to the old-school, no-frills parties of previous generations. 

Thinking back to my own childhood, I remember my mother (who is not a baker, bless her heart) always made the same plain Bundt cake with icing sugar sprinkled on top for my birthday parties. I was a big baby every birthday (others would say “diva”). I would insist on proper chocolate icing, maybe coins embedded in the middle of the cake like my friend had at HER birthday. 

One year my mom surprised me with a Baskin-Robbin’s ice cream cake. Only she forgot to put it in the freezer, and well, you can imagine the rest. Another time, she went to the baker and got them to make one. But when it was presented to me at the kitchen table it read “Happy Birday Lesa.”

I still have the photo of me and my five friends adorned in goofy pointy party hats and ’70s-style velour outfits – they with forced grins on their faces and me fighting back tears. My friends howled with laughter at the misspellings, and I bet you can guess what happened next for me: a waterfall of tears that would rival Niagara Falls.  

Clearly, my childhood birthday scars have not healed, and try as I might, compensating by buying my son a $70 “Cars” theme cake is not going to fill the void (it was fabulous, by the way).  

I won’t even get into the drama about the cake. Two hours before the party, the cake had only begun to be created since the cashier who took my order weeks before jotted down the wrong date as well as the wrong phone number.

So you can imagine my anger when I went to pick it up only to be met with blank stares. The baker must have had magic fingers as he managed to whip it up beautifully and it was delivered to the house in the nick of time, just as I finished detangling all of the helium balloons which managed to intertwine like so many CUC lines after Hurricane Ivan.  

As I cursed that morning under my breath, I decided then and there that my son’s birthday will be a small affair next year, with no frills at all. I may even try to bake a cake all on my own – with chocolate icing. 


In the old days, kids’ birthday parties were much more simple, and less pressure on mothers.


Kids’ birthday parties seem to hit new levels every year.
© Royalty-Free/Corbis


As kids’ birthday parties hit new levels, Caymom wonders if it has al
l gone too far.