Are Birthdays Out of Hand?

Who wants a pinata when you can have a stretch limo?

Nowadays only a depression-era grandparent could be satisfied with the old routine of birthday cake and ice cream in the back yard. Birthday guests today expect a spread of food, entertainment, and generous goody bags. (I’m referring, of course, to the parents.) The kids in attendance expect to leave feeling every bit as special as the birthday boy or girl.

Birthdays parties are the biggest gift in the budget, with parents spending a lot of money to ensure everyone else has a good time. These are first-rate productions, starting with age one and going all the way through at least middle and maybe high school. You can’t get by in the old school fashion of telling a kid it’s his special day and baking him a cake. To the kid’s mind, if you don’t spend your birthday surrounded by friends and mugging for camera phones, you aren’t having a birthday at all, you’re just getting another year older. (Which, come to think of it, is how we parents are left to experience our birthdays. But back to the kids.)

Nobody gets together out of love and admiration to celebrate someone’s birthday. Rather, they must be enticed by a promising venue. In daycare, it’s the bounce houses and custom stuffed bears; in elementary school, it’s laser tag and an arcade; in middle school, it’s limo rides and amusement parks. As a kid, you probably went on week-long family vacations that were less feature-packed than one of these parties.

It doesn’t get simpler or cheaper as they get older. I went to pick up one of my tween kids at 9 p.m. from a birthday party at a country club, winding my way toward disco lights as the deejay was leading the last chorus of “happy birthday.” I ran into a friend picking up his kid.

What is prom going to be like when they are having professionally produced birthdays at 13?” he asked, both of us gazing in amazement at hives of sequin-spangled girls in party dresses standing away from clueless boys in cargo shorts (some things never change).

We had my son’s birthday party sleepover last weekend. We ordered pizza, then they played video games and stayed up past midnight,” he said ruefully. “I thought they had a blast…” he shrugged and trailed off doubtfully, as both of us realized that we may be witnessing the creation of birthday monsters.

Our grandparents like to tell us how they had to walk miles to school in the snow, no heated buses rolling up nearby for them! Perhaps our generational marker will be how our birthday parties consisted of cake and ice cream, paper hats, and a rowdy game of pin the tail on the donkey. Maybe you got a skating party for a really good year.

We just had to go and mess with the birthday formula.

  • Tinneyr

    We just had my sons birthday this past weekend. I made a homemade cake and we roasted weenies and made s’mores by a fire. It was simple but the kids had a blast. I completely agree with your article.

  • Tina

    That sounds like great fun to me. I think there is going to be a counter-revolution in birthdays eventually, where kids will wish for the chance to roast weenies, have a genuine homemade cake and enjoy a “vintage” birthday experience. At some point the typical birthday parties seem to run together anyway. Who can tell the difference between one and another? Same cake, same pizza, same theme.

    Thanks for sharing!