My mother often tells the story of my first birthday party, which took about as long to plan as the gathering lasted. It included a homemade sheet cake. As my parents were ready to sing "Happy Birthday," my mother went outside and invited all of the neighborhood kids who were within listening distance as she called out the invitation.
When Bill Doherty, a family therapist and professor at University of Minnesota, was researching overscheduled kids about 10 years ago, parents complained that "birthday parties are becoming out of hand."
Talk to parents of school-age children, and they'll tell you about the pressure and expense of the birthday circuit. Besides soccer, dance and violin lessons, children also have invitations to birthday parties several weekends out of the year.
Doherty said that examples of extravagant parties were easy to find. In one Minnesota town, the parents of the birthday girl rented a bar for a princess-themed party. Guests were picked up in limos. The parents wore tuxedos and formal gowns. There was live music and champagne for adults.
And the birthday girl was turning 4.
When talking with parents, Doherty said, it is clear how sensitive an issue this is. "Birthday parties are embedded in local culture. There is pressure to meet those norms. It is embedded in human nature and not wanting to disappoint the child."
According to Doherty, parents don't want to send the message that their kid isn't as important as other children, so they feel pressure to go all-out to provide the experience of a lifetime -- every year. But, he says, it doesn't have to be this way. He and a team created alternatives based on parents' real experiences; the goal was to offer options that actual parents find successful
Doherty suggests starting with what your values are. "Don't start with what everyone else is doing. Give yourself permission to have low-key parties."
According to Doherty, the average child celebrates his birthday with three or four events each year, including parties with nuclear family, extended family, friends and neighbors, and school. "Eliminating one of them wouldn't be the end of the world."
Another suggestion: nix the goody bags. "So often, you come home with a gift bag, and it is full of plastic little things that are going to end up all over your house. Junk that you don't want, they don't need and they've lost by the next day," said Kathy Williams, a mother of three in Annapolis, Maryland.
"Talk to parents in the party circuit to negotiate a mutual disarmament," Doherty suggested. When it comes to the party favors, "most parents don't like them. They are an extra expense, and you throw the junk out anyway."
The challenge is being the family to go first. "Parents don't want to disappoint or cause bad feelings."
One of the biggest challenges Williams faces when planning parties for her children, Cora, Megan and Rex, is how to limit the guest list. "I want to have it intimate enough where my children can spend time with their closest friends, but it is so hard because at school the kids are talking about their birthday parties and somebody is going to get left out, and then there is hard feelings. It is difficult. I don't know what the magic number is or where to draw the line."
"Lead with your values on these decisions, not with money," Doherty said. Even with families who have more resources they can dedicate to a party, there can be unintended consequences for throwing a big birthday bash. "The risk is sending a message to your child that they are more special than anyone else."
When Williams plans her parties, she has one ultimate goal: "I hope my kids enjoy their time with friends and family. That's the most important thing."
5 tips to reduce stress around birthday gifts
1. Ask grandparents and family members to give no more than one gift. If they feel they need to give more, ask them to donate $10 to the birthday child's college savings account.
2. Ask for no gifts and suggest that invitees bring a canned food item to give to the local food pantry.
3. Ask invitees to bring their favorite new or used book to donate to a local library or shelter, or have all the invitees exchange books at the party.
4. Have the birthday child write thank-you notes before playing with any of the newly received gifts.
5. Make a fancy homemade certificate giving the birthday child the gift of a special outing with a parent, such as to a museum, science center, sledding, beach day, camping, etc.
List adapted from "Birthdays Without Pressure," University of Minnesota.