Alternatives to Pricey Kids' Birthday Parties

A new movement to return to simpler traditions is gaining ground.

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For some parents, planning their child's birthday party has become as complicated as hosting a formal state dinner. Standard fare now includes goodie bags, paid entertainment such as a musician or clown, and even commercial venues, such as the local Gymboree. No wonder some parents are deciding that they've had enough.

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For Julie Printz, an information technology professional in St. Paul, Minn., and mother of two, the moment of clarity came as she planned her then-kindergartener's birthday party. She felt like she needed a theme (preferably one that no other child had used in the past two years), gift bags, a crafty activity, games, and matching napkins, plates, decorations, and invitations. She settled on a tea party theme, spent more than $100 on supplies at the local party store, and splurged on gift bags worth at least $15 each.

But she didn't enjoy any of it. "The whole time I was feeling badly about it, because it was costing us a fortune," Printz says. She even hid the cost from her husband because it wasn't in the family budget. And she realized that she was inadvertently perpetuating the pressure on other parents by setting such high expectations.

After talking about her experience with fellow parents, Printz connected with Bill Doherty, a professor at the University of Minnesota who studies the impact of consumer culture on family life. Along with other parents, they formed Birthdays Without Pressure, a group that helps parents find alternatives to over-the-top birthday parties.

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"I was hearing from more parents about parties getting out of control," says Doherty. The cause of the pressure, he says, is hard to pinpoint, but he attributes it to the fact that today's generation of parents is focused on making their children feel special, loved, and as he puts it, like they're "the center of the world." In today's consumer culture, he adds, "The way you show children how special they are is by buying more for them."

The birthday parties trend reflects a broader shift in parenting culture, says Marguerite Kelly, co-author of the classic parenting text, The Mother's Almanac, and a parenting columnist for over three decades. "Parents feel more pressure with just about everything they do than they used to," she says, partly because parents have fewer children than they used to, so they give more attention to each one.

Parents looking for alternatives to over-the-top parties can consider these five strategies:

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1. Put the focus on creativity. Kelly, the mother of four now-grown children, focused on making custom cakes for her children's birthday parties, based on their interests, such as space ships. "You can make a cake anything you want to say it is, and children will believe it," she says, adding that the end result need not look professional. Cookies can serve as wheels, and candy as the decoration, which can then turn into the party favor, she says.

2. Reflect on your own childhood. "I remember feeling special and being surrounded by people who cared about me," says Printz. That's the kind of mood she now tries to create for her own children.

3. Make a deal with other parents. "We don't parent in a vacuum, we parent in a community," says Printz. As she discovered when she raised the subject with her friends that are parents, other people felt similar birthday party pressure and wanted to do something to reduce that stress.

Doherty says one of the most successful parties he heard about involved a group of parents jointly throwing a party for their children in the local park, with no presents and lots of games. "The kids had the best time," he says.

4. Create new rituals. Kelly suggests playing lively music during the first half hour of the party to help the children relax when they first arrive. Also, she says, simple games such as throwing pennies in a wastebasket or pinning the tail on the donkey can work just as well as more elaborate games. The Birthdays Without Pressure website offers other ideas, such as asking the birthday girl or boy to plan the family meal, or going on a special outing with a parent every year.