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Simplifying Life: Battling The Birthday Party Dilemma

Torn about how elaborately to celebrate your little one's birthday? Click through for a case about why it's better, though not always easy, to keep it simple.

Ugh… kid’s birthday parties. In some ways, I don’t mind them. But I also kinda, sorta hate them.

Our boys are 2 and almost 4. Up until recently, we’ve generally steered clear of little kiddo birthday parties but for a few for children of our friends (which we didn’t mind attending at all). We also haven’t hosted any parties yet. But that’s all changing quickly.

I’m not a party pooper (though no one would say I’m the life of the party, admittedly), but I think kid’s birthday parties create a lot of stress. And when the child is too young to know the difference, that feels like a lot of unnecessary stress to me. My motto ~ The boys can have birthday parties when they’re old enough to ask for them. Until then, we’ll stick to an intimate and minimal celebration with our family comprised of a few small gifts, fun dessert (because I do enjoy the baking part), and making a big deal out of the birthday boy for a day.

Torn about how elaborately to celebrate your little one's birthday? Click through for a case about why it's better, though not always easy, to keep it simple.

No Birthday Parties For Our Boys Yet

We’ve avoided hosting birthday parties for our boys thus far for myriad reasons. Not only can it be expensive, but the costs often are incurred for cheap and wasteful decor, unwanted party favors, and junky toys the child plays with only a few times before relegating to the bottom of the toy box.

For some, planning and throwing the party generate all sorts of creative energy, but that’s not really my style. Determining a guest list without hurting feelings or being “overly inclusive”, finding the right location, planning all the details, and managing RSVPs (not to mention anticipating who actually shows up) feels like a lot of work. Taking that on by choice for myself (because my little one doesn’t yet know the difference) seems downright crazy to me. Aren’t we all over-scheduled already?

My biggest hang up, beyond the hassle, is the ‘present problem.’ My boys have plenty of toys. Not only do I not want to encourage more excess consumption of crap cheap toys, but I don’t want to place the burden of gift buying on others when my boys just don’t need anything more. The ‘no presents, just your presence please’ request is a great guideline and one I always follow when it’s on the invitation. But there’s always the crowd who don’t follow protocol, making the rest of us ‘rule-abiders’ look bad.

I don’t lose sleep over following the host’s requests for no gifts, but c’mon gift givers?! Let’s not make this more complicated than it already is.

Speaking of sleep, a handful of parties to which we’ve been invited recently have been scheduled for a couple hours shortly after lunch … right in the middle of nap time. This seems so odd to me. Why are we having a party for a bunch of toddlers or preschoolers right when they would normally be resting? It sounds like a formula for disaster (and most likely it becomes one just after the party ends), especially after we’ve overloaded their little systems with boatloads of heavily processed sugars and sweets.

Torn about how elaborately to celebrate your little one's birthday? Click through for a case about why it's better, though not always easy, to keep it simple.

Attending Is No Walk in the Park

Hosting the party obviously presents it’s own (and much larger) set of hassles. But being a guest at these parties isn’t always a piece of cake either.

Do I bring a gift? If so, what do I buy? As someone who refuses on principal to buy a cheap, plastic piece of junk, I have to get creative. The toy aisle at the big box store may be the easy path, but it’s not one I’m willing to choose (so maybe that’s my own fault.)

Update: Thanks to a reader comment, it was noted that I wasn’t entirely clear using the word ‘cheap.’ By this, I don’t mean to imply gifts should be judged by the price point. I have quite the opposite opinion on that, in fact. Instead, I want to focus on the quality of the gift both intrinsically (well-made and responsibly produced) and its relevance to the guest of honor (is it something they truly would enjoy and is thoughtful for them specifically). 

Further, do I want to spend a significant portion of my precious weekend at someone else’s birthday party? If I’m spending the time with friends whose child happens to be the guest of honor, I’m in. Update: A reader also noted it’s important to consider how close the child is to that child, and I agree as well. If it’s a close friend of our boys, we’ll surely make an effort to attend. The birthday party definitely isn’t about us, but attendance is about what is best for our family overall (including the boys). But what about the invitation from the classmate who invited the whole class and whose family we don’t really even know? I generally avoid making commitments out of obligation, as I feel saying ‘no’ to things is key to a manageable life. Consciously editing our lives is really important.

But who wants to be the parent that didn’t show up to the birthday party where everyone else also chose not to attend for their own selfish reasons? I recall this article from Jennifer of Champagne Supernova, and I couldn’t agree more that I don’t want to be a contributor to a sad “birthday party” with no guests solely because I lacked enough interest to show up.

So many questions to which I don’t know the answers… and it’s only a little kid’s birthday party?!

For the last (almost) four years, we’ve attended only a few birthday parties, all of which were comfortable and casual affairs. In fact, I recall complimenting one mom on the grace and simplicity with which she hosted her party. She invited a few friends and their children to casually mingle in a low-key space, sharing a few snacks and leaving out some simple toys, crayons and coloring books for kids to use. She scheduled the party between meals (and after naptime!) and served pretzels and crackers along with a homemade, unfrosted blueberry cake to eat after singing Happy Birthday. (Eventually my boys will ask for birthday parties, and I’ll be modeling their parties after hers.)

Recently, we received a handful of birthday invitations. The first couple fit into our schedule without much ado, so we accepted the invites happily.

But the most recent invite made me pause. Technically, we’ll be around and physically able to attend. But it’s smack dab in the middle of a ton of other, much larger commitments and travel plans for our family. That Saturday afternoon (right in the middle of naptime, no less) when this birthday party takes place is one of our only meaningful blocks of time to regroup and spend time together as a family.

Leading up to and following the party, M spends over a month on the road for work, we travel to San Diego to visit family and run a half marathon in support of my mom, and I have a few business trips of my own. That’s all layered on top of three family trips to Philadelphia to look for a new home as we prepare to leave Chicago and relocate our family to the suburbs of Philadelphia in a handful of weeks.

As I weighed the options to attend out of obligation (to respect the guest of honor) or politely decline in favor of our own peace of mind, I ultimately chose the latter. Most of the time, saying ‘no’ is the right answer. But when a child’s feeling are on the line because attendance at her birthday party could be less than stellar, the scale may shift. With everything else on our plate though, I made the selfish choice this time.

I think it’s the right choice for our family, but I also feel a bit guilty turning down the invite when I could actually make it work. While my decision is not a reflection of the little girl being celebrated, I just don’t want to make it work. It feels like too much.

It’s Just a Birthday Party But Represents Much More

For me, battling the kid’s birthday party dilemma exemplifies the challenge of keeping life simple. It seems odd, but striving for simplicity gets complicated. It goes against the grain of everyday societal expectations.

We live in a culture where the inclination is to always say ‘yes’. Yes is often the easy answer, until execution on all those ‘yeses’ adds up and becomes overwhelming. Saying ‘no’ to opportunities and invitations feels initially like fighting the inertia of following the status quo, of always saying ‘yes’.

I recognize that I’m lucky to have options and excess. I appreciate that the weight of excess is a far cry from the burden of scarcity. But that doesn’t mean I should say ‘yes’ to everything just because the opportunities present themselves.

I definitely don’t have all the answers. But I think I’ll ultimately be glad I squashed the issue early in exchange for a little downtime on that fateful afternoon of the upcoming birthday party.

Torn about how elaborately to celebrate your little one's birthday? Click through for a case about why it's better, though not always easy, to keep it simple.

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