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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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Thanks for Sharing Its Very informative for me

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Angela Bauer

Friday 20th of May 2016

This post is written in a way that sounds ungrateful. Although I don't disagree with your points, your verbiage is harsh. These are statements which I find very harsh/ungrateful: 1. 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). (This seems like your children are the victim of you not allowing them to be included to their friends' parties but you haven't said why your friends' kids are within limits. And it seems ungrateful. As a child, I have many fond memories of bowling and pool parties that I loved. I’m glad my mother didn’t systematically rule out my attendance simply because she was not up to date with the who’s who in the class/social group from which the kids are in together. That may sound harsh, but without more explanation that is what comes to mind.) 2. ...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. (This is an ungrateful way to categorize items given/received. While I agree that some of this may be unnecessary, this is really harsh language. Don't forget sometimes children value things that adults find insignificant - doesn't it make you sad when they prefer a small toy that is under $5 over something more expensive like a $60 lego set? Kids are creative and curious and don't see things the ways adults do. A friend's childs' most favorite toys are the plastic cheap zoo animal figurines - but he has more expensive things like Leapad and other games that he chooses the cheap zoo animal figurines toys over because he loves animals. I think you should reconsider rephrasing cheap and wasteful décor to something like “decorations that are made to be disposable and were intended to be used once,” and rephrase the junky toys comment). 3. 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. (Summarizing most of children's gifts as cheap, plastic piece of junk is again ungrateful and hurtful language. Not everything that is low cost is junk.) 4. 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. (Birthday parties aren't only about presents. Get over it. Sheesh. Have you ever heard of kids that have huge charitable hearts and ask that their friends bring donations for xyz charity, and then on the party day, sing happy birthday, eat cake, and bring donations with for a charity visit? This is really common for animal shelters, but I imagine not uncommon for other charities as well).

I hope you take this as constructive criticism. I felt this was very harshly written and not your best piece.

Jen

Saturday 21st of May 2016

Hi Angela,

Thanks for your constructive feedback. I appreciate the perspective.

Regarding the nature of the gifts, I should have been more clear. By cheap, I don't mean price point (not at all in fact), though I certainly understand how it could be interpreted that way. I agree with you entirely that price doesn't correlate to quality or meaningfulness. Instead, I mean poorly made items that are constructed with low quality materials in unethical supply chains (which most toys from traditional big box stores toys come from). We buy these occasionally for our boys as I know they really appreciate some of them, but they also break quickly and (for our kids) don't provide as much entertainment as even simple things like pots and pans from our kitchen, which our boys use as toys for hours on end. I think inexpensive toys, when thoughtful, are absolutely perfect. For example, we recently bought our son a box of crayons and a coloring book along with a couple small books for his birthday. All were less than $5 a piece, but these are not the types of "cheap toys" to which I'm referring in my post. In addition to two second hand shirts and a secondhand pair of pants, that was his full birthday gift collection. Hopefully that clarifies my previously vague description. Also, last year, I gave my niece (who lives far away) a $5 gift card to go buy a "fancy" cupcake for her birthday, again not expensive but avoiding the poor quality toys I don't like to support and something I know she really liked. Hopefully that clarifies that I definitely don't judge a gift by its price point.

Regarding my kids being victims of not allowing them to be included in their friends' activities, I think it's important to be thoughtful about how we commit our time (as it's really easily to be overscheduled and overcommitted). We attend parties for and set up play dates with the kids my boys talk about regularly as their friends. I agree it's really fun for kids to get together for these types of occasions outside of school. But I don't know that it's necessary (for our family) to attend every party when invitations are sent out to the entire class just to be fully inclusive. While I don't want my children to feel left out of everything, I also don't want my children to feel like they "get to do everything" or "have to do everything" (as they could feel either way about this, depending on the activity). While I'm certainly not implying this is true for everyone who says 'yes' to all birthday parties, saying 'yes' to too many things could lead to a child that's very overscheduled, which I think can be just as detrimental. Sometimes we have to make choices. For this particular birthday that we chose not to attend, we implicity decided to say 'yes' to spending that time in another way as a family. For my boys, when their Dad has been traveling for work for nearly a month, I think spending that time with him is more meaningful that spending it with a distant friend from school (who they're already seeing every day). But again, this could be different under different circumstances for other families.

With respect to the birthday parties being about more than gifts, I couldn't agree more. I've never heard of the charity kid's birthday party, and I think that's awesome. To be honest, if I got an invitation for a charity party, I'd donate to the charity regardless of whether we attend. That's phenomenal for a child to be thinking so generously at a young age. I still think it's a separate decision regarding how to spend the time (i.e. to attend or not), but supporting the charity of the child's heart would be really great. In fact, I think I might encourage my children to do that! It would not only be such a great lesson to teach my boys, but also a more productive way to address the "gift" aspect that I don't particularly care for. So.. thanks for sharing. This is really a fantastic suggestion that I hope to use in the future.

Thanks again for your very thoughtful and constructive feedback. I appreciate your thoughts, hope I've provided some clarity on my intentions, and do recognize that not everyone will feel the same way.

Jen

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