We Need To Talk About Kids’ Parties: They’ve Jumped the Shark

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This post is also featured on Mamamia.

Disclaimer: I seem to start a lot of my posts with disclaimers. I’m a graduate of the behavioural sciences, so dissecting societal and cultural norms and trying to work out why we do the things we do as a society is a passion of mine, and something I’ve spent years training to do. It’s also the reason why posts like this aren’t directed at specific individuals, and certainly aren’t intended to cast judgement. However, I know from experience that people will take things personally, even when the intent is not to cause offence. I sincerely hope that is not the case.

*dons flame suit*

*takes deep breath*

 We need to talk about parties. Kid’s parties have jumped the shark.

I went to a birthday party for a five year old last weekend.

There were plastic bowls filled with corn chips and Allen’s Party Mix. The kids jumped on the trampoline and ate Cheezels off their fingers. There was a ramshackle game of musical chairs that had too many chairs and people waving their iPhones around because the host forgot the music. It took several rounds before any children were even eliminated, and they couldn’t hear the music over all the adult laughter anyway. It was a complete mess. At the end of the party there was a lopsided homemade chocolate cake with rainbow sprinkles on top.

There was no theme. Nothing matched. No-one cared.

Everyone was too busy having fun.

In this age of super-slick birthday parties it felt so exotic, yet so familiar at the same time. It felt like the long-lost parties I attended as a child, the ones where a bowl of chocolate freckles, a bottle of creaming soda, a plate of fairy bread and a sponge cake with sprinkles would elicit squeals of delight. The ones where we’d spend most of the time free-ranging in the backyard, high on sugar and running endless circles around the clothesline like hyperactive kelpies.

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It was a refreshing reminder that children don’t need lavish parties to have a good time, and it made me wonder why this trend of stage-managing our kids’ birthdays has become so widespread?

I call them “Pinterest Parties”, those tastefully styled shindigs with mason drinking jars and lolly buffets and massive fondant-covered cakes that look more like rubber props than food. They have themed party games and children’s entertainers and everything is obsessively micro-managed down to the tiniest detail; from the custom bunting down to the washi-taped paddlepop sticks and the type of twine used to tie the party bags.

Kids’ parties seem to be turning into a unique form of self-inflicted torture, with anxious mums fussing over custom cake-toppers, turning mini crossaints into crabs and making rice bubble treats in multiple shades of pink ombre. After hours spent synthesising Elsa’s “Blue-Ice Candy” with a fastidious perfectionism not seen since Walter White cooked up his last batch of blue meth, you might find them manically tying twine around everything, high on food colouring and delirious with party-preparation fatigue.

For every mum who says “I do it because I love it!”, there are others staying up until 3am to make tiny little farm animals out of fondant or carving a pirate ship out of a watermelon because they feel a sense of obligation, or the pressure to impress. It’s a lot of work for a few hours of fun: a lot of time and money spent. I’ve seen host mums spend the entire duration of their child’s party looking so tense and exhausted that the smallest gaffe or party-game malfunction threatened to unravel them. They didn’t look like they were having any fun. They looked like they wanted it to be over.

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But WHY do people do this? I don’t think there is a “one-size-fits-all” answer to that question, but I came up with a handful of factors that I think might be influencing this trend, and I would honestly be interested to hear your thoughts. Feel free to correct me. Or tell me to stick it where the rainbow cupcakes don’t shine.

Because it photographs well for social media

We aren’t really that shallow, are we? Countless blog posts, Facebook photo albums, Instagram images, professional photo shoots and Pinterest pins seem to suggest otherwise. Lots of them look more staged and styled than spontaneous.

Because we feel social pressure to conform

Little Saffron had a circus-themed party with a cast of juvenile acrobats and a mobile petting zoo. Thanks a lot, Saffron’s Mum. If I can’t compete with that then Little Hugo is going to think that I don’t love him enough and all the other parents will think I’m a sad loser cheapskate with no sense of imagination or flair.

Because we feel guilty

If there is one thing I have learnt since having children it’s that parents feel a lot of guilt, which we sometimes compensate for with material things. Here son, have a big-ass party because I love you. Don’t believe me? I just paid that awkward-looking clown $100 for two hours work so he could tie a heart-shaped balloon for you.

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Because we don’t want to disappoint our kids

I think we underestimate the capacity of children to get excited by simple things. We get the notion so firmly stuck in our over-thinking adult heads that Little Atticus simply must have a genuine cowboy experience for his 1st birthday party, when he’d much rather sit in the corner and slobber on wads of screwed up wrapping paper all afternoon.

Because kids have higher expectations than we did as children

When we were young, it was unsual for children to have a birthday party every year, and it was even more unusual to invite the entire class. Birthday parties were rare treats rather than an expectation. My four year old got invited to more parties last year than I did in my entire youth. Possibly Most likely because I am an asshole.

Help me understand, wise citizens of the internet.

Have you ever organised a themed-party for your children?

Should I do one next year? LOL.

Linking up with Essentially Jess for IBOT.

75 thoughts on “We Need To Talk About Kids’ Parties: They’ve Jumped the Shark

  1. Time to come clean – I am a theme junkie. I am also very partial to a costume party. Hence we have had far too many themed parties (but boys themes, it ain’t pinterest pretty). I now have a son who says things like this: Son: Mum, can you make me a yoda costume? For Tomorrow? Me: No. Son: Of course you can mum, I believe in you. Next party, no theme and pass the parcel will have ONE present at the end, no bits in the middle. Maybe.

    • I am utterly sure I am going to be in the minority on this one! LOL to your son. “I believe in you”. That’s a ringing endorsement right there! Your kid thinks you can pull off miracles. That’s pretty cool.

  2. Oh, thank you!! I think a lot of the themed parties are for the benefit of the adults attending. It’s that whole “look at me, I’m a great mum” thing, that just breeds guilt, which breeds pressure to have ‘perfect’ parties. The kids don’t care. Give them cake, a handful of lollies and somewhere to run around. That’s what I’m doing in 2 weeks for my daughter. I don’t have the time, I don’t have the motivation.

    • It was funny, I was SO excited by the party mix in the plastic bowls. You should have seen me elbowing all the 5 years olds out of the way so I could nab all the “strawberries and creams”. Cake, lollies and a place to burn off all that sugar.

  3. We did a theme for Miss B when she turned one. Farm animals. Cake was indeedy a fondant covered, 2 tier masterpiece with matching cupcakes. Cow print. Awesome. Decorations were themed. “activities” consisted of a mini-farm with a pony ride. Sounds excessive, right? In actuality, the cake was a labour of love and a friend and I spent a day making it all- was awesome fun. The animal farm and pony? Best couple of hundred bucks I could have spent- kids were well entertained, a hungry piglet tried to suckle my toe (hilarious) and the adults chilled out with a bbq. The birthday girl played for half an hour, snuggled up with a teenage cousin and snoozed until cake time!

    • I think I would have paid almost anything for my one year old to sleep through the whole thing. That’s my kind of party! The toe-sucking sounds, errrr, interesting but I can definitely get on board with a chilled-out barbie.

  4. Thank you for saying what I’ve been thinking for the last 6 years. Look, I conformed and felt the pressure to do some big themed fiasco for his 5th birthday – I even went as far as to have a friend DRESS UP AS BATMAN – YES I HIRED THE COSTUME! and do you know what, he doesn’t get a birthday part again until hes 10 now. That party did me in. I have a friend who does AMAZING parties for her 2 kids every year. I don’t know why, the thought of doing all that exhausts me. I guess if others want to do it, who am I to judge, but I will not feel the pressure to do it again. I’ve also seen pics of friends kids who have been to 5th and 10th birthday parties involving limo rides lately – REALLY!? I didn’t go in a limo until grade 10 formal! If only parents would realise kids don’t know or care if you spend $200 or $1000 on their party…great post. Love it. -Aroha

    • Bahahahhahaha! I am 38 years old and I have NEVER been in a limo. I need to start hanging out with 10 year olds. But yes, for those who love doing it – fantastic. I do think that socially it creates a lot of pressure for others to follow suit though, which kind of sucks for people like me who aren’t really good at that kind of thing. And that’s not to blame individual people for creating that pressure but the collective culture around parties creates higher expectations in general.

  5. I loved organising birthday parties for my kids when they were younger. We usually did the party at home with good old fashioned party games which all the kids loved because for them it was something different to all the indoor playcentre and other venue birthday parties that were happening at the time. I did have loose themes if they were requested by the child but the themeing generally only went as far as choosing the design of the paper plates, cups and serviettes.

    • As I was researching this article I actually came across a website (and I’m sure there are others) where they sold complete packages of themed invites and party accessories, right down to the smallest details. So if you wanted a “Frozen” party you could order the whole kit and kaboodle to be delivered from one place, and it actually made me realise that these kind of parties are probably so much easier to organise that I assumed, and I started to understand why a time-poor parent would think it was a fantastic thing.

  6. And then there’s the Mutually Assured Destruction of inviting other people to your party because they invited you to theirs or they were at one you went to. And suddenly every weekend for the rest of the year is clogged with parties – except they are not really parties but exercises in parental diplomacy.

    But in fairness to everyone, I’m a man so I’m not the one who organises the party. I’m just the one who puts his foot down grumpily and says WE ARE NOT HAVING ANOTHER PARTY!!!

  7. Hyperactive kelpies…hehehe. When my kids were little they always asked the entire class. I insisted even if they didn’t like some kids. We had the traditional parties with a bakery cake and fairy bread. I did hire a balloon clown once and a Shetland pony another time but that’s because I’m a teacher and was sick of organising children into games. We didn’t have social media back then so there was nobody to show the photos to.

  8. I’m such a party bah-humbug. I hate them, passionately. I now do lolly hunts so the kids have to stuff their own party bags with whatever they find, I’m that lazy. One year we put out every water device we could think of- a slipnslide mat, sprinkler on the trampoline, wading pool, water bombs, and just let them go nuts. Sat back and drank champagne. Best. Is it wrong that Pinterest parties make me want to puke ? Probably says lots about my mummy guilt… But it also says you have at least one other ‘mummy blogger’ (lol) in your camp.

    • *clinks glasses* Cheers! That water and champagne party sounds like the best thing ever. Seriously. You need to pin that! But yeah, I think I’m against them because they make me look lazy. It’s totally selfish. LOL.

  9. We did a party at a park for the 4th, then a big one for the 10th. Think I’m out till the 21st now!
    Some of the parties Bell goes to are just so over the top. 100 kids and security at an 11-year old’s party?!
    I think it’s a bit like when they’re really little and would rather play with the wrapping, than the presents at Christmas time. I’m sure most kids would really prefer some space to run and much sugar and food colouring to fuel them.
    The pressure we put on ourselves to keep up with the Jones’ these days is crazy. Think I need a breakfast champagne to even think about it 😉

  10. I am birthday-party-phobic. We’ve done McDonald’s, indoor play centres, movie nights, sleepovers. Very, very unstructured, low expectation style events. My daughter, who turns 17 on Friday is taking 7 friends out for Yum Cha for her birthday. Now that’s a party I can be on board with!

    I don’t do big family parties either. My brother’s wife used to think we were not inviting them. I had to reassure her we weren’t do anything to be invited to. Seriously, that would be 40 people if I did a family thing and it would send me into fetal rocking. Hospitality on that scale is not my gig.

    • I am dreadful at it too. We tend to do immediate family only while the boys are still so young and we can get away with not inviting lots of people. Yum Cha sounds awesome though. No prep, no clean up. Just sit back and have food served up. Perfection.

  11. I don’t have kids so am kinda like an independent witness. Or something. One of my girlfriends used to live in a mining community in Far North Qld and she said kids parties there REALLY got out of hand as everyone had a bit of cash and they all tried to ‘impress’ others.

    She told me that her son (when he was around 10 or so) had gone to a party at someone’s house where there was no jumping castle, no entertainment and not even a pool!?! I still remember she was aghast when her son said ‘And their house was old and made of wood. I’d die if I had to live like that’. (Both she & I grew up in houses far worse than that of her son’s bday party host!)

    The son of one of my closest friends here recently decided against a party for her 3yr old as she said he really didn’t know any better. A group of us went out to dinner. He had a cake at daycare and a special lunch with his grandparents. He was more than happy with that.

    • And I think this is what kind of makes me feel sad about it all – the amount of expectation it all creates, and the attitudes towards people who don’t have the means or the inclination to participate. I think kids can start taking all this excess for granted, when really, we are lucky to be living in such privileged times.

  12. I think there are people that genuinely love doing it – Maxabella springs to mind, and man does she rock an awesome kids’ party – but otherwise, you’re reading my mind. My daughter picks a loose theme each year and we make a few decorations in the weeks leading up to it, and I make a cake to match them theme. Apart from that, not much. And when I say decorations, I’m using the term loosely. Last year she had an elephant party so we painted paper plates and stuck trunks and ears on them. DECORATIONS DONE.

    • For sure, and I don’t certainly mean to cast slurs at anyone who enjoys creating this kind of event by any means, but it’s interesting to see how much more widespread it has become, and that with it has come a whole new set of expectations and cultural norms around the way we celebrate birthdays. There just seems to be so much more of it now, and I think that Ed @ Tunnel nailed it, in the sense that all the reciprocal invitations creates a situation where kids are being invited to parties every other week. It seems so Gatsby-esque!

  13. As I was reading this and nodding along I realised that I’ve written no fewer than three posts in the last year, all with a similar theme about kids parties – it doesn’t have to be like this! But if you really want to make it like that then hey, knock yourself out. But understand you’re doing it for YOU, not for your child. As you say, they’ll be happy with a bunch of sugar, a couple of games and running around with their friends. Btw, that party you went to sounds like AWESOME fun:-)

  14. Ok so I’m totally guilty of this. I just threw a huge party for bub’s first birthday. I did it for a couple of reasons – I wanted it to be different to other kids parties, I wanted to make great memories for her when shes older (I guess through photos cos shes hardly going to remember her 1st birthday party) and I wanted to give her something I never had. I did a lot of the stuff myself which was a mixture of fun and exhausting but I think it all turned out great. I think next year I’ll go the basic route though or maybe not have a party at all. We had 20 kids this year (8 more couldn’t come) and it was just too many in my mum’s garage and we have hardly any space at our townhouse so next year its a park or nothing (or a really small party).

    • See, I think it’s really sweet that you wanted to give your daughter something you never had, so thank you for sharing that because it’s something I hadn’t actually thought of. I’m sure there were lots of people who as kids never got to experience things like that, so it’s natural I think to want to do that for our children. I know I was all down on the lolly jar buffet but those jellybeans are talking to me. LOL.

  15. I did a half arsed themed party this year. By half arsed I mean that I just got monster truck plastic shit from ebay and threw it around my backyard. Kids thought it was awesome. It took me all of about 20 minutes to set up. I made a cake with monster trucks on top. I thought it looked a bit dodgy, kids thought it was awesome. Plus it tasted good. They didn’t give a shit about pinterest.

    • For some reason I read this as “got a whole bunch of monster truck shit and threw them at the kids in the backyard”. I do – and will not apologise for this – have an irrational dislike of toys on cakes though. I cannot deal with that! It just grosses me out. LOL.

  16. I love a good themed party. As a SAHM mum I love the opportunity for a mini-project and I love the ideas you get from Pinterest. I still do it on a budget and combine it with the best of the old-school parties and enjoy every minute of the prep and the party. I don’ think a themed party has to be a stressful, over-priced, impersonal, ‘only for looks’ kind of thing.

    • That’s true – I did focus on the stressful, expensive aspect but you are right, it is very possible to look champagne on a beer budget! I actually noticed some really cost-effective options on Etsy and eBay.

  17. Oh I agree with you here, who seriously has the time? I like my sleep too much! My boy is turning one in a couple of weeks, I made an effort making the invites but as far as the party goes I’ve bought chalk as entertainment for the kids to go nuts with on the pavers and plan on serving party pies and anything else I can just throw in the oven!! The kids have so much fun whenever they are together anyway regardless of how pretty it looks! 🙂

  18. I think it’s not just kids parties, it’s all parties in general like baby showers and weddings. Pinterest has a lot to answer for I reckon. I did a frozen party for Esther when she turned 4 and not everything turned out how I thought but that was fine. The kids didn’t notice. I find themes easy. But yes there are parties that go over the top.

  19. Spending a 1000 smackers for a kids 1st bday is a bit much. I actually have heard of this happening. I made a Buzz Lightyear’s belt cake for my boy this year. It looked like an aliens eye but he loved it and its what he asked for. Doubled with some steamers and toy story balloons we had a lovely soiree with the fam for #3. Im not over the top with all this sort of stuff, I’m a pin the tail on the donkey kinda kids party girl, but I must say i do look fwd to the day when I get to do a proper themed party for a gaggle of school kids invited to my kids bday. I won’t be paying 10004 for it though, i assure you.

  20. I’m so torn. I think if I was the creative type I would be going hell for leather on putting together a beautifully styled Frozen party. Party-planning definitely is fun. (I’m not creative though, so that’s never going to happen) I think that it can be all a little too much for kids sometimes. My girls at any rate get a little overwhelmed and overstimulated when their birthdays are made into a huge deal. We prefer to do things a little more low key. We have had loose themes for our daughters’ birthdays. One year we had a peppa party where I made a peppa cake and I printed some peppa pics off the net. That’s as far as I go really. I really love putting the effort into the cake (even though I suck at it and it looks horrible) because my mum used to make amazing women’s weekly cakes for me and I still love looking back at the pics. Meanwhile, next year I’ll probably do a Frozen party because I secretly want one for myself. Visiting via #teamIBOT

    • It’s strange, I thought I’d come across a lot more Peppa Pig parties as I was trawling Pinterest for this piece. Frozen parties are HUGE though, and I saw so many amazing ideas that I could never in a million years come up with myself. I definitely lack that type of creativity too. It’s quite incredible how much that film has captured people’s imaginations, to be honest. I might even have to watch it myself one day. Research purposes, of course 😉

  21. My sons first birthday was very loosely related to a teddy bears picnic with the theme only going as far as having one teddy bear, a teddy bear cake I made which looked like he had been sunbaking for too long and some teddy stickers on the gift bags. I’m all for simple parties and I’m very much against having birthday parties for every birthday.Where’s the fun and surprise in that? I must admit I enjoy making the cakes because it’s something my mum did for my sisters and I and I have very fond memories. My mum even bought me the same cook book so I could make the same cakes for my kids.

    • I really wish I enjoyed making cakes, because I LOVE cakes. Actually, it’s probably a good thing that I don’t… Mine always ended up with the sun-baked look as well (aka burnt). The party-every-year thing is definitely new. My memory is not great but I am certain that was not an expectation when we were kids. That has definitely changed, I think.

  22. I don’t get the themed parties and totally love your post! Sure, I don’t have kids but when I hear about how much people spend on kids’ birthdays, I’m so glad I don’t have any of my own! I can’t even begin to imagine what their 18th and 21st birthdays are going to be like if their 4th or 5th birthday is so damn extravagant. I remember the best parties when I was a kid were the ones where you had good food, fun games and cake!!

    • Pretty sure at this rate it will require tickets on one of Richard Branson’s spacecraft for the 21st birthday, if the 10 year olds are already riding in limos! (as per one of the earlier comments)

  23. My kids got one special, themed party at home when they were growing up. Mr 20 had a pirate party when he was 5; Miss 17 had a fairytale party at age 6. Both were amazing, made great memories, and were a lot of work. That’s why they only happened ONCE! They had other parties, eg 10 pin bowling or whatever, but ones that didn’t leave us as the parents about to collapse from nervous exhaustion 😉

    • C’mon now, “nervous exhaustion” is a GREAT theme for a party! You could hire in masseurs who serve all the adults “healthy” err, green cocktails with lots of spirulina and vodka.

  24. Haha this is the best post.

    I went all out with Alby’s first birthday party. Circus theme. Full blown Pinterest-induced paranoia escalated quickly as I attempted to put together the ultimate party complete with drink stands (that remain untouched), party favours that cost me more than what I spent on Alby’s presents and an assortment of carnival-inspired food…which went down a treat but also resulted in us remortgaging the house to afford to feed the masses.

    This year, his birthday celebrations consist of a barbecue with family in the local park. No games, no lolly bags…nothin’. The kids will be lucky to get a sniff of a sherbet bomb and swig of pub squash. The best part? They’ll think that’s shit hot! And Alby might even remember this one, a little, unlike his first year Instamum try-hard atrocity!

  25. Nail. On. The. Head! Kids birthday parties for me are about getting together our group of friends, in the afternoon for lots of booze and food and good laughs. Kids can run around and do what they want. Put some music on, make them dance. Maybe a pass the parcel – but with only one winner. A good cake, not a perfect one. Party for the kid should be about having fun with their friends. All the other stuff is just too much hard work!

  26. I totally get this too. We are NOT party perfectionists – exactly the opposite probably, and even looking at Pinterest Parties on Pinterest make me stressed. I am not that sort of parent – rather the parent who invites every friend we know to the lake, blends some hommus and makes a potato salad the morning of, forgets the tongs for the barbie etc. Spontaneous impromptu FUN. But I am a sucker for taking photos of things that look nice, or trying to get an Instagram shot out of a pretty arrangement. I am sure it’s annoying for my kids and husband.

  27. When I was 6, I wanted a party themed around the Mongols invasion of Korea in the mid-13th century. I would dress up as King Gojong and the other kids would be the invading Mongolian horde. My Mum used the excuse that she wasn’t going to make 36 little Ogedei Khan outfit or make horse milk yoghurt. Bitch!

  28. We did a Buzz Lightyear theme this uear however that just involved a silver plastic tablecloth and lime green and purple plastic bowls. Our party was at the park so everything was just plknked on a park table and it looked lile a disaster zone. We didn’t do games becaise PARK. It was the wasiest party ever to hpst amd still a pain in the arse. (I hate hosting anything). The cake was buzz theme but sooooo simple. I ordered a roind iced bitter cake from balery amd plonled a small bizz toy on top with some green and purple fondant stars and his name. Easiesy cake experiwnce EVER!!!!

  29. Its taken me a couple of years and much pain to realize that all little kids want is their friends and a bit of junk food. Throw in a couple of simple games and you’re set. Meanwhile in this part of Sydney there’s a certain demographic that goes crazy. I have heard of black tie events with wait staff for teenagers.

  30. I did theme parties for my kids when they were younger, to begin with it was the time before Pinterest and other social media and having we would always tie a theme into their favourite thing.

    The last ‘theme’ party we hosted was a harajuku party for a teenagers party – it was a lot of fun – the cake just had coloured feathers stuck around the edde, pretty low key but looked very effective.

  31. I am stressing over organising a party for my soon to be 3 year olds. Why? I actually have no idea! I am guilty of feeling the pressure, especially as we are invited to every elaborate party under the sun. I’m hoping I come up with a cheap, stress-free solution soon (like no party!)

  32. I must confess that I did do themed 1st birthdays for both my kids. However I don’t intend to do them another birthday party to that scale until they are in school (at least). I figured that the 1st birthday was a bit of a milestone, after that since they won’t even remember it until they are older I am going to refrain. Just little family do’s with a simple cake and meal for now

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