I woke up early today, in the mood for an adventure.
It is a Sunday, mid-May, and the biting New England winter has finally retracted its fangs. I’ve just discovered that the unshapely, leafless monstrosity in the front yard of our new home, purchased in winter, is a lilac bush. And nearby, lily of the valley spring delicate white bells from their centers. I couldn’t be more pleased with having moved to a place where two of my favorite scents are already growing wild and plentiful, and it’s primed me for a great day.
I could take the kids to Montreal, a short drive from our home. I could drive them to the nearby Green Mountains. I could ferry our car across Lake Champlain and explore the quaint little city of Plattsburgh on the other side. I could drive until we feel lost, as my grandmother used to do with me and my brother as a way of getting us out of our routines and out of the house.
But I won’t be doing any of those things because today we are scheduled to attend another birthday party for one of my son’s classmates. The boy is turning seven. The invitation says the party runs from 2:30 to 8:00 p.m., which I’m hoping is a typo.
Our whole day will revolve around this event, though my son and the birthday boy have never visited each other outside of school. I will wrap a gift for this child, whose parents’ names I can barely recall. (The mom’s is something with an A, I’m certain. Amanda? Ashley? I’ve got no guesses at the dad’s name, and thus plan to avoid speaking to him or greeting him with a “Hey, you!” which creates an unwarranted intimacy.)
I will ensure my son doesn’t overdo it with physical activity during the first half of the day so as to prevent a hideous meltdown during the hours of bowling, laser tag, arcade playing, and sugar-binging that will ensue this afternoon.
The party invitation says that the birthday boy wants everyone to wear their favorite super hero costume, a fine-print detail that I failed to read when I RSVP’d a week ago, but which my son now insists—mere hours before we are to arrive—is non-negotiable. What fun! Thanks for that, kid!
Unfortunately, all I’ve got on hand are a size 3T Superman outfit for his size 7 body, a toddler-sized Buzz Lightyear get-up, and last year’s red ninja outfit, which my son has made clear will not cut it. After a tearful outburst, I assure my son that mommy can sew (hello, home-ec class 22 years ago). We resolve to make a makeshift cape and mask by hand, because I’m not about to run out to the store for a $30 costume. I refuse.
I feel comfortable dropping my son off for this party because he is independent and responsible for his age. But before I commit to that decision, I will have to take the parental temperature of the party. Are other parents dropping their kids off, or are they sticking around like flies?
Will they feel like they have to babysit my son if I choose not to stay? Will they see me as irresponsible, or as a freeloader? Are there other solo parents, like me, who typically care for their kids alone on weekends, and therefore have no place to stash younger, cake-fiend siblings during the party? We shall see.
I protest these parties for a few core reasons. First, the cost. The parties aren’t cheap to put on and every time another kid has an expensive, themed birthday party with fancy loot to boot, my kid wants one for his birthday and I become the bad parent who doesn’t love him enough to give him the party of his dreams.
Second, the celebration seems insincere. I want to make my son feel loved and special on his birthday, too, but a room full of semi-strangers doesn’t qualify, in my opinion.
Third, small talk. Oh, the small talk you will make at these parties. I find it really disingenuous to be welcomed into conversation by parents who I regularly see at drop off and pick up who have never gone out of their way to speak to me then. Will we be friends now? I wonder after these birthday parties. I’ve learned that mostly, we won’t be. Mostly, we don’t have much in common other than same-aged kids. And that’s okay.
It’s for the kids, you might be thinking. It’s not about you. You’re being selfish. I agree, it is for the kids. But do the kids need to be made to feel like little kings and queens? I would argue that these no-holds-barred parties contribute to the more worrisome qualities of today’s youth—a sense of entitlement, a “more is more” attitude, a self-validating superficial social network.
I don’t want that for my kid, and I don’t want that for yours.
I propose that we stop the lavish parties. That we cull back the invite list to a handful of friends—some number of kids a parent or two can comfortably supervise without asking all the other parents to stick around and give up their coveted weekends in exchange for awkward small talk.
That we focus on honoring our growing little ones without dipping into our savings accounts, without meltdown-inducing stimulation and diabetic blood sugar levels. That we create meaningful interaction between party-goers, rather than resentment and one-upmanship.
These parties create a difficult parenting dilemma: do I cling to my beliefs at the expense of my son’s social well-being? I shouldn’t have to make this decision. I don’t want him to feel left out, or worse, punished, by not allowing him to go to the party.
But I also don’t want him to get the wrong message and I refuse to give him a similar party for his upcoming birthday.
How can I teach my kid what’s important when other parents are handing out expensive gift bags stuffed with Star Wars swag? How can I convince him that my simple homemade yellow cake and buttercream frosting is just as good as the hundred-dollar themed cake in the shape of Darth Vader’s head he enjoyed at his friend’s party? How can I make him feel loved on his birthday when he’s equating love with the size and scope of the party?
Parents, hear me: Let’s find another way.