Sep 13, 2012

The Meaning of Kids' Birthday Parties

Last weekend my kids went to a birthday party. Like all kids they were excited about it and the coming party infused the whole preceding week with excitement.

As at every party, there were highs and lows, but overall the kids enjoyed it immensely.

I find children's birthday parties fascinating. My kids have been to parties before where they seemed overwhelmed with it all from start to finish - scraps with other kids over time with the birthday girl, scrapes and bruises from accidents on play equipment, grumpiness over not winning a coveted prize, tears from feelings of exclusion, alternating with moments of excitement and joy.

As a parent you watch all this and cannot believe the kids actually enjoy it. Yet after it's all done and they're riding home in the car eating lollies and talking excitedly, you ask if they had a good time and it's always "YES!"

So what "purpose" do children's birthday parties serve? What benefit do they give children?

I think it's these things:

  • They are a milestone marker. All cultures have ways to mark rites of passage in a child's life and mark him/her as "older".
  • They allow parents to bestow love and fuss on their children 
  • They allow children to congregate and socialize together, which is vital for them
  • The games teach children valuable socialization lessons: getting along, competing, being a good sport, playing by the rules, winning and losing gracefully - even, I think, life lessons in accepting rigged games
  • They allow kids to be energetic, loud and a little wild, things they can't usually be at home
  • They are an outlet for all the emotions: your kid during the course of the party will likely experience excitement, shyness, happiness, jealousy, joy, disappointment, fear, sadness, relief and more, all in a couple of tumultuous hours
  • They allow kids to try new things. Shy kids are coaxed to join in, nervous kids are encouraged on the big slide, children are helped to meet kids they don't know and encouraged to see the bright side when things don't go their way 
  • They strengthen the child's protective circle by allowing the adult friends and family members to mingle and consolidate their relationships

What about all the criticisms leveled at today's kids' parties, that they are overdone and parents are too competitive and everyone is running around fainting with anxiety about sparing the feelings of all the children?

Competitive Parties

It probably depends where you live, but I haven't experienced this. Most sensible parents try to reign in the expense, happily do the traditional home party for little kids, and don't spend a fortune on "goody bags" or entertainers or gifts for other parties.  However there are 3 factors at play here, that lead to more expense and more catering over time:

  1. These days both parents usually work, so planning and executing a stay-home party is not nearly as easy as it used to be
  2. Even if you have the party at home, at a certain point once you've factored in the food, drinks, games prizes and lollybags, once you hit a certain number of kids it is not much more expensive to do the party at a venue
  3. There are more and more party options available, so your child attends parties and is exposed to more and more cool venues and entertainers, making them less and less keen on Musical Chairs in the loungeroom and Statues in the backyard. That's not parents "competing", it's just evolution.

Pass The Parcel

Pass the Parcel is the lightening rod for modern complaints about over-the-top children's parties and mollycoddled kids. It's a rare occasion that today's child-rearing is discussed without a complaint about Pass the Parcel and how "these days every kid has to get a prize".

Blah blah blah.

OK, there IS a little something in every layer and every kid does get a turn, but the main prize is still at the end, and is still the most special.  Plus, Pass The Parcel has always been rigged. When I was a kid the usual way was to have a few small prizes in some of the layers (not usually all), and it was a given that the birthday child would never win the main prize. Every kid got a turn to unwrap a layer, as they do now. At some parties, every layer had a prize, as now.

I will say, for the parent running the birthday party, Pass the Parcel is a bastard to execute. You need to have the right number of layers, and enough little generic gifts, to make the job as easy as possible (don't try and alternate "boy" gifts and "girl" gifts). If people don't RSVP or don't turn up, you will have too few or too many layers necessitating a quick count and desperate dash to the bedroom to whip off/add layers before starting the game. You need help from other parents to ensure each child only unwraps one layer, and the discarded newspaper layers don't clutter up the floor and cause confusion. You will have every parent watching and making little anxious comments every now and then pretending they are not watching hawk-eyed to make sure their kid gets their turn. And then you have to carefully stop the music at the right child each time - though after some time the kids will start to help, as they all know it's rigged and they all keep track of who hasn't had a turn. It's a strange game - a mutually maintained fiction between parents and children where no one admits that everyone knows what's going on.

Lolly Bags

When I was a kid, your lolly bag included a piece of birthday cake and lollies, and you were sometimes handed a balloon on a string on your way out.  Now the kids eat the cake at the party, and the lolly bag contains lollies, an un-blown-up balloon and a couple of trinket toys that probably cost less than the lollies. Same difference really. Like Pass the Parcel, today's "goody bags" often attract criticism along the lines of "these days every kid has to get a gift" but the reality is the "gift" is a plastic ring and a mini water pistol, so it's not a big deal.

In fact when I was a kid our lolly bags used to sometimes contain this stuff too - I have dim memories of super bouncy balls and those little mini plastic men with parachutes attached to them.

So I think what I'm saying is, parties like everything have evolved from what they were in 1975, but they still have the same meaning and serve the same purpose in a child's life as they ever did.

Kids' parties. Love em or hate em?


  1. Timely! I have a child turning 10 this month. We both work. She can't make up her mind.... it is a nightmare!

    1. Yes, I think it only gets harder as they get older! My two turn 7 in December, both have quite different ideas of what they want to do, but they are going to have to compromise and decide together. I'm not ready to do separate birthday parties yet. Shudder...

  2. You've illustrated the birthday parties well. I was wondering for some ideas about birthday party for my little princess, she is turning 5 10th of next month. Thanks for a brilliant article.

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