The Birthday Party Pact

spongebob bounce houseWhen Drew and I were deciding whether to have kids, #1 in the “CON” column was birthday parties.  We imagined the next two decades would be full of the overindulgent, insufferable celebrations of our kids’ friends (and friends’ kids) every damn milestone, every damn weekend.  Ultimately, building a family together, adding love to our home and all that other crap won out, so we went for it.

Now, every Saturday and Sunday, we pay the price.

Truth be told, it’s not that bad.  Yes, we have a lot of parties to go to, but it turns out I actually like my kids’ friends and my friends’ kids – for now, at least.

Still, there are a few things that bug me about these parties, and they’re always the parents’ fault.

I know, the only thing worse than going to a kids’ birthday party is throwing one for your own kid.  It costs a fortune, it takes weeks of planning and it’s over in 30 seconds.

But we’re in this together, parents.  Birthday parties are a necessary evil, so let’s try to make them as painless as possible.  I’d like to lay out a few ground rules that I think will make this better for everyone involved.  Well, for the grownups, at least.  That’s what matters, right?

I hereby present the Birthday Party Pact:

1. Grownups get to eat, too.  Seriously, guys.  I like pizza.  I like cake.  Am I just supposed to stand there like an idiot and watch my kids stuff their faces with your wonderful junk food, then pick at their leftovers as I take their Elmo plates to the trash?  I’m starving!  I know it costs more to feed the grownups, but tough.  How ’bout this: I’m a guest at Timmy’s party, too, so if you didn’t order enough Little Caesars for everyone, then I get to raid your refrigerator. I’m not too proud to do it!

2.  Let’s keep things quick.  Two hours is more than enough festivity to expect of your guests.  When you see grown-ups looking bored or starting to pack their diaper bags, it’s time to bust out the cake.  If I don’t see frosting in the first 90 minutes, I’m dying inside.  The cake is what we’re waiting for, so don’t hold out on us. It’s torture.  Every conversation Drew and I have after the one hour mark is about how much longer it’s going to be until the cake comes and whether we should try to sneak out before then.  If I have to leave before you’ve served me cake, then your party was too long, and I’m probably going to stop at Frosted Cupcakery on the way home to get my sugar fix.  Happy?

Pinata graveyard

Image by Horace S. Patoot via Flickr

3. Gift bags?  Pfft!  I’m always impressed at some of the things my kids receive in gift bags.  People really go overboard.  It’s very nice, but totally unnecessary.  You spent enough money feeding my kids and entertaining them for the last no-more-than-two hours.  They don’t need parting gifts.  I mean, it’s not their birthday.  Save your money on the gift bags and get a better cake instead.  Speaking of which, chocolate is the universal flavor.  It’s your kid’s birthday.  Let them live a little.

4. Thanks, but no thank yous.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love thank yous.  They’re the perfect way to make our kids feel guilty about getting so much stuff.  But until they’re old enough to write their own, I hope you don’t expect me to do it on their behalf.  I’m not going to play with the Crayola Magic Color Explosion Super Mega Wheel, so why should I be punished?  Don’t worry.  You’re off the hook, too.  When I get a card that some sad grown-up felt compelled to write to me in their kid’s “voice”, I just laugh at them.  “I really love the thoughtful whatever-piece-of-crap you picked up at Target on the way to the party.  I play with it all the time.”  Really, it was nothing.  Trust me.

5.  Let your kid have some gifts.  When I’m throwing myself a party, I add a polite “no gifts” to the invitation.  I’m a grown man.  Taking gifts from friends feels tacky.  But kids are different.  Kids love getting stuff.  I know they don’t need it.  I know you’ve personally contributed about ten tons of perfectly good toys to the local dump because you simply didn’t have enough space for them all.  But let your kids walk into their birthday party and see a mountain of boxes in Dora The Explorer wrapping paper, all for them.  It’s priceless.  Personally, I was dreading the toy tsunami that would follow my kids’ party, but I have to say, our friends got them the nicest, most thoughtful gifts.  Educational toys, toys their own kids loved, toys I’d never heard of but that my kids went crazy for.  Just take them.  And if you don’t need something, regift it.  I’ll understand.

6.  Beer.  I’m always stunned when I go to a kid’s birthday party and there are two coolers.  One inevitably has Capri Sun or Juicy Juice or something, the other Michelob.  Seriously?  It’s 10am!  And we’re at Harriet the Hen’s Happy Shack.  But sure enough, I’ll see plenty of moms and dads pounding brewskies while their kids beat the juice out of a piñata.  All right, if that’s what you want, fine.  I’ll supply beer at my kids’ parties, too, and I’ll try my hardest not to judge you for drinking it.  Now how ’bout a Pepsi for those of us who want something in between a Cherry Cooler and a Mike’s Hard Lemonade?  Thanks.

7. Face Paint?  Color me pissed!  Am I the only one who thinks kids look creeeeeepy with face paint?  Or that it’s a secret plot by the tattoo industry to condition our children extra young?  (Wouldn’t they just love it if they created a whole generation of Mike Tysons willing to ink their faces?) I know I’m not the only one who hates cleaning that crap off my kids’ cheeks when we get home (or fighting with them to let me do it).  (Full disclosure – my kids haven’t actually had their faces painted yet, but I know someday it’s a fight I’ll lose.)  I think the only reason people hire face painters for kids’ parties is that kids demand it.  And why do they demand it?  Because of that one schmuck parent who thought it was cute back when the whole craze started.  Well, I say stop the madness.  If we all resist the face paint, it’ll go away forever!

There you go.  A few simple guidelines that will make the birthday party circuit more bearable for all of us.  And if you have something you want to add to the Birthday Party Pact, leave me a comment below.  Let’s finalize this thing and distribute it, OK?

Oh, and happy birthday, kid.  Wow, you’re getting so big.

50 comments on “The Birthday Party Pact

      • I must be that one jerk, then… I abhor goody bags and will NEVER do it. Yucko!! 😦

        Although, I must confess that I’m still a bit of a kid-birthday-party virgin so it’s not like I have years of street cred to speak of here. In Sept. we hosted our first-ever “little kid” party for our older daughter, who turned 4. Previously we’ve just had a huge party with all of our friends (and their kids), which was perfect for our little social butterfly. (My wife and I throw a lot of parties, so our girls consider a house full of people celebrating something to be quite normal.)

        Anyway, when Elle turned 4 we decided to throw two parties (yes, we are INSANE -my wife is, I mean), so she could finally have that experience of 4 little friends at a cute little party for her. We did a garden theme, complete with art projects. Since the kids got to take their painted pots home (with a flower inside that they planted!), I guess that was sort of a “parting gift,” similar to a goody bag. But that was mostly unintended. :-/

  1. Katie’s birthday is coming up in a couple months… now I am stressed… if I see you and Drew whispering in a corner I will make sure to break out the cake!

  2. This will be my reference for upcoming birthdays. Seems like all of my friends decided to follow our lead and are having kids now too…perhaps I will not be looking forward to the birthday explosions that will be happening in the following years!

    • Taking young twins to a party is tough because you really have to pay attention to them. I’m hoping in a few years, I can just deposit them in a bounce house for two hours and chat with the grownups. That would be a party!

      • When my older kid was only three and a half she got invited to her first ever drop-off b-day party (for her friend turning four!). Brave parents. Wow. Many parents elected to stay anyway, of course. But not me! I took off like a bat out of hell (even though I smelled booze on the Mom’s breath… Yikes!). I was NOT going to miss out on the one (and only) easy thing about parenting my first-born: in that she was extremely social and non-needy when in uber-social situations. I was sooooo outta there!

  3. Hey Jerry. I agree with you on the goody bags. The worst prep for one of my kids’ parties is the goody bag. I hate giving them out, but I still do. One time, Megan had a craft party. The crafts they made were their goody. Activity and goody in one!

    One thing you didn’t address was the pinata. I have done away with those. I got so sick of kids being pissed they only had 30 pieces of candy when Johnny had 40 pieces. Greedy SOBs!

    • Our kids are still too little for the pinata circuit, so that really hasn’t been an issue yet. But after what you said, I think I’ll avoid ever having one. What’s the point other than to give them a sneak peek of who the bullies are going to be? And it’s not like I want them eating candy or hitting things with sticks. If there’s no upside for me, there’s no pinata.

  4. Great post! What about valet service? Being invited to any party with permit parking areas really is reason to not go.

    Your childless asshole friend

  5. I think when Landon has his first birthday I will get him a Carvel cake. Cause his Dad loves Carvel cake. I will read this pact to Amy. I am sure she will agree on what you wrote.

    • For the first 18 months, I celebrated every month’s birthday with a cake. Partially, I wanted to get pictures of the kids with them, but mostly I just wanted to eat lots of cake. 🙂

  6. I could say so many things about birthday parties… pinatas, wine (AND beer), elaborate food for parents, making a Cook’s Illustrated cake AND homemade cupcakes with chocolate ganache icing… I know. I know. Stop the madness! Oh, yeah, just remembered, I once had an artist friend come and paint the kids’ faces. (gulp.) And just wait until you have to have two separate parties. They WILL want that! : )

    • When will they start wanting two separate parties? I’m hoping I have a couple years at least. I already feel guilty enough expecting my friends to bring the kids two separate gifts. (Most people were very good about it and figured that out on their own.) I can’t imagine telling people they have to give up TWO Saturday afternoons for us. I guess by that point, though, the kids will have separate friends, so the only ones at both parties will be my partner and me.

      • They wanted separate parties for their 7th birthday. It was really Zoe (surprise) who wanted it and who has insisted ever since on having her own party. A little sad… and a pain! Because their birthday is in the summer, I can use a weekday evening and a Saturday.

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  8. When I was younger my family did’t have birthday get to together so we did’t have any issue but as I got older we had more and more

  9. Absolutely agree on the party bags.. I mean, really, whY??!! The last ‘do’ I put together, I don;t do parties,more of a group play date I just had a bowl on the table with all the silly toys in it and they picked out what they wanted. That was easy. LOve the blog, found you on FP, well done!! will be subscribing 🙂

  10. My daughter’s fourth birthday was just two weeks ago. I’m still trying to de-stress. Though there was no pinatas, goody bags, or face paint. There was beer, but it was at a restaurant, so I couldn’t exactly stop people from ordering beer. Just bowling, video games and chocolate rainbow cake cake.

    I learned at my cousin’s twin’s party that a pinata was a bad idea. My little girl is a very gentle child and just stood there as all of the other kids fought over candy. She ended up with nothing and heart broken. “I didn’t want to hurt someone on accident, Mommy.” It wasn’t all bad. My cousin’s husband ended up going to the grocery store while we were distracted (yummy chocolate cake) and picked Alianna up some small treats so she wouldn’t be leaving empty handed.

    Love your blog. Found you via a post on Reddit. 🙂

  11. I never do kids thank yous…I write them out but never seem to get them sent. Sometimes I will take a picture of my son with his gift (toy, clothes, whatever crap you got him) and email it to the giver saying thanks he loves it. I always tell people not to send thank you notes (even if I give adults a gift), I was here when you opened it and you thanked me already!

  12. Okay, so beer is fine with me, but even at 10:30 AM, I want the hard stuff if I am at a kid’s birthday party. Vodka mixed with a Capri Sun can be very delicious.

  13. It’s interesting to read your take on it because of latin/puertorican upbringing. We’ll be celebrating my girls 4th birthday soon and the party will last more than 2 hours, there will be alcohol offered but we are a no soda house, so juice or water for the non-alcohol drinkers. And we do dinner for all, burgers and sausages are on the menu.

    • Awesome – thanks for sharing your perspective. I wrote this post when my kids were 2. I can imagine as they get older they’ll have more party endurance. That being said – can I come to your party? Sounds fun! 🙂

  14. Maybe it’s cuz I’m a Scrooge (and maybe because I am still childless), but I find that a child’s party that lasts longer than 90 minutes is a bit excessive. Honestly, you know all the birthday child wants to do is eat cake and/or ice cream, open presents and run around with his/her friends. Anything more than those things is done not for the guest of honor, but for the parent(s) who want to show off.

    If your kids and my (future) children ever cross paths and become friends, count my kids in to their birthday parties! 🙂

  15. Okay, so I weighed in on the goody-bag issue (I’m now hiding from my kids so I can drink my coffee and read more of your blog… Ha!), so I may have time to chime in on a few more things you mentioned…

    1. I totally agree that the grown-ups get to eat, too. As I said previously, my wife and I have always thrown more “adult style” parties for our kids (ages 2 and 4). What I didn’t mention is that my wife comes from a family (and culture) where it is the custom to lavish others with lots of yummy food and fun. She’s an excellent cook and she loves to make food for others (she’s also skinny as a rail and can eat anything she wants without gaining a pound! errrrgh), so it’s a no-brainer for us that we’ll be making tons of food for everyone to enjoy.

    And, if you’re ever at one of our parties and think that it’s too “foodie” or “Martha-Stewart-esq” please know that some people (not me) just can’t help themselves. They may not be showing off (my wife is one of the most self-less, humble people I know), but simply are this freakin’ cute and perfect and home-makery and whatnot. So please don’t assume “competitive parenting” or showing off. With some parents that is exactly what’s going on, and then you have folks like my wife, L, who is seriously that amazing. Just go and enjoy.

    (to be continued)

  16. 2. Quick is good. Get all the set things done with and then people who want/need to scram can do so. I think it’s nice to also let the party keep going, for those who want. At our parties (not the “little kid birthday” ones) we always seem to have one set of friends who stay on, and we get to have a nice little “after party” with them. It’s always a fun way to decompress and relax, after the flurry.

  17. 3. Gift Bags are BULLSHIT.

    4. Thank you cards I have to strongly disagree with you on. It’s funny, because I just read a series of posts & comments about this very issue on another forum in my area (BPN- Berkeley Parents Network) and people had really different views on the subject.

    I am a hard-core ‘Thank You Card’ person. There are many wonderful ways to do it. It’s NOT bullshit. And it teaches your children (and reminds yourself) to pause and be grateful. In our culture of heavy-handed materialism I am all for anything that gets us to pause and take a breath.

    We have our kids make pretty cards (plain paper, folded, markers- no frills usually) and then we write their thoughts. Sometimes we guide a bit… Elle likes to wander off onto other topics. It’s hilarious. But (as teachers) I think we also feel that we’re modeling important writing skills, too: edit, express your thoughts clearly, stay on topic, etc. It’s a great learning experience in many ways. Please re-think your position on thank-yous!

    Save the Thank-You note, save the world.

  18. Gifts and Beer and Face-Paint, oh my!

    5. Gifts: I agree. This was a process for me, but in the end I decided that it is okay for them to accept gifts. Duh.

    6. Beer: as a non-drinker I often wonder if the beer and wine offered at kid parties is an attempt to show-case how hip and cool and unaffected-by-having-kids everyone is trying to show themselves to be. But I may be reading into it too much. It also seems ridiculous to me as well. If you’re going to have the booze table/cooler I want to know where the bong table? And where’s the pill bowl? Come on, folks. If we need to get loaded just to attend a kid party and no vomit, perhaps we should have just skipped it.

    7. I love face paint. I can’t afford to hire someone to come do it (we spend too much on the food!), but I may just break out some paints myself and go to town… Sorry, but some of us arty types consider it FUN!!! 8^)

    • Thanks for the responses Mailisha! You should do your own post on the topic. Clearly I touched a nerve! 🙂

      I wrote this post quite a while ago, and I’m sure my opinions have evolved a bit since then. I think my aversion to thank you cards comes from having to write so many of them myself while my kids were babies. When the kids are old enough to write their own cards, I’m definitely in favor of them doing it. I want to teach them to be grateful. I just hate that throwing a party for my kids means extra days of work for me when it’s all done. Yes, I appreciate our friends buying toys for my kids, but they know I appreciate it… just as I know they appreciate it when I buy gifts for their kids and don’t need the card to validate it. That’s why in my ideal world, all parents would agree the cards were unnecessary, at least until the kids are old enough to do them themselves. Until we have that kind of agreement among all parents, I’ll still send the thank yous.

  19. AHHH! I love it! The goody bags are terrible. I hate buying them and stuffing them…but worst of all, I hate bringing them home after a party. I have three kids! Three little paper sacks filled with candy my kids don’t need, and cheap plasticky dollar-store toys that never work. Waste. Of. Money.

  20. Best advice I ever read for controlling the cost at a kid’s birthday party? Ask the child what three things are most important to them. My daughter picked playing in the park and having cake with her friends. Yes, she picked friends as one of her three things. That year we were brooooooke and I was thinking hard on whether I could even afford a party, but she made it super easy and stress free. Her grandma bought the cake and we used our fancy, breakable dishes from home (and nobody even broke one) They held the napkins- paper towels- down beautifully and washed up easy when we carted them home in a Rubbermaid storage box. The dishes were eco-friendly and everyone thought I was either crazy or brave, but, hey, I had a dustpan and broom on emergency standby, just in case. Also, I have to admit no gift bags were given that day. Instead my daughter picked out cool stuff she rarely played with and we let all the kids have their pick to take home. You’d think it would be a disaster, but those four year old children loved it. It didn’t cost a dime because we already owned the stuff and there was no throwaway junk or candy. Now that my daughter is eleven, she prefers sleepover birthdays, and so do we. I love decorating the place from the dollar store with the kid’s help, baking pizza or brownies with them, and having the chaos a gaggle of gigglers can bring to a Redbox double feature. Not every party has to be bounce houses, balloon artists, and big debt to be fun.

  21. Agree with it all, except maybe the facepaint, but my kids are a bit older. I always feed grown ups too but have never been brave enough to unilateraly ditch party bags.

    Last party I finally managed thank yous for the first time ever, I took a photo of each kid during the party, got them printed out and put them on the front of a bit of folded card (I cut slits in the corners so they were removable). Seriously what 4/5 year old doesn’t want a photo of themselves, plus now they’re at an age some get left at parties the parent likes to see what they were up to. Anyway, as they looked cool, I decided i could get away with just writing “thank you for my X” inside anot my daughter to sign them and write her friends names on the envelopes.

  22. YES to all of the above. One caveat I would make would be temporary tattoos, if the kids are looking for something with which to adorn themselves. Each kid gets one or two and they wash off more often than not by the end of the week in the bath. I have worked (and still sub) birthday parties at a gymnastics gym for children, and from that side of things I’d just like to ask parents to relax and let their kids have fun, especially if it’s a scheduled party at an establishment that handles lots of them. We know what to do because (and I know this may come as a shock to some) this is not our first rodeo. Yes, your child is wonderful and special, but I’ve got 2 more parties after his so can we just move it along? Let your kid run crazy and eat too much sugar and laugh as loud as he/she wants to with friends because that’s what they’re there for (and he/she will get all that energy out and more than likely fall asleep on the drive home).

    Also, I agree with you on goodie bags, but if anyone is looking for something creative but not too extravagant, we had one mom who handed out small boxes of character band-aids at the end of the party. Kids are crazy about bandaids. Always a good bet.

  23. I am so glad that in our country parents usually are not invited to kids birthday parties! So I love parties that take more than three hours :-). But I agree with you on give-aways and facepaintings and I would add: Stop to spend a fortune on those parties.

  24. Your children were young when you wrote this blog, but I assume by now you have discovered the other party rule. Who is invited. We had one parent who didn’t invite everyone in the class. When it was brought to her attention, that the school handbook prohibits invitations from being passed out at school unless everyone is invited, the mother’s comment was, “well, I guess I broke the rules,” with no remorse. No consideration as to how the one child she didn’t invite would feel. Several other children, mine included, didn’t attend. I fabricated an excuse of a previous commitment, and signed up the children for an event at the science museum. We invited the child who hadn’t been included, and a few other children skipped the party also. The entire thing felt like we were throwing a rival party, but we didn’t overdo it. I told our children we had already made the reservations, and could not get our money back. Our son thought a moment, then, asked if we could invite the child who wasn’t invited, because he knew “Joseph felt sad that he wasn’t invited to David’s party.” We were proud parents. I dropped the kids off, and another parent asked if they wanted to go to a movie and dinner after the science center. We debated with another couple about a pool party, but felt that an after pool party would make it look like we were competing with the birthday party. At the end of the year, Joseph’s parents were told that he didn’t have a place the following year. There had been other party incidents, and while someone always made sure to adopt Joseph, we all just became angry that she continued excluding him. It was an outside school event, so she couldn’t be ordered to include him. Joseph is a very intelligent child, and she was angry that Joseph continually outscored her child, who just needed someone to sit and provide guidance with homework, such as someone to quiz spelling words. And, Joseph invited her child to his party. The kids played well at school, and got along. He didn’t come, nor was the invitation returned. When Joseph’s mother phoned, there was a fake excuse as to why the RSVP had not been returned. Every child was invited to Joseph’s, and everyone but the child of Trouble Maker Mom attended. We all felt badly, but… it was elementary school. In any case, invite everyone in the class, or invite no-one. Invite all the girls, or all the boys, but do not exclude anyone. I’m still amazed that an ADULT thought it ok to exclude a kid. Kids develop cliques and are nasty because they mimic the behavior of adults. Even if your child doesn’t like Joseph, which was not the case, invite Joseph. Yes, it is the birthday child’s day, but it is not excuse treat someone badly. Kindness is always a rule, just not when it is convenient or we feel like it.

    Event parties are the best. No deep cleaning before and after. No parents who are looking around evaluating your design skill, housekeeping skills, income, etc. The site people know what they are doing, and it is cheaper than a home party. There is no need to purchase prizes for games no one likes. The site, like an area water park, area science center, art museum, zoo, ice skating rink, small farm/petting zoo, local minor league baseball team, etc. all have great packages. One theater site, like the history museum, lets the kids play dressup (with really great costumes). Another advantage is that there is plenty of supervision, and the kids have a great time. I think the park option mentioned above is great too. We did pool parties at a nearby waterpark when the kids were older, and it is a nice summer event. Like the park, they entertain themselves. Check and see if the venue will give the kids coupons for a discount on a family membership. Museums are always struggling. Kids who attend museums as children, regularly, are 3 times as likely to vote, more likely to volunteer within their community as adults, and more likely to take their own children to museums. In the beginning, a few kids would not attend because, tainted by their parents’ narrow views of museums, they thought it would be boring. A few thought it would be boring, but came because they liked our child. When the kids went to school and talked about all the wonderful things they did, the kids who didn’t attend regretted it, and they all came the next year. I will say, that some of the events can be expensive if you keep adding the upgrades, most of which detract from the original experience, in my opinion. Just something to consider.

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