While serious minds discussed the tension between free speech and religious tolerance last week, the rest of us were arguing over something truly controversial: children’s birthday parties. It all sprang from this insane story out of England, where an angry mother tried to bill a five-year-old child for missing her son’s fancy party at a ski slope. An invoice was delivered to the little boy at school, demanding £15.95 (approximately $24) for a “Birthday Party No-Show Fee.”
The ensuing parental squabble escalated quickly. While one side threatened a lawsuit in small-claims court, the other side opted to try the case in the international media. At one point, this was the most-read story on both the BBC and Telegraph websites, with significant spillover into U.S. media outlets, and plenty of social media buzz.
At least this didn’t happen in America, right? Sadly, that’s the only good news to be found here. This story is a perfect commentary on the excesses of modern Western culture: selfishness, bad parenting, consumerism, litigiousness, and melodrama all wrapped into one. While most people are finding fault with the invoice-issuing mother (and deservedly so), others pointed out the rudeness of failing to make good on an RSVP. As far as I can tell, both sets of parents handled this about as badly as possible, short of actual violence. But Invoice Mom seems to have forgotten that her main job isn’t party planner, but parent.
A Birthday Party Should Be a Comparatively Low-Stress Affair
Media outlets, for the most part, seem to have forgotten this, too. In the wake of this story, we’ve seen articles focusing less on real parenting and more on the “politics” and the “delicate dance” of kids’ birthday parties, as well as this piece praising Invoice Mom’s chutzpah and contending that “there is no parental activity more stressful than throwing a children’s birthday party.”
So, are we all just accepting that it’s normal for a child’s birthday to bring with it the logistical challenges and diplomatic tensions of a nuclear arms summit? I’m sorry, but as a mother of four and a veteran of 39 birthdays (I counted), let me say this. If you find your child’s birthday more stressful than decisions about his health, education, moral training, and general direction in life, you’re doing it wrong.
Simply put, a child’s birthday should not be an ordeal. If you get to small-claims court, you’ve gone too far. I’d love for all the stressed, social-status-obsessed parents out there to take a step back and remember the whole reason for the party in the first place: you’re the parent of a child. Yes, this is a tremendous gift—a gift worth celebrating—but it’s also a responsibility. Your child is an eternal soul who needs to be nurtured, shaped, and guided, as well as celebrated. Before getting caught up in his next birthday bash, ask yourself if you’ve given him these four, far more important things:
1. An Appreciation for Simple Things
Let’s consider this first-hand account of Laura Ingalls’ fifth birthday in 1872, from “Little House in the Big Woods”:
That morning when Pa came in to breakfast he caught Laura and said he must give her a spanking. First he explained that today was her birthday, and she would not grow properly next year unless she had a spanking. And then he spanked so gently and carefully that it did not hurt a bit. . . .
Then Pa gave her a little wooden man he had whittled out of a stick, to be company for Charlotte. Ma gave her five little cakes, one for each year that Laura had lived with her and Pa. And Mary gave her a new dress for Charlotte. Mary had made the dress herself, when Laura thought she was sewing on her patchwork quilt.
And that night, for a special birthday treat, Pa played ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ for her.
I love this. First, notice what’s missing from this five-year-old’s birthday: friends. Store-bought presents. Ice cream. Games. Prizes. Goodie bags. An expensive ski-slope outing. Really, there was no party at all. But somehow, this whole narrative radiates joy. You can sense Laura’s genuine pleasure in the thoughtful homemade gifts (both of them), her mother’s special-occasion food, and above all, the family togetherness. I’m sure she had far better memories of her fifth birthday than the poor little boy whose ski-slope party ended up all over the news.
We do our children a real disservice by cluttering their lives so full of stuff and experiences that they cease to treasure the little things. Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating a life of Amish-style austerity. I do buy my kids presents and take them to fun places (which, being relatively “deprived,” they always enjoy to the hilt). I also realize that most of us don’t live in an isolated cabin in the woods. We have friends, classmates, and family members, all of whom have traditions and expectations.
I recommend simply taking a step back from current cultural norms, rather than being swept away by them. It’s society, not human nature, that requires a big fuss every year, so maybe we can find a reasonable halfway point. For my family, we’ve decided that each child gets a modest birthday party every other year, with the off years being family-only celebrations. (For these, we’ve taken day trips to the zoo, the pool, the roller rink, and even the beach. Honestly, they’re a lot more fun than the party years.)
When our kids were under age five, we hardly threw any “friend parties” at all. Look, I know you parents of toddlers are chomping at the bit to get in on the birthday party action. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having a party for your toddler if that makes you happy. But in terms of time, effort, and expense, remember to pace yourself. Your baby has a long childhood ahead, and it’s best not to peak early—certainly not before he’s old enough to remember the event. Hold off on renting that pony. My advice is to be patient, and to work on cultivating a love for the simple things.
2. A Sense of Belonging
From my perusal of birthday party advice, it’s clear that many parents view parties as a sort of social currency, without which their child will be bereft of standing among his peers. This elaborate ritual of birthday party invitations and reciprocal invitations—with accompanying snubs and reciprocal snubs—is almost worthy of its own Jane Austen novel.
I’ll be blunt: this is a terrible way to view birthday parties. Children need a real sense of belonging, not a place at the top of a wobbly social ladder. Social clout, especially among children, can never offer what every person innately craves: the desire to belong—permanently and securely—to something bigger than himself. This is the void that the family is best designed to fill.
Instead of killing ourselves to throw the party that will secure our child’s place in the pecking order, we would do well to invest our energy in building a strong sense of family identity. This will help fortify our children against the inevitable bumps and bruises of the big, mean world. My own parents gave me this gift (as one of ten children, it was hard not to have a strong family identity), and to this day it’s a real source of confidence. Friends may come and go, but with my family, I belong. Spending at least the occasional birthday doing something fun together as a family, rather than jostling for position among one’s peers, would be a step in the right direction.
3. Chances to Build Genuine Friendships
In addition to a sense of place within a family, children do need friendships—real ones. Good birthday celebrations will foster rather than hinder real friendships.
Most young children are not well-equipped to handle a party with a dozen or more friends. There are just too many people competing for one’s attention, especially if not all the guests are acquainted. After a good deal of trial and error with my own children’s parties, I’ve learned that inviting just a few close friends—usually fewer than the candles on the cake—results in the most genuine connections being formed, and the most fun. (Inviting just one friend to come along on a family birthday outing would be another good way to do this.)
Another thing I’ve learned is to plan a generous period of unstructured play. I’ve thrown too many parties where I rushed the kids through a long series of planned activities, when all they really wanted to do was play with each other. Games, crafts, and activities are always fun, and some structure is certainly needed, but the unstructured play is where friendship-building really happens. I’ve learned to set my party-planning ambitions aside a bit, in favor of friendship-building. (As a side benefit, it’s a whole lot easier on me.)
4. The Basic Building Blocks of Etiquette
Kids are rude and ill-mannered. They just are. Because they only get better with practice, one of the best reasons to throw a birthday party is to give your child some experience in a basic social etiquette. One of my young daughters always needed pre-party coaching on the simple art of saying “thank you” for the presents she received. With practice, she finally learned. As my children have gotten older, I’ve encouraged them to assume the role of host at their parties, with the responsibility to make sure all their guests are comfortable, properly introduced to one another, and included in the fun.
With this in mind, we should all ignore any cultural norms that elevate our birthday boys and girls to the level of pampered royalty. The BBC, in its extensive coverage of BirthdayPartyGate, offered a list of “unwritten rules of children’s parties,” which I found rather horrible. The first rule reads: “Birthday boy/girl must be given preference for starting activity.” Also: “Host child MUST win at least one round of pass the parcel.” And finally: “Children must be given 15 minutes at the buffet before adults are allowed to hoover up the cocktail sausages.”
Remind me not to attend a children’s party hosted by whoever wrote those unwritten rules. Birthday parties should never be seen as a chance for children to lord themselves over their friends, and certainly not to treat adults as second-class guests. Instead, they’re an opportunity for children to practice the foundational rule of all good etiquette: being considerate of others, and putting them first.
Really, when it comes right down to it, this one simple rule would have prevented the whole Birthday Party Invoice fiasco in the first place. Had both sets of parents shown more basic kindness and consideration for others—by choosing to place a child’s friendship over the loss of $24, for instance—we wouldn’t be talking about this now.
It’s good to make our children feel celebrated. But it’s even better to equip them with the character, confidence, and kindness they need to navigate the adult world successfully. If we can keep ourselves calm, unstressed, and off the five o’clock news in the process, so much the better.
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