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Handling children’s birthday party expectations

Elise Hansen

One of your child’s friends rented a movie theater for 50 friends. Another rented a play-place. Others in your child’s circle have held themed swimming parties, art parties, science parties and more — some spending hundreds of dollars on the event alone. But your family budget just can’t swing it this year. And you wonder why you did it last year. If the expectations around planning your child’s birthday party concern you, it’s understandable.

Birthday parties are an opportunity for your family to instill values early. Not only is it OK to keep birthdays simple, it’s even OK to rotate friend celebrations with family-only events based on the means and needs of your family. When making this decision, family has to come first.

It’s important to note: Families that throw the big extravaganzas aren’t necessarily looking for a flood of gifts. Extravaganzas aren’t necessarily bad. More often than not these families seek a way to share a great socialization experience for their children —and in doing so create a wonderful experience for many other youth (and give other parents a baby-sitting break). If your child is invited to such a party, take this for the gift that it is and avoid feeling as if your family must “measure up.” Remember that socialization development can be fostered in many ways — with one friend or with many. Children can have just as much fun at a simpler birthday celebration.

Talk with your children early each year about birthday expectations. You can create excitement around alternative birthday celebrations. For example, say that this year:

• We will give cookies to a shelter in honor of your birthday. Your friends and their parents can stop by to help us pack the cookies, or they may send a box of cookies we can take with us. Our pastor said it’s OK for us to use the church kitchen as a gathering point.

• We are having a family only birthday dinner. But would you like to also have a family play day at the park playground for a get-together with your friends and their parents?

If you’re lucky, other families will catch on and try similar activities. If not, perhaps the circle of friends needs to diversify to find these families.

Sharing with children the reasoning behind birthday party decisions is important. The implications of “birthday party fever” can last a lifetime in terms of keeping up with the Nelsons. It can carry over into wedding frenzy, as well as overextended budgets in home buying, vacations and material goods. As parents, you can take a stand and be strong in your convictions. It’s OK to create family values with boundaries.

Beyond birthday parties, try to be intentional as a family in talking about socialization in general: parties, vacations and playdates. Not everyone is invited to every event. Not every child has the same videogame equipment or toys. Always have other ideas for conversation: ask other children questions about their plans for the day: what they like to read, watch, play, draw and make. You as a parent are the perfect person to begin modeling this for your children.

Hansen is The Little Lutheran’s educational consultant. She directs an early childhood education center in Winnetka, Ill.

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