Monday, October 18, 2010

Birthday party madness

Today a colleague asked my opinion on birthday planning for her soon-to-be three year old. She feels obligated to invite all ten kids in her son’s preschool room, even though he just moved up to preschool and barely knows them. She also thinks she needs to invite another ten kids from an adjacent preschool class who share a room. She was saying that her son gets overwhelmed in the big party places, but didn’t know where she could hold a party for 20 kids that wasn’t overwhelming.

While we have attended most of the parties we’ve been invited to, and some have been at formal facilities, we have never thrown one ourselves. So I don’t think I was of much help. I told her I’ve also been thinking of how to celebrate River’s third birthday. I found myself torn between wanting to limit it to three kids, per his age, as I’d like to stick with, between wanting to foster interaction with Spanish-speaking kids, between wanting to see some of my own friends with kids, and wondering how to navigate the kids who speak Spanish vs. the kids who speak English option.

I’ve also been feeling like we haven’t seen our own friends enough lately, but I’m not up for throwing an adult party and a birthday party in the final months of my pregnancy. So my most recent idea was to have a brunch for our friends, ask them to contribute a dish instead of a gift, and have birthday cake and ice cream at the end. It would be a bigger crowd than we’d otherwise have for a party, but I think River would be satisfied, there would be lots of kids to play with, he wouldn’t end up with a pile of presents, we’d get to see our friends, and my preparation would be limited to making a cake and an entrĂ©e and getting the house in order. Since the focus would be on adults, I wouldn’t have to worry about organizing things for the kids. Mark is OK with this idea, so it’s currently the frontrunner. I do want it to be special for River, but have been thinking of making it special mainly via the cake and perhaps some decorations.

I suggested a smaller, lower-key play center to my friend, saying perhaps her son would be less overwhelmed there. She said she was concerned that without organized games, the older kids in his class, almost four years old, would be bored, despite the room full of toys to play with.

“But isn’t the focus on your child on his birthday?” I asked. “Who cares if a couple of kids from his daycare don’t think it’s the best party they’ve ever been to?”

She seemed to be torn. She mentioned that she hasn’t seen her friends with kids enough recently either, but that inviting them plus the preschool classmates would be too many guests. Otherwise, she could only invite them if enough preschool classmates declined and there was room.

I’m just glad I’m not facing that stress. I admit, I’ve been to some places where I’ve thought it would be cool to have a party, like the children’s museum we recently visited. But if we do that someday, I want it to be because it’s special for River and because it’s worth the money, not because an institution has set a norm that every kid is supposed to throw some big party and invite everyone, whether they know him and care about him or not.

This is when I’m glad we’re in a low-income preschool. Just to attend the parties of 20 classmates and bring 20 gifts can be a real financial burden, not to mention hosting a party or multiplying this all by two or three or more for families with more than one child. I feel a bit guilty sending River to school with a $40 lunchbox, knowing that most of the kids in his class can’t afford something like that.

A Mexican mother told me how sad her kindergartener is because his classmates throw these big parties. Since he can’t afford to match them, and is ashamed of doing something smaller, he does nothing at all for his birthday. I see no reason to set up those expectations for toddlers.

I know the pressure may hit us one day, or perhaps just the temptation of letting someone else handle the work. In the meantime, I’m glad to know that even though I’ll be full-term pregnant by River’s birthday, we can escape the party madness for one more year.

How do you set norms and expectations for parties in your family? How do you decide how many to invite and where and how to host it? If there is a tendency to invite the whole class and you have resisted that, have there been any negative repercussions?

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