To All Parents: Your Kid’s Birthday Party Does Not Need to Be Fancy or Expensive
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When I was in elementary school, the height of birthday party excess was going to Chuck E. Cheese’s for pizza and a few tokens per kid. I remember attending a few of those gatherings, overwhelmed by the noise and underwhelmed by the pizza and the cake included with party rental. But I never had a birthday party like that.
From the time I was very young, my mom created our birthday parties from scratch. I remember one of my brother’s when he was about four or five, a year when he was very into dinosaurs. She baked a cake from a mix, frosted it, and then created a prehistoric scene with some of his plastic dinosaur toys. He and his friends dug up “dinosaur fossils” in the sandbox, adding them to plastic buckets for safekeeping.
Perhaps the most Pinteresting thing she ever did was to find a recipe for a cross between an ice cream cone and a cupcake decorated like a baseball, for the year he was in Little League. We had that party at a park, and played a big game of something resembling baseball.
I didn’t intentionally try to keep her on her toes, but looking back, I wasn’t conservative with my wishes. I had a tea party one year, complete with china cups and everyone in their Sunday best. One year, when I was very into Nancy Drew, she devised a mystery, complete with clues, for my guests to unravel. In second grade, when I wanted a sleepover, we compromised with a pajama party. All the guests came in their pajamas, and my cake was a stack of chocolate chip pancakes.
Decorations were charmingly simple: paper chains or banners, the occasional streamer. Often she’d repurpose things from around the house that worked with the theme—a Sesame Street top sheet became a patterned tablecloth, and a toy became a centerpiece, or a cake topper. We weren’t swimming in balloons or coordinated plate and napkin sets (though occasionally she’d add paper plates that went to the theme) but there was always enough decor that we knew it wasn’t just a normal day. It felt special, celebratory. We felt that way, too.
Usually there would be one or two activities, but not enough to feel like a to-do list. Sometimes the food was part of the activity, like when we made personal pizzas. Sometimes it made sense with the theme, and other times it was just something we liked, like freeze tag.
My family was not well-to-do, but even if we had more money to spend on things like party rentals, I’m not sure my mom would have wanted to do it that way. She embraces simple where she wants to, and she doesn’t have a Pinterest account, even now. I think she got a kick out of trying to choose just the right kind of decorations and activities to delight us at different ages. I think she liked the challenge of working within a theme, sometimes one that didn’t lend itself well to party decor or activities. She played to her strengths, and one of them was paying attention to us, knowing what might make each of us smile.
Now, as a parent myself, I’m watching the birthday parties I see online and occasionally in person. Chuck E. Cheese seems to be out of favor, but there are still those all-inclusive packages wherever you look: trampoline parks, aquariums, science centers, zoos. I understand the allure. Even before Covid hit, it wasn’t easy to welcome a group of unpredictable small (or even adult) people into your home, knowing you’d have to clean before and after they came. It may be a while before a birthday party at home seems safe to me. There is also a joyous simplicity to taking it all off your plate, knowing your child will have fun, and so will all their friends.
But I know there is a part of me that will want to follow in my mom’s footsteps in this way. Even in the age of Pinterest, I’m not going to become crafty. I will not make my daughter a dress to match the decor, as one friend did for her two-year-old. I likely won’t go to the party store (or, let’s face it, Amazon) and buy a pack of coordinated accoutrements. I remember so many of my birthday parties because they were different from everyone else’s. They made me feel special because she honed in on something that mattered to me and made it come alive in some way. I know that our parties were cost-effective, but they were not exactly simple. She poured so much time and care into sending us around the sun again knowing that our preferences mattered—we mattered.
There are so many ways to do a birthday party, and I don’t think there is any right one. But I do know that it is possible to do something inexpensive that also manages to be personal, fun, and delightful—I’ve lived it. I don’t look back and wish that we’d done things differently. I look back and remember that I have been well-loved, just as I was.