Coping with Birthday Party Stress

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Feeling uneasy and stressed about throwing a party

March 2007

I'm feeling uneasy about my son's third birthday. Lots of kids are invited, from school and elsewhere, and I feel happy to have a fun celebration and a full house. We have asked for no gifts. I want to have just a fun free for all--but feel some pressure to have something structured for the kids to do. Is it important to have some activities planned or can kids just play for 2 hours with our toys and a lawn/slide/swing to play on? I also want to skip the gift bags, I find them a little too much on both the giving and receiving side, and wish that they weren't a ''given'' at birthday parties. I don't want to be a naysayer, but do parties have to be such productions? What happened to just gathering together to have some fun, sharing a cake and singing happy birthday? don't want to be a party pooper

I think you should do whatever you want for the birthday party. Whatever you feel comfortable with is the right way to go. When I throw birthday parties, I feel more confident that things will go well if I have a couple of activities planned. Just a couple of crafts set out on tables that some kids can do if they feel like it. But that's just me. If you feel more relaxed about a free play party, that's great. We like to do gift bags because my son likes to decorate bags ahead of time and he is really into giving gifts and picking things out to put in. No big deal. He just likes it. If you don't, then don't do it. No one will care. Just have fun. don't stress
First, how wonderful that you are having a party at your home. It just makes for such an intimate and special celebration. Kid's parties have become such a production and so overwhelming for all involved. 3 Year olds don't need structured activities or ''party entertainment'' - they do a pretty good job of entertaining themselves. Put out some play doh, unit blocks and perhaps some simple craft materials (construction paper, tape, markers) and let them make their own fun in an open-ended way! My daughter just turned 5 and this is the first year I hired a good old fashioned storyteller (for the adults and the kids!) but he was a part of the party not the whole party. And Amen to the gift bags! my daughter has a Bin 'O Junk that we pour all that crap into after each party. In the past I have given simple/useful/ personal things like bubbles, home made play doh, or a CD of my daughter's favorite songs. Good luck to you! Sounds like your intuition is keeping you away from all the birthday party hype - keep it simple and hopefully others will follow your lead. -At home birthday party mom.
I am also not a fan of the birthday party junk bag full of things my younger child will choke on. Usually ends up in the trash. We recently went to a party where the kids decorated flowerpots, planted a flower and got to take it home along with a plastic shovel. This could be even simpler with seeds. We also attended a great cookie party -- just turned the kids loose with prebaked plain cookies and frosting. They took home their cookies and were thrilled, plus a kid-sized apron which my daughter loves to wear at home. We did a scarf dancing party with scarves ordered off Oriental Trading Co. You could do something simple and just put on music and let them run around with scarves or dig in the sand with their shovels. We also once did a picture frame party with $1 frames from IKEA and stickers from Super Longs. Easy and cheap. A recent MOCHA party we attended had a give-away bag full of confetti and glue-ables. That is an easy project to set up with glue sticks and paper plates and a few markers. Add some yarn and you have got hats or masks. I think it is fun to send the kids home with something they made or had a creative playtime with. We often invite kids to wear costumes because my daughter's b-day is close to Halloween, but why not do it whatever time of year if they are into dressing up? We went to a parade party where each kid got a plastic rattle or drum and marched around the block. It was great! If you plan to have them do a structured activity for 30-45 minutes, then you can serve some pizza, let them play for another 20 minutes, cake time and out the door! That is my recommendation for a low stress b-day. Hope it turns out fun. Montclair Mommy
My daughter just had her 3rd birthday and I was a little stressed about the party as well. I had 10 kids all under the age of 4 and only about half of them had played together a real mixed group. In my humble opinion, I think it turned out really well and we all had a lot of fun.

I'm not big on gift bags (hate them actually) and I wasn't too sure about having that many people in my small house just hanging out. So, here's what I did. The party was scheduled for 2 hours. First thing was lunch... pizza was a hit along with a lot of finger foods/veggie plate/olives/grapes. I had two ''structured'' activities. One was cookie decorating. I had a sugar cookie for each kid and a bunch of different colored frostings and sprinkles for each of them to play with. They could have taken the decorated cookie home with them but most of them tasted/ate some right there. The other activity was making ice cream in an ice cream ball in 30 mins (they sell them at REI)so it was an interactive ball rolling game. Those that wanted either rolled the ball or just had free play.

Afterwards was cake and the homemade ice cream if they weren't sugared out already. That was definitely way more sugar that I prefer as a health conscious mom but it's only one day and she was thrilled. In lieu of gift bags, I got mylar balloons at the dollar store for each kid to take home (I talked to my girl about them getting the balloons ahead of time so she wouldn't freak when they left with all the balloons).

I know my daughter and I had fun and I hope everyone else did too. Kudos to the other parents though. They were all very helpful and right in there with the kids with all the activities. Good luck on the birthday party! Michelle

The below link is to a website created by parents in the mid- west that you might find useful or at least affirming of your desire for a low-key or simple birthday party.

''If you think children's birthday parties are getting out of control, you've come to the right place. We want to raise awareness of this problem and offer alternatives for parents and kids who want birthdays without pressure.'' Your party sounds like it will be great! -Not into goody bags either

The best birthday parties I've attended have been very low-key backyard play parties. Sometimes with something special, like a kiddie pool & floaty toys, sandbox, dress-up costumes, a table with lots of play dough, or butcher paper taped to the wall for everyone to make art, affix found nature objects & write birthday wishes. A book exchange is a nice way to handle gifts: each child brings a wrapped book, they are exchanged and each child opens one: all the excitement of opening a surprise, with none of the overwhelming & embarrassing opening of a pile of gifts. You've got the right idea: all you need is a cake with candles for a great celebration. anon
I want to assure you that there are parents right here in Berkeley who host birthday parties at home without *any* planned games, themes, or activities. We do! I love going to theme parties myself, and I admire the parents who put so much care and time into these, but I don't have the time, and even if I did, I'd get too anxious and stressed about the elaborate planning required. I don't like to get in the car and drive a lot of stuff to a park, and I don't like stressing about whether every kid is fully enjoying the $200 hired party site, or whether parents are sufficiently impressed.

I'm on my third kid now, and 99% of our birthday parties have been old fashioned nothing-happening parties at home. And I don't spend more than a couple hours prepping for the party, which includes baking a cake and calling the pizza delivery place. The kids just play together with whatever toys are here. They always have a GREAT time. Because I'm not running games and coordinating magicians, I can spend the two hours chit-chatting with whatever parents stay for the party, have a beer or a glass of wine, and get to know some of the grown-ups at my kid's school.

The last two years, the entire preschool class was invited (they don't all come) but starting in kindergarten we reduce the number to 6 or so. We have it at lunchtime for TWO HOURS. No longer than this. I don't like to buy decorations and put up balloons and streamers and what-not. No one has ever complained. I order pizza and usually I make the cake. Eating takes up about half the party, and the other half is the guests checking out the toys of the host. The only complaint I've ever heard was last year, when a very funny 5-year-old boy who shall remain nameless walked in the front door and made a bee line for me, and asked, ''G___, What sort of games and activities do you have planned for the party?'' So I told him I was afraid there were NO planned games. He was surprised. But of course he did have fun.

A key component of last year's fun was the novelty of a chocolate fountain -- a couple years ago I got talked into buying one for a Christmas party so I set that up after the pizza was eaten. This was a huge hit, at least with the kids - the parents were not quite as enthusiastic for some reason. But this ''activity'' (dipping and strawberries into warm chocolate) kept everyone occupied for 45 minutes! In the past, we've also iced cupcakes or made sundaes or milkshakes. When you have games, there is always the kid who doesn't want to participate. But I have never seen a kid turn down the opportunity to load up on sugar.

As for goody bags, I have found that 4 and 5 years olds really have come to expect some little trinket at the end of the party. If you don't offer it, some will ask about it outright. I am not sure about 3 year olds - they may not notice. But with 4 and up, this is a case where the parents probably would rather you didn't hand out goody bags but it's the kids who will apply the pressure. They will think you just ''forgot'' to give them their goody bag and they will helpfully remind you. This could cause an anxious person to feel anxious. So we do usually do the party favor thing. Last year we made a grab bag - wrap up some cheapo large-ish things - used books, balsawood airplanes, etc. - and let them reach into the bag as they were leaving.

In summary, do the party any way you enjoy doing it. If you are having fun, everyone else will too. G.

I don't to throw super-structured parties either, but I do plan a few activities. Sounds like you have a lot of kids coming over, and for a 3-year-old that can be really overwhelming. I would plan a few simple games or craft activities. It is a good idea to have something to bring all the energy back down for a few minutes if it starts to get crazy. I always plan more than I need, then just skip some of the activities if things are going well on their own. It just doesn't hurt to have a bag of tricks handy if some kids are crying because a few are playing too rough, or some kids aren't assimilating into the flow because they don't know the other kids as well.

The games can be really simple (think Duck, Duck, Goose), and the activities can be making a paper crown or simply coloring a picture you print off the internet. As far as goodie bags go, if you don't like 'em, don't do 'em. If the kids make or color something, that can be their goodie to take home.

I think it is fine to think of the birthday party as just a giant playdate. That is what I have always done and the birthday girl and her friends seemed to have a great time. I would, however, buy a supply of bubbles, chalk, and balls for the kids to play with during the party and which they can choose to bring home at the end of the party if they want to. My daughter has never liked structured parties; last year she commented that a structured party would have been fun if it was school, but that a party should be just fun. Mom of a 7 year old
We always invite a ton of kids (and their parents) to our son's birthday parties and we provide a bunch of balls and a couple of other toys and they have a blast running around. No need to provide entertainment, etc. Also, three year-olds probably aren't at the age to expect/ask for a parting gift/favor so no need to give them if you don't want to. Just don't open any gifts that other people may bring (even if you said no gifts, people may bring them) in front of the other kids. Hide them away for later. Relax and have fun!
The birthday parties my kids love the best are the ones where they get to go their friend's houses, play with them and their toys and eat cake! But the reason I am writing is the party favors. They are a waste of money, bad for the planet (the production, the shipping, the marketing, and the disposal of completely useless things), they clutter, they require time to shop for them or to make them, and they give kids the impression that they always get to receive. They bring a gift to get one back. I would not at all be offended if I go to a party where there are no party favors, quite the opposite (and the kids will survive it too). I just wish I could be smart enough not to give them myself. Maybe letting the kids know ahead of time? Is there a chance things will change? Thanks for bringing this up. A Mom
We have always done ''just play'' parties and I love them. Parents get to chat, kids get to be kids. We set out a simple craft or decorating project (eg decorating cookies, making foam crowns). My daughter is pinata happy, so we always have a pinata. One year, when her bday fell near easter, we had an easter egg hunt. I try to have some decent food for the grown ups. I wish more folks had them! Keeping it simple

No more parties - don't want the stress

March 2006

I've barely started, but am already done with throwing birthday parties for my kids (ages 2 and 4). I love to celebrate their birthdays, but do not want to have to throw a party for their friends with the sress and the cost that comes with it. Not to mention the competition to make the party as fun as the friends' parties. I want to keep the celebration small, perhaps just a special outing with just the immediate family and then have the grandparents and cousins over for dinner and cake. BUT, my kids get invited to a lot of parties, and I feel guilty for not reciprocating, and the older one is SO excited about his birthday (which is coming up) and keeps telling everyone he sees that they can come to his birthday party. I hate to burst his bubble and tell him that there will be no party. This year, I am biting the bullet and having the party with the friends and the cake and the gift bags, but any advice for drastically lowering expectations in future years? Did anyone out there come from a family that did not throw birthday parties? How did it make you feel then, and now?
dreading gift bags

Hi, I'm sure you'll get a range of feedback on this question. But, I'd like to suggest a party similar to one we went to a while back - the invite said ''Bring a wrapped book.'' That's it. The party was simple, pizza, snacks and cake - pretty cheap for a small group. At the end of the party, each child got to pick a wrapped book from the pile. My son loved this, was happy with his surprise book and it was so great to not have a goodie bag of junk to try and keep up with at home. The boy who had the party was left with one book, too. (Some folks brought small gifts, including us - but only like $5 was spent.) They get alot from family already, right? Anyway, it seems your son is looking forward to a party - why not find a way to make it small, affordable, yet fun for all? -Kids love parties.
I don't know. I have never given gift bags and I won't, either. I think that they are utterly shameful, and that's that.

Two years ago, we threw a ''carwash'' party and when kids came to our house they were given a squirt bottle and a rag. They loved it.

Why don't you stop thinking of the birthday parties as a ''check the box'' thing and have some fun with them? Go TOWARDS something, instead of away from it?

Last year, we got a cake at Costco, bought two stomp rockets and a bunch of balloons, and went to the local park. The kids loved it. Oh yeah. We also got some of those whistling balloons.

See? That's not a ton. Or take the kids to a local bouncy house place.

Maybe just something goofy. Or start a new family tradition that they and ONE FRIEND can do something special! Kids will tolerate all sorts of stuff as a ''family thing,'' and it will actually be fine. But it seems kind of depressing to not have anything. Heck, a cake at the park is what, 12 bucks?

have fun, whatever you do! oneof those funky, creative moms

I grew up with no birthday parties. I had one at age seven at Burger King, and that was it. Now that I am grown I am very determined to give my kids parties. I feel resentful that I never had parties. My mom says she hates parties and refuses to come to my son's parties.

I feel it is a wonderful privilege that my sons have friends who want to come to his parties and to be able to provide a modest party. They don't have to be extravagent competitive affairs. Can you have it somewhere where all you have to do is bring cake? Some places even will make goody bags for you. You can buy a cake, even a cheap cake at Albertson's or Safeway. Don't worry about what other parents are doing, what treats they give out, etc. Just give one your kids and their friends will enjoy, as low key as possible for you if you find that stressful.

I tend to feel that so many people whine about having too many social obligations and friends, and don't realize how lucky they are to have that problem. Just give your kids some memories and their special days.

Sad memories of no parties

For crying out loud - what's with the gift bags? A little sack full of stuff no one needs. When my kids were little we had their birthday parties at Totland in Berkeley - we'd bring a plastic kiddie pool and a bunch of sandwiches and THAT's IT! When they got older and needed more room we switched to Orinda Community Park or Alvarado Park (great creek in early summer) and had a BBQ for our friends & family. NO games, NO gift bags, and, until they were about 6, NO birthday presents. Of course they got birthday presents from us but not from party goers. Everyone always had a great time and they still (now 13 & 14) remember what fun it was. Bring hot dogs, burgers, buns & sodas and have everyone else pitch in for a potluck. It doesn't have to be a drag (nor should it). Hates Gift Bags
My mother never threw me a birthday party for friends, and I didn't care a lick. I suppose because we always had a family birthday party, which included cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc. I was invited to friends' birthday parties, but parties were different back then (in the 70's)--we just goofed off, gave a present, and had cake & ice cream. I think the bar is so high these days--what with the themes and goody bags... give me a break. I'm sorry you feel pressured (and hoping I won't as the years go by--I have a toddler and a newborn), but I hope you have the strength to do what feels right to YOU. anon
Some thoughts, as a mother of a 6 & 3 year old and veteran of many parties:

First, I wouldn't worry about trying to ''keep up'' with anyone else's party. We've been to really simple parties at the park with pizza, or parties in the backyard with cake, as well as those more elaborate ones with jump houses, magicians, face painters, Gymboree, etc. My children have loved all of these parties, and I have always tended toward the former, simpler kind myself. I've also never heard any other parents complaining that any given party is too simple!

And If the gift bags are the primarly hassle, why not try a place like Birthday Party Express on the web? You can order pre-made gift bags for under $5 each, and they're always a hit with the kids (we've done this for years). I've also known friends to just buy one thing per guest -- like a beach ball, magic markers, playdoh -- and hand those out at the end. Younger kids love this (can't speak for the 7 and up crowd). Please don't get rid of goodie bags altogether -- I think most, if not all, kids absolutely love them. It doesn't seem to matter what is in them, they just like getting something new.

Finally, if you end up having really small parties, or none at all, I don't think you need to worry about reciprocity. Kids are invited to so many birthday parties that the other parents are probably grateful not to have to go to yours, if you cut yours down or eliminate them. Anon

I know two families who celebrate only small family parties. The kids involved are all boys and don't seem to mind, if gender makes a difference. However my daughter, age 6, loves hosting her huge birthday party with all her best friends. It has always been at a local park and I've provided bubbles, chalk and squirt toys to play with and then bring home as goodies. Yes, it is work and expense for me, but the parties bring my daughter so much joy and pride that I would feel selfish to deny her being a host once a year. --it is only once a year
We are horrified at the amount of stuff associated with parties, too. And the expectations (our son announced: ''I want a superman jumper at my birthday party.'') Instead of abandoning a party for school friends altogether, could you just eliminate whatever offends you most? You don't have to meet the standards of other parties.

There are many ways to eliminate presents. We read the BPN advice archives. We've done a book exchange (bring a wrapped, preferably second hand book, go home with another one). It seems too much like trying to convince kids that carrots are yummier than sweets, but it addresses two issues: the needs to bring something to the party and leave with something. I'd really like to ask people to bring a gift for animal shelter, needy kids, etc. We didn't think my son would get it this year. Next time, we may ask for presents for the animal shelter so he can deliver gifts, see the animals -- feel very benevolent (which wouldn't be appropriate with charity for humans).

If the party's not ON his birthday, save some presents to open after the party.

Gift bags: last year we did a treasure hunt. Kids had little things to keep from that. (Oh, collectivists that we are, everyone brought treasures to a central location and then chose from the pot.) Next year we may just not have anything to substitute for gift bags. I don't think kids will notice and if one asks, I will cheerfully say ''we don't have any.''

If your son's birthday isn't in the winter, you have another advantage -- once the rain stops, you can do a party outside at a park. You can even get pizza delivery to the park! A couple of games/relay races/nearby play structure, cake, and balloons and it's a party. I don't think kids notice the coordinated plates, table cloth, etc. My son is happy to choose cake flavor and what decoration he wants on it. Do we appear like parents who are not channelling Martha Stewart? I'm sure we do. Our kid gets a party and it meets minimum standards.

The other parents did not seem to take our doing it differently as a comment on how they do it. Maybe they all thought we are cheap or too poor. We don't judge other parties, or parents, and happily bring presents. lame birthday party giver

If you feel this way, and you are the parent, I think you should set the ''party'' tone and your children will be fine. You can do a much smaller scale outing with a few very special friends. Perhaps a movie and lunch or to the zoo? Or perhaps to a show?

I think it is important to determine what your comfort level is with regards to parties and not let others' parties dictate what you do, don't succumb to that peer pressure. Some simply like to and are good at parties. Just because you don't want to do the same does not mean that your child will feel less special about his special day. There are so many ways to make a child feel special on their birthday. I sincerely hope you can find a comfortable balance for you and your child. You don't even NEED gift bags!

I can well understand your not wanting to do birthday parties, but I think it's a good idea to have them.

Although there is always somebody who outdoes everyone else, basically the kids just want to get together. The minimum is easy enough: juice boxes, cake, ice cream, so it doesn't have to break the bank. I would highly recommend Costco's cakes: they are excellent and inexpensive. I'm a (home) baker myself and my cake bakingteacher recommended them. She was right--my fancier adult cakes were wasted on the kid crowd. Goodie bags can consist of a $2 soap from Bodytime or some such. Limit the time to 90 minutes to 2 hours.

The benefits are many. The kid learns to bring kids to your house,which ultimately as they reach the teens, is desirable. They have to learn to get along in a party situation so it's good for their social skills. You get to know other parents, which always benefits you later on. People I met when my daughter was 2 are still in my circle of friends, available for advice, job help, carpooling, etc. They like to have their special day with their peers.

I think most kids like to conform, and birthday parties are certainly a part of it. If you don't want to do it, how would you answer their questions about why not, since it is so common and usual to want to share the great day.

Believe me, these years go by so quickly. It doesn't last long. Just do it! anon

A friend of mine told me once that it is not necessary to throw birthday parties for child and child's friends until they turn 9+ years old when friends become a significant part of their lives. So until then birthday celebrations can be a nice dinner with family at the child's preffered restaurant. This advice seems to make sense to me.
Both my sons (1.5 and 3.5) have fall birthdays, so we were able to have low-key, no-gifts-please, fun parties at the local park. \x81\xc3\x82 Basically they were big playdates: the snack happened to be cupcakes and milk, and the activity was playing on the structure and in the sand. The kids had lots of fun, and no one missed having goodie bags or a theme. Because it wasn't at our house, I didn't have to worry about how many people would fit! My only costs were the cupcakes and a single mylar balloon to mark our spot. My only stress was hoping we had nice weather. KH
I grew up in a family of seven kids, and our birthday parties were just immediate family. We didn't exchange gifts, but we had traditions. I loved every birthday. I think what's important is that you establish a tradition and make it something your kids look forward to.

I have two kids and, while we have parties with their friends, we have taken a different approach. My daughter is in a class where there are five or six kids with birthdays in the same month. We throw a group party. (I think parents love it - one party instead of six.) Also, we ask that there be no gifts. If guests feel strongly about bringing something, we raise money for a charity of the kids' choosing.

Finally, I hate goody bags. They are full of little 'stuff' that kids play with for a minute and then leave all over the house. I think it teaches kids the opposite of appreciation. They think that they're supposed to have lots of junk but that is has no value. Anyway, at the beginning of the school year, I sent an email to all parents asking that we consider just not doing it. Some parents were thrilled and agreed, others didn't reply and continue to do it. I say, stand your ground and do it your way. Need Less!

Where is it written that you have to give gift bags at parties? If your kid wants a party with lots of kids, throw a party, but keep costs down. You can have a bunch of kids but serve inexpensive food and do whatever it takes to make it fun for the kids but cheap and easy for you. I don't like this trend that you have to give gift bags or do other extravagent expensive things (rent bouncy houses, etc.). We don't at our kids' parties. Don't feel obligated to do anything you don't want to. They'll have fun getting together and eating cake. It's not a wedding for goodness sake. The kids get a place to play and some cake, they don't need all this other stuff. I don't think I ever got a gift bag as a kid when I went to parties. Do what YOU want and don't worry about it! Anon
I got maybe 2 birthday parties, ever. I hated it and really wanted them, but my parents always said they just couldn't afford it. Imagine a glum face and disappointment, but I somehow pulled through.

As I got older, my birthday would mean I could have two friends sleep over instead of just the typical one, and we got to have pizza and maybe ice cream. anon

Birthdays for us meant family over for dinner and cake, not friend parties.

No, I did not feel left out or deprived about not having yearly birthday parties. It's what parents do throughout the year that matters, not just on one day.

I think my parents approach to birthday parties was one of the things they did that helped me to become a less materialistic person than most people.

I hope you start a trend, because I think Americans waste too much time/energy on obligatory social events. Think about all the industry supported by birthdays, Christmas, weddings, multiple showers, engagement parties (I don't even REMEMBER engagement parties before the 1990's), people throwing THEMSELVES anniversary parties. Party planner/event coordinator didnt even used to BE a job.

If you have your kids' friends over for playdates throughout the year, don't feel OBLIGATED to have a birthday party. You hosted them all through the year, so don't sweat the party. Trust me, as a fellow parent, I WOULD WELCOME fewer birthday parties to jam up our schedule.

Tell your kids that your family chooses to have fun ALL YEAR LONG, not just on ONE day of the year. Happy times and happy memories really don't require a bunch of money and hoo-ha. I think you're going down the right path.

Stick to your guns. Partied Out

How about switching off big party/small party? For my son's 1 and 3rd Bdays we had big parties at the YMCA kindergymn. For his 2nd birthday, we invited two families to the Spaghetti Factory for dinnner. For his 4th BDay, we had 4 families kite- flying at the beach. I think we all enjoyed kite-flying party most, including my son. Make the small ones special and memorable and everyone will be happy. Also, if you feel like you're going to too many parties, it leaves folks off the hook who wouldn't necessarily invite you but feel the need to reciprocate. On again off again
It is time to bite the bullet, as you said. Despite that it might be a bit difficult for you, childhood birthday parties are often some of the most wonderful memories for a person. Having a special day where one child is singled out among his friends to celebrate the day he was born with sweets, games, decorations, and brightly wrapped packages is a great experiance for a child to have. You mentioned that you sons goes to plenty of birthday parties, and it is polite to reciprocate. Also, if he is so thrilled about and expects a party, it is a sign that your children know about this custom and will feel left out if they don't have one. Sometimes birthday parties can even be fun for the parents, and they are a great time for kids! Anna
We are not fans of big birthday parties and have always used the guideline of having one guest per year of age of our children. So, for our son's 8th birthday, he invited 8 friends. We modify this a bit, because there is a local cousin and a sibling, but we generally stay within that number. The parties are have always been at our house, with simple kid-friendly food and some activities that my kids and I plan together. As our kids get closer to teenagers, we are likely to switch to small sleepover parties or inviting one friend to do something special.

As for party favors, my kids and I actually enjoy coming up with things to give the guests that they will really like. We don't give junk (or candy) and the kids all seem to like the things we pick. It's obviously not for everyone, given the many negative comments about gift bags, but it works for us. Small parties for us

Weighing in on the elaborate, expensive birthday parties. Some years ago when I was in college I used to work weekends as a coordinator for a place that was rented out for kids' parties. This was in an affluent area of Los Angeles. The parents spent big bucks for custom, bakery-made cakes.. I remember one with white chocolate that had a soccer field theme. The kids would eat one bite and the rest was thrown out. The one thing the kids really loved and ate all of? Home made brownies from a box! Many of the party ideas seem to be more for the parents than the kids. I say keep it simple and have fun. PS My parents never let us have more kids over than our age, ie for seventh birthday no more than 7 kids. This means not inviting the whole class but also keeps it manageable and fun. keep it simple
I think it is absolutely OK for you to celebrate your kids' birthdays however your family is most comfortable. I do think that kids love to have a celebration, but it can certainly be small, even just one or two friends. A fun outing (like the zoo or a street fair) or a sleepover can be just as much if not more fun than a big party. We have had kids make and eat their own pizzas, taken two friends to a baseball game, taken one special friend to a children's play, and brought a friend along on a family birthday weekend trip. All of these ''parties'' were as much fun for my kids (now 10 and 14) as the big ones they had. Second, I agree that party bags are a nightmare. We now choose one nice thing to give, like a book or small stuffed animal. For a sleepover, you can just give a glow stick--very inexpensive but SO much fun for the kids!

Finally, I wanted to comment on the ''keeping up with the Joneses'' aspect of your post. I love giving parties, and have enjoyed hosting some huge, elaborate parties for my kids over the years. I only did them because I truly loved doing them, not to ''outdo'' anyone. Never was there an expectation on my part (or that of my kids) that all parties should be the same, or that friends must somehow reciprocate. If you don't enjoy hosting parties, the stress and resentment you feel will overshadow the joy of the experience for you and your kids. Let go of the guilt, and the resentment towards those who do enjoy having big parties. What's important is that your kids enjoy their special day. A couple of friends and cupcakes in the park can be the best party ever!

Finally, when my kids have large parties, we require that they specify ''no gifts, please'' on the invitation. We have had guests bring checks for Tsunami relief, and cans for the food shelter. We started this when the kids were 6 or so, and could understand that they didn't need all those gifts. They really get into figuring out what charity they want to support. Part of the fun for them of choosing to have a small party is that we allow their friends to bring a gift. Good luck with finding your way. I'm sure you'll figure out a tradition that your whole family can be excited about. Party Mom

I seem to be in the minority here, but I love the little bags o'stuff. They make my son really happy for a while, and I have found that one can be pretty creative about what to put in them. They don't have to be filled with useless silly stuff. That said...

We had just 2 parties for our older son. They were both held in the park. We had a picnic (The picnic was much simpler for the second party.), provided some balls to play with, and for the second party had a pinata. The pinata supplied the gift bags and was an activity that the guests all enjoyed, and we also did the book exchange thing. I really like that idea, by the way, but bring some extra books along just in case someone misunderstands or forgets. That way no kid goes home unhappy. I hope I am done with parties for my older son. For his 6th birthday, we took a couple of families to a baseball game. The next year we had dinner at his favorite restaurant with his best friend and cake at home. bagophile

As everyone was absolutely obsessing over gift bags, I asked my kids (boys 9 & 11) and their friends who were over for playdates whether they cared about gift bags, getting or giving them, and they all answered immediately ''No,''. My eldest son also added smartly ''Dad, what are you wasting your time on NOW?'' They thought that they were nice, but a very small part of a birthday party. It seems to me that it is adults, not kids, who obesess about these things. Have a party, and just don't give out bloody gift bags! Kids don't care! A Foriegner Who Doesn't See What the Big Deal is!
Hi. It's not clear from your post what your biggest issue is with parties: the expense, the effort, the competition, the expectations, etc. I believe it is very important to do something special on a child's birthday, but it doesn't have to be a party. (One of my best birthdays was when my parents took me and 1 friend to an amusement park.) However, generally there is a trade-off between expense and effort. If you want to do something very easy for you, it will probably cost more (like having a party at a party venue where they take care of all the details or having a jumpy house or magician), and if you want to do something fun and inexpensive it will probably be more effort. I would ignore the competition issue as kids for the most part don't judge parties the same way adults might. Kids will have just as much fun at the park as anywhere. Just to address the gift bag issue: there are lots of ideas that are fun and inexpensive. We like to have the ''gift bag'' also be an activity. Here are some things that we have done that have been big hits: 1) Dora the Explorer adventure fiesta, the kids made backpacks out of manilla envelopes, felt, and ribbon for straps and used them to collect the goodies from the pinata; 2) treasure hunt where the kids make little treasure chests (available from craft store), collect treasures like ring pops, little rocks spray-painted gold (they LOVED these), bead necklaces, chocolate coins; 3) swim party where the guests got plastic beach bags from the dollar store and a small pool toy. I don't remember getting gift bags as a kid, but today kids do expect them and they do really appreciate any little token thing. They don't have to be elaborate and expensive. Also, the whole gift-giving tradition at birthdays is useful and contains many important lessons: how to *give* gifts, that sometimes we get something at the store not for ourselves but to give to someone else, thinking about what they might like, how to show appreciation for the gift, writing practice with the thank you notes, etc. Birthdays don't have to be competitive, materialistic, expensive hassles. Good luck finding a way to celebrate your child that feels fun and rewarding for you too! --admitted party lover
Most people who replied were pretty negative about goodie bags, so I wanted to offer another perspective. I think it's important that the birthday child also give in addition to receiving. In some cultures people GIVE presents on their birthdays instead of receiving them! Also, it's hard for little kids to see their friend open a lot of presents and then get nothing. I don't like a bag full of little junk and candy either, but I do like the one party favor idea--a bouncy ball, a bottle of bubbles, etc. I think it's important for guests to go home with SOMETHING, especially since that is the norm in American kids' birthday parties. Involve your child in picking out something that the other kids will like. Set a budget: $1/child or whatever... Or the book/gift exchange accomplishes the same purpose as well. Deborah
Just wanted to add two small thoughts - Purpose of acknowledging birthdays - 1) a thank you/rememberance to the moms who birthed us (more relevant than the truly manufactured Mother's Day!) 2) hey, this is the day we arrived into this fantastic world! Celebrations, traditions - it's part of life, part of the fabric of the culture, community. Just what is ''childhood'' or ''life'' if not memories and experiences? Borrow something from your ethnic background, make it your own. Google ''birthdays around the world'' and find some new ideas. Happy Birthday to all of us! Mama
I know there has been TONS of postings to this question, but I was so depressed by all the replies, I had to chime in. I even went back to re-read the original post to make sure I was addressing your concerns/questions.

I cannot remember a single birthday party as a child, and it amazes me since I am such a party person now. I sometimes wonder if that is partly the reason. I won't rage at you for being a 'no class hippie', but I do think you should be able to find a way to throw a party that would make your child happy without creating the stress you mention.

First of all, please forget the notion of ''competition to make the party as fun as the friends' parties''. I can truly say there is no such thing. As long as you have kids together to play and eat a little cake, they will have fun. If you are more concerned about what the parents are thinking, then that is a separate issue you need to think about (and it's probably unfair to tie that issue up with your child's birthday.)

I think the idea of the goodie bags was to make it easier for all the little kids to watch the birthday boy/girl open all of his/her presents. I rarely go to parties where presents are opened these days so this isn't much of an issue anymore. So, nix the gift bags if you want to, or come up with one small, inexpensive favor to hand out. (I am someone on the other end of the spectrum--I LOVE hosting parties, and I usually give favors at all of my parties, including adult dinner parties. It's a small token of friendship and festivity I bestow upon my friends.)

I also really enjoy throwing parties for my kids. In fact, we just had one last week for my daughter, replete with theme that was carried out for everything: invitations, lunch for about 35, games and activities, and favors. It was lots of work and a fairly significant expense for our budget, but we had a great time. More importantly, my daughter absolutely loved it and really appreciated it. The reason I say all this is that we enjoy it, and it makes our kids feel special. There's no competition in mind, we don't compare our parties to others', and it seems like the kids that come have as much fun at other parties as they do at ours.

An idea for you--Can you combine the grandparents/cousins thing together in one party with the kids? We have done that for a few years and it's become really fun. The grandparents (and great grandparents) get a kick out of watching the kids be kids. You have more adults around to help out with things. You only need to get one cake, etc. It feels like a big celebration (which it is) so your child can really feel special, if that's what he wants.

Otherwise, just do what many posters suggested and have an afternoon in the park with a few games and cake. Once you do it, I doubt you'll still think it is a big cause for stress.

Good luck and enjoy your son's birthday! Elizabeth