by Paula Mills

Parties don’t need to be flashy to be fun

Children’s parties are the number-one method used by competitive parents to outdo each other. Philippa Macken finds that you don’t need to be flashy to be fun.

Harry was beside himself. I held his tiny hand as he hopped alongside me, barely able to contain his excitement. We were on our way to a birthday party for a little friend, and Harry’s enthusiasm was matched only by my trepidation. As we entered the birthday boy’s backyard, my worst fears were confirmed. Harry squealed his delight and ran to join the fray as I surveyed the scene.

Forget balloons and streamers. This backyard had been completely transformed into a mini golf course. Speechless, I made my way over to the parents and caught the tail end of the conversation: “… so my parents pitched in and we managed to make the whole thing out of papier-mache, which we measured to fit the yard and painted in Riley’s favourite colours. I bought the clubs and balls online and the scoring system is the same as a professional golf course. Anyone for a vol-au-vent?”

Call me cynical, but if the past six years of parenting have taught me anything, it’s that children’s parties are the number-one method used by competitive parents to outdo each other. Pitching a jumping castle in the backyard? I’ll see your jumping castle and raise you a petting farm. You call that a party? Forget chickens and rabbits. I’ve got ponies and reptiles.

Once upon a time, community halls were hired by enthusiastic parents for their children’s coming-of-age celebrations when they turned 18 or even 21. Today? Community hall parties are commonplace for five-year-olds, whose parents blow hundreds of dollars on DJs and disco lights. At this rate, parents will have exhausted every single party option before their children hit double figures. And where to from there?

Janine, mother of two, believes it’s a sign of the times. “Gone are the days of inviting a few friends over, letting them loose in the backyard, cutting a cake, singing happy birthday and exiting with a simple lolly bag,” she says. “When my son started school this year, I was terrified by stories of elaborate birthday parties featuring magicians, face painting and an opportunity to ‘create your own canvas’ with a contemporary artist.

“Don’t even get me started on those homemade extravaganza birthday cakes!” she continues. “I have decided to walk the road less travelled and invite a few good friends for my son’s birthday in the backyard. The dads can run some games, and I’ll make a vanilla sponge with chocolate icing. Hopefully, my son won’t be scarred for life.”

Cath, mother of two boys under the age of six, couldn’t agree more. She recently made a commitment to get back to basics and hasn’t looked back. “My husband brought home a pile of huge cardboard boxes. We used a roller brush and painted them in Lego colours,” says Cath. “They were a huge hit at our backyard party. The boys and girls built forts and climbed all over them. The boxes lasted for a couple of weeks after the party – the tougher the box, the better it can weather the battering.”

by Paula MillsCould it be that the tide is turning? The dip in the economy may have taught us a lesson we can carry through sunnier economic days. The message? That setting the bar too high where birthdays are concerned is fraught with danger.

Michaela, an expat living in Ireland with her husband and baby girl, gives a realistic account of how quickly financial stability can change: “Kids’ parties were ridiculous here for years during the economic boom. Children had huge bouncy castles in their backyard, marquees set up with catered food, and the present was usually a €50 note in the card. Now we are in a recession and families have had to drastically cut costs. But it’s not all bad; we’ve been forced to get creative.

“I recently attended a birthday party for a neighbourhood boy. His father had been laid off work and they were struggling financially. The theme was ‘pirates’ and each child received a paper pirate hat and a homemade eye-patch on arrival. The day was filled with pirate games, like ‘walk the plank’ and tug of war, and a treasure hunt using maps. The children had a ball and talked about it for weeks afterwards. Let’s face it, no-one talks about a bouncy castle, because everyone has them,” says Michaela.

The current trend at my six-year-old daughter’s school is to invite the whole class to every birthday party. Now, let’s consider this for a moment. With 20 children in a class and, say, 36 weeks in a school year, that’s one party every second weekend. At an average of $20 per present, this adds up to $400, to say nothing of the immeasurable amounts of sugar and preservatives being consumed at each event.

Could this all be a symptom of the ‘helicopter parenting’ that’s received so much publicity lately? Parents who are perhaps a little too involved in their children’s lives are working themselves into a frenzy to keep up with the pace and quality of birthday parties for their little ones. We all know that the children couldn’t care less. Give them a balloon, a piece of cake and a bunch of friends, and they’re happy.

I say this as someone who has not been immune to party pressure. I, too, have blown hundreds of dollars on tenpin bowling and hire-a-fairy parties. However, in an effort to come back down to earth, I decided to get back to basics for my children’s birthdays this year.

When my daughter turned six, we invited a bunch of friends to a local nature reserve. We cooked sausages and lay about on picnic blankets while the children climbed trees and played hide-and-seek. It was a gorgeous day, enjoyed equally by young and old.

Buoyed by the success of this simple event, I followed a similar plan for my son’s fourth birthday. The running sheet went something like this: pirate treasure hunt in the garden, bobbing for doughnuts, bash the piñata, pass-the-parcel, a quick splash in the pool and then hot dogs for lunch. Easy! It took a bit of planning but proved far cheaper than hiring someone to run the party for me or the per-head cost of a play centre. It was a memorable day and a genuine celebration of my little boy’s life.

And isn’t that what it’s all about?

Illustrations by Paula Mills