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Birthday Party Confidential

Competitive parents set the expectations high with lavish birthday parties


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I always say that the worst of modern parenting is wrought not by kids but by other parents—those competitive, hyper-involved moms and dads whose hovering creates an arms race of expectations.

They are the forces behind those gorgeous homemade cupcakes with sculpted fondant that make parents like me burn with shame as we sneak grocery store cookies onto the bake sale table. They’re the ones who trick out their kindergarten students’ dioramas with LEDs and sound effects, and later spend thousands of dollars to send their 11th graders to SAT boot camps to help nudge their scores into Ivy League range.

And can we talk about the birthday parties?

Remember when even kids in an upper-middle-class neighborhood wished for nothing more than pointy hats and noisemakers, dominion over the rec room, and an ice cream cake from Baskin-Robbins? A pony was the absolute height of extravagance.

Now there’s an entire industry to help perfectionist parents plan elaborate celebrations that indulge their children’s obsessions and fantasies. A friend told me of a Willy Wonka–themed party that re-created the factory—complete with little people playing Oompa Loompas. Another’s friend’s preschooler attended a classmate’s Princess Tea Party in a Westgate ballroom, where they enjoyed a live string quartet, actress “princesses” told stories, and each toddler left with a real china teacup filled with candy.

Parents like me burn with shame as we sneak grocery store cookies onto the bake sale table.

Those are extreme examples, perhaps, but even among us mere mortals, expectations run high. There are few options that get you to the end of the day without shelling out at least $350 that might otherwise generate college tuition in a savings plan.

It’s tough to resist the allure of the overpriced party mill. When the kids are very young, parents tag along, so parties at home require throwing a parallel event for the adults. Add a bounce house—now a minimum standard—and you’re well into the $300s anyway.

Searching for some relief from the house-party pressure, we discovered that Ultrazone (laser tag), Sky Zone (trampolines), and Game Truck (video games on wheels) sequestered the chaos—and the cleanup—quite nicely. One year, we let my daughter choose a friend to bring to Disneyland, which was even pricier. But expectations and requests inched higher each year as the kids attended new places like iFly (indoor skydiving).

Then, for his 12th birthday, my son decided to just invite friends over for junk food, video games, and an epic Nerf gun battle. Imitating him, my daughter’s next party was a backyard campout where they had s’mores around the fire pit and slept in tents.

Both parties cost less than $100, the joy they brought was palpable, and my kids marked them as their favorite birthdays ever. Perhaps the most incredible fantasy we can give our kids is living in a world where parents make themselves scarce and kids get to drive the fun. Could be a new trend!

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