Nfld. & Labrador·Point of view

Hey parents: Let's dial down the birthday party drama

High social pressure and even higher costs means birthday parties have gotten out of hand, writes Terri Coles.

If we're honest with ourselves, we know it's more for grown-ups than for the kids

Terri Coles wonders if children's birthday parties are more for the parents than for the kids. (CBC)

My son is in kindergarten, and last week he brought home an invitation for a birthday party. This has happened several times now since he started school in September, and he's always very excited about it. 

Of course, I'm happy to give him the chance to spend extra time with his friends, outside of the classroom. And it gives me an opportunity to meet and chat with other parents. 

I noticed something different about this party, though. 

There was a note on the back of the invitation saying presents aren't necessary, but if we wanted to give something the birthday boy would welcome five dollars to save for an upcoming summer trip. 

I had actually thought of writing a similar note on the invitations for my son's own party, after a neighbour mentioned the idea. In the end I didn't do it, because I was worried that it would seem bossy — guests can, of course, give any kind of gift they like, including no gift at all. And I didn't want to seem presumptuous, or to ruin anybody's fun in picking something out. 

But really, what kid wouldn't enjoy having a nice stash to spend on vacation, or gathering their birthday money together to pick out one coveted larger gift? The idea makes sense.

Rising cost of birthday parties

Buying a present is just one of the expenses that come with kids and birthday parties. 

A custom cake can cost up to $100. Kids are often expected to invite all of their classmates, which can mean a couple hundred dollars to rent a room to fit everyone.

Many parents feel the pressure to turn their children's birthday parties into one-of-a-kind celebrations. (CBC)

A single enormous inflated balloon in the shape of Chase from Paw Patrol can run you $25, but you don't want to skip the matching plates, and cups, and other themed decorations. And children figure out pretty quickly what a loot bag is, which means you don't want to risk their social alienation by being the parent who decided they weren't necessary.

My son had a birthday party of his own back in September. It wasn't an outrageous affair, but it wasn't a DIY gathering in our living room either. He had a great time, and his friends seemed to enjoy themselves too. 

I know rationally that it was a nice party that my son was happy with. But I admit that there was a small part of me that wondered if we hadn't made it special enough, or fun enough, or otherwise over-the-top enough.

Parents are very good at finding ways to worry that they are screwing their kids up, and I guess I can add concerns about birthday party extravagance to my own personal list.

But is it possible that all the fuss of fondant cakes and themed decorations and parties that run into the hundreds of dollars is more about what the parents want than it is about what the kids want?

Getting back to birthday basics

Kids don't need a dollar store's worth of throwaway toys in a loot bag, or party entertainment to rival a cabaret.

The main thing I've noticed at the parties I've attended is that the kids really just want to run around and play with their friends.

They are just as excited about a grocery store cake as they are about a custom-made creation that could hold its own on Cake Boss — it just needs to have a lot of icing. They are pretty happy with cheese pizza, space to run around in, and a bunch of balloons to bat around.

The costs of hosting and even going to a birthday party can add up, right down to the gift bag. (CBC)

And yes, children definitely love to get presents — who can blame them? But most of them are not short on toys, and plenty of parents would be happy to not have to find more room in their homes for yet more gifts. 

Even $10 per kid for a present adds up if your child's class has 20-plus students in it. And more often than not, parents now leave present opening for after the party so nobody else is actually going to know what you did or did not give.

I understand how it happens. My own birthday is Jan. 1, which means I could never have a party with friends on a day anywhere close to that. It is possible that I'm still a little sensitive about that. 

And like many families these days, I only have one child — smaller families can mean a bigger birthday budget to go around, and if you can spend it you might wonder why you shouldn't.

But when I think back about my own birthdays, I do not remember what I got in a single loot bag, or what any of the decorations looked like. My best memories are of sleep-over parties with friends, watching movies we probably shouldn't have been watching and staying up far later than was sensible. 

If we all gave ourselves, as parents, the permission to dial it back on birthdays we'd likely be happier for it — and our kids probably wouldn't even notice.


Terri Coles


Terri Coles is a St. John's-based freelance writer.


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