Last August I accompanied my children to the biggest birthday bash of the millennium--I hope. It was a theme party based on the Powerpuff Girls cartoon show. The big-headed, big-eyed superheroes adorned napkins, plates, cups, tablecloths, party favors, wrapping paper, invitations, thank-you notes and the cake. The party was held on a stormy evening in a spiffy, new city park. After the cookout and some free playtime, an actual Powerpuff Girl made an appearance. She arrived late--her superpowers didn't include Mega-Colossal Sense of Direction. She chirped at the children, sang "Happy Birthday" and assured them that they were all Powerpuff Girls inside. (Fortunately, my son is secure enough in his gender identity not to be concerned about the possibility of a large, pastel-toned animated girl lurking inside him.)
All the kids were asked to make funny faces for the video camera, which taped quite a bit of the party, giving me an uneasy feeling that the whole thing was staged in hopes of making it to America's Funniest Home Videos.
After a bathroom break, ("She's gone to take a Power-Pee," I whispered to the other mothers), a sweaty young woman returned, without her false head, to do face painting and balloon animals. We snuck away right after the cake; it was almost bedtime. The birthday girl had yet to begin on the mountain of presents heaped on the picnic table.
The PPG party was a major event. What will these parents do for their daughter's next birthday? And can you imagine what her wedding will be like?
My kids had a great time, playing in the dusk and eating junk food. But I was overwhelmed by this glimpse of kiddie commercialism. I sang the Quaker song "'Tis a Gift To Be Simple, 'Tis a Gift To Be Free" all the way home.
As you can tell, it was our first pre-fab theme party. I've thrown theme parties myself and Benny has been to a few, but we're do-it-yourself-ers. It wasn't an issue when Benny and his friends were younger. A huge effort for birthday parties for kids under age 4 is a waste of time. When you're 4, it's a good party if you get to eat some cake, run laps around the living room, and not wrestle the birthday child for the gift you brought him or her. As the parental hosts of a 4-year-old's party, it's a success if only half of the children dissolve in tears over the course of the party.
The first time I mounted a theme party for Benny was for his fifth birthday. The theme: Knights. I designed a pin-the-tail-on-the-dragon game; put together craft materials for the kids to make crowns; and made little velveteen pouches, filled with fake gems and gold "coins" (chocolate Hanukkah gelt) as party favors. I served a "medieval" lunch, with large slabs of bread in lieu of plates, on which they could pile meat and cheese and mugs of hearty (root) beer or (ginger) ale. If it sounds like I put a lot of time and effort into the party, I did. It didn't cost much though. Benny helped with the plans and preparations, which was somewhat educational. (If there are 24 plastic gems and 16 pieces of candy, how many do you put into the eight goodie bags?)
Was this amount of effort wasted on 5-year-olds? Possibly. The most enjoyable activity of the day was repeatedly jumping in the piles of leaves my husband raked up 20 minutes before the party began. But I was okay with that. You have to go with the flow when you're hosting a kid's birthday party. A rigid agenda is a big mistake. Even at 6 or 7, they often run through the planned activities in a quarter of the time you think it will take, and then just yell and chase each other around.
Not too long ago, our friend Martin had a Harry Potter theme party. His mom, Kim, designed craft projects, a pin-the-letter-on-the-owl game, Harry Potter invitations and thank-you notes, and assembled appropriately magical party favors, spending a similar amount of time, energy and money as I did on the knights theme. Next year, Kim predicts everyone will be having Harry Potter birthday parties, because there will be all this merchandise available. And it won't be wonderful like Martin's party was, because it will be common and commodified.
To be honest, Benny always enjoys birthday parties, and accepts all invitations. He liked the Powerpuff Girls party; he liked the parties he's been to at the Museum of Life and Science, Busy Street, Wheels, and Spence's Farm. He likes playing with a group of kids and eating cake and getting candy and cheap toys to take home. He's a party animal, and it probably has nothing to do with the one Grateful Dead concert he attended in utero. I'm sure he'd be perfectly happy at a party with no planned activities, no entertainment, in the middle of a field with half a dozen friends and a cake on a picnic table. Utensils, optional.
So why bother to cut 25 gnomes from red felt or find the perfect goodies to send home with the other kids? Are elaborate birthday parties and homemade cakes just an outlet for the thwarted creativity of parents who want to be cool, who want to be kids again themselves? Maybe they are. But I want my kids to see the planning, labor and materials that go into their parties, just as I want them to see the planning, labor and materials that go into their lunch. I want them to know that money and plastic toys aren't the only forms of wealth in the world--that love and time and creativity are priceless.