In my experience, birthday parties are sort of like Legos.

You think you’ll be able to control them, contain them, buck the trend and keep things modest. And then at some point you find yourself ankle-deep in tiny plastic pieces muttering, “How the heck did it end up like this?”

Depending on where you live and how things are generally handled in your social circles, the birthday party trends will vary, but I know very few parents for whom the first words that come to mind when you say “Birthday Party” are “Understated,” “Inexpensive,” or “Simple.”

It’s a slippery slope. You find out pretty quickly, as a parent, that if your kid wants to invite 10 friends to celebrate his birthday, your sanity may be better off having said party at another location besides your own home, which will require both pre-and-post cleaning and probably a good insurance policy to survive a birthday bash. (Not to mention the general “Keeping up with the Joneses” that you have to either deal with, or actively resist, or find a middle ground, all of which are exhausting in their own ways.) Enter the farms, play places, museums, bowling alleys, laser tag venues, and all other places that open their doors to hordes of birthday children while asking the birthday parents to open their checkbooks.

Listen, we did it. And we did it gladly, to a certain extent, though we tried to set limits — renting lanes at the Mom and Pop bowling alley where we could bring our own homespun cake and snacks, instead of paying for the private party at the local carousel and playspace with the strict outside food rules and catering menu; asking friends to meet us at the beach for a luau-themed picnic instead of taking everyone to a waterpark or paying for “free bounce” hours at a trampoline place. But somewhere along the way, I’ve begun to realize that there are major flaws to throwing the Big Birthday Bash:

  1. The invitation list is never simple, and will never please everyone. Invite the whole class, and you’ve got 24 kids, at least 5 of whom your kid doesn’t even like, and 12 of whom probably won’t ever RSVP, leaving you guessing as to whether they’ll show or not. Don’t, and there are politics involved — if you ask Alice, you have to invite Sarah. If you don’t ask Jake you’ll have to duck his mom at the PTO meeting. You need to invite Logan because Logan invited you to his. Suddenly that list of five great friends balloons to inviting 14 people. And of course, you have to train your kid to think of his birthday party as Fight Club — something that should never be discussed, because you don’t want to hurt the feelings of the 10 kids who aren’t invited.
  2. The venues are too expensive for me to feel good about booking them. The golden moments of inspiration like that free picnic at the public beach notwithstanding, the majority of birthday parties — at least where we live — are going to require you to shell out $200+ just to get in the door of your chosen venue. Add to that the cost of feeding everyone, plus any party favors (we’ll get to those in a second) and “extras” you want to add on, and suddenly it’s $400 for 90 minutes of noise and stressful supervision. (“Are you having a good time? Did you get a slice of pizza? No honey, your mom sent you your own allergen-free cupcake, don’t eat the big one. Sure, I can open that water for you. Sure, I can open a second water for you and help you clean up the spill from the first one.”)
  3. The goody bags. Oh, Lord, the goody bags. The choices appear to be “fill them with crap” or “Become a Pinterest Ninja.” I am bad at both of those things, and I also inwardly rebel at the idea of goody bags because remember when being invited to a fun party and eating cake with your friends was its own reward? I’ve tried to be creative, doing things like snapping up discounted Lego Mixel sets for a couple of bucks apiece and handing those out instead of the usual candy-jammed atrocities, but the entire tradition of the goody bag appears designed to waste the money of the host family while breeding seething resentment in the receiving parents, who have to figure out how to stealth-trash the majority of the contents while their kids are sleeping.

Still, the kids were happy with their Birthday Bashes. But this year we’re flipping the script.

It started a while back, after L. had his 9th birthday party (at a rock-climbing gym with a minimum booking fee and a per-head cost). He enjoyed himself, his 10 or so friends had a good time, and it was a fairly simple party to pull off, in the grand scheme of parties we’ve done. But not long after that day, L. started musing on what his NEXT birthday should look like. And as I thought about performing The Birthday Extravaganza for a 10-year-old, and then on and on into the horizon, I suddenly heard myself saying, “What if we didn’t really do a party? What if we took a friend or two and did something fun instead?”

A light appeared behind his eyes. Suddenly, it was as if I’d relieved him of some obligation I hadn’t even realized was being foisted upon him. No guest lists, invitations, arrangements, or endless choices to be made; just grab some buddies and go someplace that suited him? He enthusiastically agreed. Now his birthday is still 5 months away, and he’s more excited talking about his “small birthday” than he has ever been talking about the bashes.

I thought we’d still have to plan a big party for hyper-social P., especially given that he’s only turning 7 this year. But again, I was surprised — when I started to ask him about the choices for a Birthday Bash this year, he didn’t seem overly enthusiastic about any of them. And for $250 in booking fees, I was hoping for a warmer reaction than “I guess that would work.”

Finally, in exasperation, I turned to him and said “Do you even really want a big party?”

My six-year-old thought for a minute and then replied, “I don’t know if I do.”


As it turned out, when I really sat down and listened to him, and presented some options that weren’t Big Bash ideas, what my little one really wanted more than anything was to invite his two best buddies from the first grade to come to our house, wear their pjs, eat pizza, watch movies, play Legos, and stay up late. (“Late,” for these three kids, was 8:30 p.m.) And in the planning of something that easy, I had to continually bite back my own impulses:
“Are you sure this is all you want?”
“Should we get the reptile guy to come over and do an animal show?”
“What will the three of you do if you get bored?”
“Should we have goody bags?”

I swear it was pathological. I couldn’t get out of Bash Mindset. But as I relaxed into it and slowly let myself embrace the wondrous simplicity of his idea, it was amazing how freed I felt.

I could focus enthusiastically on the elaborate cake idea he presented to me, because I didn’t have anything else to worry about. I could make a spontaneous trip to pick up Star Wars balloons and a little Happy Birthday banner to decorate the dining table, because I had time to spare. We ordered pizzas and made a veggie plate and a great cake and three little boys thundered around our house making messes and having a blast.

“Mom,” P. said to me that night, as I tucked him into bed with a post-party grin. “Thank you for being the best.”

He didn’t need anything else. No Bash Required. I was the best because I let him take the lead. I was the best because I let his birthday be his birthday, not some representation of what I thought a birthday party should look like. I was the best because less is more and kids don’t need a big, stressful, screaming, overly-gifted event to feel special. P. felt special because two carefully chosen friends who make him feel good about himself came to spend time with him, and brought small, thoughtful presents, and because Mom and Dad were happy and relaxed and able to joyfully say Yes: Yes to his movie choice. Yes to ordering from his favorite pizza joint. Yes to his cake, Yes to his favorite homemade dip, Yes to Pellegrino Italian sodas and Yes to his Storm Trooper pajamas.

Later that night, after P. was sleeping, I tucked in his big brother and L. turned to me with a musing look. “Mom. For my Small Birthday, we don’t have to do a big pizza and stuff like people always do, right?”

“No, I guess you’re right. We don’t. Why, did you have something else in mind?”

“I thought maybe, if it’s just a few of us having fun, maybe we can do cheeseburgers. That would be my choice, Mom. Cheeseburgers and fries with my friends. Think we could do that?”

Oh, I think we can.