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September 7, 2006

When Birthday Party Blowouts Blowup

http://www.jewishjournal.com/celebrations_simchas/article/when_birthday_party_blowouts_blowup_20060908

The wedding invitation convinced me that modern moms and dads have officially lost their gumballs regarding children's birthday parties. "Master Jacob Estroff" read the ivory parchment envelope; it took a moment to register that the addressee was in fact Jakey, my 5-year-old. The bride-to-be (Miss Sophia Rosenthal) was Sophie, his toothless classmate.

The party lived up to its invitation. There were bridesmaids, groomsmen and, of course, a mini groom and a mini chuppah. There was even a wedding cake taller than the birthday bride herself.

In all fairness, Jewish parents come by it honestly. We've barely cleared labor and delivery before we're expected to be on the phone with the caterer ordering bagels and lox for 200 for the bris or baby naming.

It seems a natural progression to plan a three-ring circus in the cul-de-sac when that bundle of joy turns 6. It's just that somewhere between the petting zoo, the pony rides and the moonwalk we end up with an empty wallet, a giant headache and a kid who is so overwhelmed by the hoopla, he can barely enjoy his big day.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that we bail on our kids' birthday parties altogether. On the contrary, these annual rites of passage are much-anticipated events in our children's lives. But going to the opposite extreme isn't the answer either.

Fortunately, it's perfectly possible to plan a kid-friendly birthday bash without compromising our values, sanity and pocketbook. All it takes is a little panning for gold.

You know when you take a big clump of mud and swoosh it around in a pan until a few glistening specks of gold are all that remain. Well, we're going to do the same thing here. Only instead of mud, we're going to swoosh a big, mushy mess of modern birthday party madness.

Are you swooshing yet? Do you see those overpriced invitations and goody bags spilling over the sides into a bucket by your feet? Great, keep swooshing. But don't go peeking at those golden nuggets yet. Not until we've spent some time looking at the slush in the bucket, and have a clear grasp on what exactly our child's birthday party does not need to be (regardless of what parenting magazines, party planners or other parents might think):

  • It does not need to be a reflection of our parental prowess. We accomplish lots of amazing feats as parents. Getting our children out the door and into school every morning; keeping them safe, healthy and happy. Our child's birthday party is but one little parenting accomplishment in a year of millions; it's hardly a manifestation of our maternal savvy.

  • It does not need to be a Martha Stewart masterpiece. Have you ever bought a magazine based on the teaser "foolproof birthday party ideas" only to realize a page and a half in that you are a fool for buying the magazine in the first place? Not only is making tulip-shaped cupcakes not foolproof, but it takes a degree from the World Culinary Institute. Besides, our kids couldn't care less if their cupcakes are shaped like tulips or toilets, as long as they're yummy, icing-soaked and flanked with the right amount of candles.

  • It does not have to be an unprecedented concept. Do you know that sinking feeling we get when we learn another kid is having a birthday gala at the same secret site we've booked for our own child's party -- only a week earlier. "The nerve!" we think to ourselves. "I've had that inflatable jumpy place booked for a year and that parent stole the idea right out from under me." But the reality is our kids love playing on inflatable jumpy stuff. They would do it day in and day out if we'd let them. I must ask you this: Would you turn up your nose at an opportunity to go to a spa just because you did the same thing last weekend? I think not.

  • It does not need to go off without a hitch. For my niece's sixth birthday, my sister-in-law booked a highly acclaimed magician, months -- if not years -- in advance. You could taste the excitement as the guests counted down the seconds until he arrived. And then they counted some more. And some more. Until it became painfully evident that the magician had taken his vanishing act to the next level.

That's when they started building Oreo towers. Those kids went through package after package of double stuffs until they'd constructed a bona fide chocolate cookie Camelot. And then it was time to go home. "Thanks, that was fun," the children told my catatonic sister-in-law as they exited.

Lesson learned? Despite a catastrophic birthday party disaster, my niece turned 6, the guests were happy and we had a family memory that would last years beyond the applause after a perfectly executed magic show.

OK then. I think we're finally ready to peek at the golden nuggets. At those few precious, glimmering things our child's birthday party should be. They look something like this:

  • A fun, memorable day spent with family and friends.

  • A means of making them feel happy, proud and loved.

  • A celebration of their development, uniqueness and existence.

Sharon Duke Estroff is an internationally syndicated Jewish parenting columnist, award-winning Jewish educator and mother of four. Her first book, "Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah? The Essential 411 on Raising Modern Jewish Kids" will be published by Broadway Books, a division of Random House in 2007.

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