More than 100 guests sat in a sea of round banquet tables in a Studio City hotel, munching on fancy appetizers presented by waiters. A band warmed up. Kids crowded entertainment stations waiting for artists to personalize clothing and paint their faces.
I had been invited to a 1-year-old's birthday and was about to leave, convinced I'd accidentally entered a bar mitzvah reception. Then I saw David's mom, parading the sleepy birthday boy around in her arms.
These days, over-the-top children's birthday parties are not just for the rich and famous. Extravagant shindigs are becoming increasingly common. And while many adults have fond childhood memories of simple celebrations, today's birthday party expectations have exploded -- both for children and their parents. But how much is too much? And is this kind of extravagance harmful to children?
Stacey Parzik, owner of Parties By Stacey, has seen this trend developing since she started her party-planning business 13 years ago.
"When I first started the company, customers either rented a Moonbounce or a hired a clown. Now it's both things and more," said the Woodland Hills planner.
When a Westside mother, who asked not to be named, attended an elaborate birthday party in Beverly Hills with her 7-year-old daughter, she was stunned. Several actors dressed as storybook characters mingled with the young guests, while professional stylists worked on the young girls' hair and makeup as if they were going to a Hollywood premiere. A handful of kids jumped around inside a Moonbounce, while others went through racks of clothes to find the perfect outfit to complement their makeovers and new hairdos.
"It was out of control," the mother said.
While her daughter clearly enjoyed herself, the mother could tell her child was overwhelmed by it all.
Dana Shrager, a clinical psychotherapist in Century City, warns that such large parties can be intimidating to some children.
"Large crowds and elaborate stimulation can be overwhelming," she said. "You want your child to enjoy the party."
"If you expose a 4-, 5- or 6-year-old child to that degree of excess, you create wildly unrealistic expectations for them for the rest of their lives, which is a terribly irresponsible thing for a parent to do," said Rabbi Steve Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple and author of "More Money Than God: Living a Rich Life Without Losing Your Soul" (Bonus Books, 2004).
Leder remembers a time when modesty reigned. Growing up in Minnesota in the '60s, he said the attitude was to remain slightly behind one's peers.
"In one generation that ethic has been completely subverted," he said. "Now the thought is to stay one step ahead of the neighbors."
Leder partly attributes the problem to Jews marrying later in life, putting them in a better monetary position than the parents of young children just a generation ago. He said the mature parents often worry that their own parents won't be around for their grandchildren's weddings or bar mitzvahs, so they sometimes use these dynamics as excuses to overindulge during birthday parties.
"Parents will engage and correct when it comes to racist and sexist issues, but materialism is a different story," Leder said. "Gross materialism is the last acceptable -ism in our culture."
Since tzedakah (charity) is a sacred duty, Leder feels the excuses don't justify the excess. Instead, Leder said, parents should confront such issues and use experiences with extravagance as an opportunity to teach their children about what is appropriate.
As for fears of negative comments getting back to party hosts? "I'm willing to take the risk in order to raise a menschy child," Leder said.