The Birthday One-Up: When Is It Enough?

Family, Featured Article, Party Ideas

It’s no secret in parenting circles that kids’ birthday parties are out of control! In a quest to ensure their child’s birthday party will leave their peers talking about it long after the live circus performers and petting zoo goes home, parents, party planners say, are going to extremes in the birthday party planning, some even risking their financial wellness to do so.

“Parents are throwing budgets out of the window and are willing to indulge for this one day. Not only are the parties themselves becoming more grand, but the guest lists are exploding. And what’s considered a great party is shifting,” says Angel Wilkes, owner and event designer for Children’s Party Plus, an event planning company in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“I’ve done princess parties where Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Tiana and Belle are all in attendance. A princess party is no longer kids wearing cute little tiaras and dresses. It’s now horse-drawn carriages, paint-a-horse craft activities and have each princess present a different activity.”

Even experts are buying into the notion that to be a great party, it’s got to be elaborate and therefore pricey.

“I just threw a superhero/princess party for my twins and definitely spent more than necessary because I wanted my kids to feel extra special,” says Helen Holden, mom of 5-year-old twins and a founder of the birthday party planning site

Holden confesses she overdid it by incorporating a sundae bar. “This was overkill since the cupcakes were included in the venue fee, and after pizza, it was just too much food.”

It was also a waste. “Most kids enjoyed putting the toppings on the sundae, but they really didn’t eat much of it,” says Holden. “To top it off, I paid an additional fee for an extra 30 minutes, and most kids had left before the standard two hours was up or they were cranky, over-sugared and ready for a nap.”

Her other costly splurge? Outrageous goodie bags.

“I spent too much because I wanted to make a great impression. I stuffed the bags full of light-up rings, stickers, pens, notepads, balls and other assorted trinkets,” says Holden, who estimates the party cost around $1,200.

But are birthday cakes that rival multi-layer wedding cakes, lavish entertainment and a neighborhood of bounce houses in your backyard really worth it?

The answer depends on who you ask.

Wilkes says parents of kids attending these extravaganzas have reactions that are all over the place.

“I’ve been told ‘I am a terrible parent, I don’t do a quarter of this,’” says Wilkes. But she’s also been told by parents that it’s a waste to spend a small fortune on something most kids won’t remember.

A day of regret

It’s common for parents planning the bash to question themselves, says Wilkes. But that doesn’t mean they scale back or downsize plans to pull out all the stops. “The birthday parents are usually questioning themselves a couple of times during the planning process. There is some remorse usually when other parents come around because those who’ve gone over the top feel judged somewhat,” says Wilkes.

In addition to risking feeling a little foolish and busting their own budgets, parents who lack a little party-planning self-control could put a child’s future financial health in danger.

“Financial responsibility is a lesson that can and should be introduced early in life. And if parents are risking their financial wellness needlessly, that could be problematic,” says Miranda Goodman-Wilson, assistant professor of psychology at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. “Particularly if, in doing so, they are conveying the message to their child that we are entitled to whatever we want, regardless of cost.”

Your child’s behavior and attitude could be jeopardized by an elaborate birthday soirée, too, if the party isn’t thrown for the right reasons.

Goodman-Wilson says if — and how — elaborate birthday bashes influence a child’s well-being hinges on how the reasoning behind the party is conveyed to them. And that treating the party like a competitive event or over-emphasizing the material over the social significance of the event could be problematic.

“A family who can afford all the bells and whistles and throws an elaborate party because it makes them happy is not necessarily raising the child to be a spoiled brat. However any party held as an attempt to one-up another family or because the child is demanding extravagant extras, teaches the child to expect excess rather than to be grateful for the chance to spend time with friends and family, the importance of being a good host, etc.,” she says.

Goodman-Wilson says the birthday girls featured on MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16” who make outrageous demands learned their unruly behavior, most likely, from their parents. “That behavior was definitely taught to them. And an over-the-top kindergarten party could be the start.”

Take a deep breath

Before shelling out three months’ salary on a 2-year-old’s birthday, Goodman-Wilson suggests taking a step back.

Ask yourself who the party is really going to please. “For early birthday parties, the over-the-top details are really to please and impress the parents, not the children themselves.” A simple park birthday party and store-bought cake is likely to be as appealing, if not more so, to preschoolers.

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