Party party party

Hugh McKay has a very grumpy rant in the SMH today about the excessiveness of children’s birthday parties. He starts with a description of a two year old’s party, which is more extreme than any two year old’s party I’ve ever been to (I must move in the wrong circles), and then goes on to complain that the parents stayed at the party, blaming helicopter parenting for the fact that parents didn’t just drop their kids off. The first clue that this is mostly a rant about modern parents, and how they aren’t just letting their children be children. While it’s possible that in the older, simpler days which we should all go back to, parents dropped two year olds off at a party to be there by themselves for two hours, it seems a little unlikely to me.

“For some parents, weekends have become an endless round of children’s parties. It’s sometimes more than one a weekend and the parties themselves are steadily becoming slicker, more sophisticated, more elaborate and more competitive; more like quasi-adolescent affairs.”

“As usual, it’s tempting to blame the marketing industry for “doing this to our children” and there are some big moral questions for that industry to ask itself. But who fuels the AC trend by paying for the products and supporting the activities that drive it? Yes, children put pressure on their parents to buy all the accoutrements of premature adulthood, but parents ultimately control what young children buy, how many parties they attend, what media they consume and how they spend their time.”

There are several aspects of children’s birthday party culture that do bug me. Party bags (or favours, as our US influenced culture is starting to call them) seem ridiculous to me. When I was going to parties, you got a slice of birthday cake to take home with you, not a collection of sugary sticky sweets that are bound to make a mess of the car going home (and which we immediately tend to confiscate, if we can get away with it). Bigger parties are much more common which leads to two problems – far more frequent parties, and too many presents for the birthday child.

But parties are fun, too. You get to see all your friends out of a school environment, you get to play some silly games, and you learn some social skills like being nice to your guests, and behaving like a host should.  

The society my children are growing up in is way richer than the society I grew up in. So parties do happen more often, and more guests are invited. But that is not just a child centred phenomenon. It’s pretty common these days to have a big bash if you have a round number birthday (25, 30, 40, 50…). And most kids these days will have a huge party for both their 18th and 21st parties. That didn’t happen 30 or 40 years ago either. 

So if there is a problem with children’s parties, it is a symptom of a wider problem of overconsumption that we as a society have, not another chance to beat parents up for turning their children into adults prematurely.


For an economic take on birthday parties, read this post from Joshua Gans, with a link to a description of his daughter’s fantastically cool 8 year old Tupperware party – consumerism by accident.

  8 comments for “Party party party

  1. January 13, 2008 at 11:31 am

    That Tupperware link was pretty cool.

    We’ve been lucky, in recent years, in that the Bee has wanted to have sleepovers, which gives an instant rationale for limiting the guest list. Plus, not that much consumerism is possible in the sleepover universe (I’m probably jinxing myself by even writing that). We don’t really live in a place where crazy parties are the norm, don’t get me wrong.

  2. January 13, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    No crazy parties here, either, although since kindergarten started there have been those to which the entire class is invited. I hate those. I get that the parents don’t want to leave anyone out — but dude, that’s just too many parties! There are 23 kids in my son’s class.

    I’ve been to quite a few parties which were ‘no-presents-please’ parties.

    A lot of parties here are at parks, even in the winter. My son’s Dec 15 party was outside.

    I would never leave my 2yo at a party without me. That seems rude to the host. Who wants to be responsible for changing all those kids’ diapers (just as one example)?

  3. JenniferV
    January 14, 2008 at 9:27 pm

    That comment about not dropping the two year olds off any more just made me think that Hugh McKay had never taken kids to a party in his life! A more accurate observation might have been that in those olden golden days two year olds didn’t have parties, beyond perhaps a small family gathering.

  4. January 16, 2008 at 8:40 pm

    I just read that piece this morning (it takes a while to get to the weekend papers sometimes) and by the time I got to the end of it my blood was boiling. I know there’s a lot of talk about how out of control children’s parties are, and some are, but most of them aren’t. Not the ones we go to anyway.

    Apart from anything else, sometimes I stay at the parties because I like them. I enjoy the company of the other parents (who do sometimes put on a bottle of wine or a few beers), and it is very good fun to watch a bunch of kids running around the park enjoying each other’s company. If I wasn’t so busy, I would be writing a rather terse email to Hugh McKay.

  5. January 17, 2008 at 9:16 pm

    Landismom, the sleepover party sounds like a pretty good idea next year – I might suggest it.

    Jennifer (P), we were one of those parents who invited everyone in Chatterboy’s class in Kindergarten, but it got better the following year – it just seems to be a Kindergarten thing. I wish I’d had the courage to ban presents, though. It was ridiculous.

    JV, I agree with you, they probably didn’t have 2 yo parties in those days, but it was a pretty silly thing to say.

    Thirdcat, I think the playground/park parties are definitely the best. The kids are generally happy just to run around, and its nice to chat. I’ve found as they get older, the parents who stay are the parents’ friends, and it’s a nice excuse for a chat.

    On reflection, I have been to one over the top party, as Hugh McKay describes. Chatterboy was the sole 2 year old invited to a neighbour’s 2 year old party. They got someone from the zoo to come with some animals, and there were some older cousins (who enjoyed the animals far more than the guest of honour), plus lots of adult friends with and without children.

    But apart from the ridiculous zoo part, for the hosts, it was a nice excuse to get all their friends and their kids over, which isn’t really such a bad thing. I’m sure Hugh McKay will be lamenting the lack of face to face social interaction in today’s society in his next column.

    If I had been part of their circle of friends, instead of the parent of the token “friend”, I probably would have had a good time, too.

  6. January 19, 2008 at 7:52 am

    It really does seem to be party season. Still reeling from the Tupperware party post (and trying to imagine what in the name of Valen a Babylon 5/Tupperware combined party would look like!).

    At dudelet’s party, we did have one mother asking if it was a ‘drop-off’ and dudelet’s since been invited to one that we’ve been told is ‘drop-off’ up front. Does feel a little strange though.

  7. January 20, 2008 at 11:33 am

    Penguin and Thirdcat, I share your irkedness. Take a couple of extreme edge cases from the super-rich and extrapolate it to society in general. Hugh, you’re a social researcher for chrissakes – show us the actual data!

  8. January 20, 2008 at 4:21 pm

    I’m about to follow your tupperware party link but I liked how you unpacked this article.. how bad would the party have been if the parents had left all their 2 yr olds for the host parents to manage? Jesus!

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