I had a Strawberry Shortcake birthday party when I was 8 years old. I remember it fondly. My dress was dotted with tiny blossoms, and vertical ruffles stretched along the bodice. My mother curled my hair into ringlets with her curling iron (a rare experience), and when I turned my head suddenly or twirled in my dress, my curls grazed my face and I smelled the grown-up aroma of singed hair. It smelled heavenly.
We lived with my grandmother at the time, and she and my mom had scrubbed every inch of the house. The dining room table was Lemon-Pledged till it sparkled. My cake — from a real bakery! — sat in the middle, my name dainty in sugary fondant. Queasy with excitement as I waited for my third-grade classmates to knock on the screen door, I felt like I had waited my entire life for that very day.
Now let's move forward some 30-plus years to my own children's birthdays. Here's the scene from last spring, as my husband and I discussed plans for the boys' fifth turn around the sun:
Son No. 2: "Where are we having our birthday party this year?"
Us: "It's going to be in the backyard. It's a carnival theme! There'll be cotton candy and popcorn and a face-painter!"
Son No. 2: "We're having it here? At our house? Nooooo."
Son No. 1: "[Long groan.] That's boring."
Son. No. 2: "Yeah, why can't we have it somewhere else — like Coppermine or Port Discovery or a pool party or something?"
Us: "But there's a face-painter! And cotton candy! And popcorn! And a face-painter!"
There are many things grossly wrong in that scene. Too much privilege and too little gratefulness, for starters. But here's the thing that stands out to me: Did anyone notice that Son No. 2 said "this year" when he asked about the location of the party? As in, we're only turning 5, but we've already had enough birthday parties to know that we are going to have another party. Again. This year.
I remember the details of my Strawberry Shortcake birthday party so vividly because until that year, I'd never had a birthday party. Oh sure, there'd been cake and ice cream, presents and off-key singing on other birthdays. But never a whole shindig with invited guests (who weren't family), chicken-salad sandwiches, an etched glass punch bowl, and Strawberry's freckled face smiling from the paper plates and cups. I remember it all because it was actually special.
Today's children's birthday parties are very different from my eighth birthday. They're huge, over-the-top affairs at pricey locations, where parents have to sign waivers, complete with insurance information and emergency contacts. They're Pinterest-perfect productions with itineraries to rival a New York Fashion Week event. The birthday girl or boy leaves with a cart (literally, a cart) full of presents, and the guests leave with goody bags stuffed with candy and presents of their own – as if it were their birthday, too.
Some say, "It's all too much!" But I don't think so. The problem is — it's just too often.
There's nothing inherently wrong with showering kids with glorious birthday parties, with all their friends around to celebrate the happy occasion. There's nothing wrong with pizza parties, bounce-house rentals, magicians, pony rides, spa days, Disney cruises, Starburst-filled pinatas. Who doesn't want a day full of sugary treats and presents? I want that even now.
But when it happens every year, or even every other year — at least with my own kids — instead of feeling special, it begins to feel pro forma.
My husband and I know better than to blame our children for their apathy about a potential backyard birthday party. We can only blame ourselves. We extravaganza-ed them too many times.
As it turned out, the day of their party, it rained like the dickens. We had to move the festivities to the Maryland Science Center. Our boys were thrilled. And we, inadvertently, perpetuated the problem.
This year will be different, we say. This year we'll just let them eat cake — at home.
And yet [hangs head], I've already Googled possible locations for their sixth.
Tanika Davis is a former Baltimore Sun reporter who now works as director at a communications firm. She and her husband have twin 5-year-old sons, a 4-year-old daughter, a perpetually messy house and rapidly appearing gray hairs. She also needs a nap. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column appears monthly.