$38,000 Kids' Birthday Parties?

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Ask a parent about birthday parties and you'll probably get a sigh and a description of the last party their kid went to — limousine service, a petting zoo or Ferris wheel, and definitely elaborate goody bags — followed by their despair at having to organize their own equally expensive party for their child's birthday.

Professor William Doherty, a social science professor at the University of Minnesota, aims to make parents' lives easier. Doherty, who, six years ago coined the term "overscheduled kids" and led a movement to have family nights at home, is launching a similar campaign against over-the-top birthday parties.

He has put up a website birthdayswithoutpressure.org, hoping that by naming the problem, and giving parents a forum, he can help parents ratchet down the expectations and change the social norms. When Doherty was giving lectures on overscheduling kids, he heard parents grumbling about birthday parties and goody bags. It really touched a nerve after he had his first grandchild. His daughter told him that by the time her son was six months old, people were already asking what the theme of her son's first birthday would be.

"Kids are picked up in limos for these parties," says Doherty. "Some of us never got picked up in a limo until our wedding. There's a sense that it's out of control." He muses on how birthdays got to be so extragavant: "We're social animals, we look at what the standards of the pack are. My role is to try to influence the norms of the community. I was to give permission to parents to downsize these parties, and still feel that they're good parents."

"When I was growing up," said one New York City mother of two, "we had a cake with our family and maybe one or two friends." She describes a party she went to recently for a three-year-old, in which the kids went on simulated space rides, then after pizza and a clown, made their own toy dolls, Lego trains and balloon sculptures, all in the span of a couple of hours. "The kids didn't have a chance to take in what they were there for," she says, "which was to celebrate their friend's birthday."

An industry has grown up around birthday parties for the younger set. Greeting card company Hallmark estimates that people spend over $600 million on kids' cards, gift-wrap and partyware every year. Companies like Libby Lu have make-over parties, Build-A-Bear stores have private party rooms and there's even a museum that allows kids to dissect sheep's eyeballs. It can cost from $500 to $1,000 to hold a party at one of these venues — or $38,000 if you want to rent out famed toy store FAO Schwartz for a sleepover.

One Manhattan cake maker, Bill Schutz of Creative Cakes, who's been in business since 1979, said he used to make kids a simple Snoopy-shaped cake, but "now it's a Candyland cake, complete with castle, game board and pieces." Schutz's cakes can run parents up to $600.

"You have to perform to a certain level," says Carol Cadby, a teacher and mother of a 7-year-old and a 10-year-old in Arlington, Va. "When they were little, it was Chuck E. Cheese. Now it's laser tag. Next it's going to be a concert or a game. It's no longer a family thing — it's an event."

Parents also complain about providing goody bags, which can add another $3 to $25 dollars per kid to the cost of the party. "You end up spending hundreds of dollars and then find it all at the bottom of the toy box," says Ginny Loving, a mother of two in Virginia. Recently, Loving, Cadby and six of her friends got together and risked kids' ire by putting a moratorium on goody bags. "We told the girls they were too old for them," says Cadby. "That seemed to work."

Getting together with other parents is what Doherty hopes to encourage. "Parents need to feel they're part of a larger change," he says. "They don't want to look bad in their community."

Not all parents feel these parties are stress-inducing. Beth Fisher didn't mind renting out a fire truck to give the guests rides around a Los Angeles neighborhood for her fireman-loving son's third birthday. "It wasn't expensive, and I have great memories of the event," she says.

Doherty says his aim isn't to cut down on celebrating, but to cut down on parents' anxiety around the event. "A lot of parents feel they're on a birthday-party treadmill that gets faster every year. They're afraid their birthday party won't measure up and their child will be disappointed."

Cadby has another theory. "Maybe we realize our kids are only young for a short time and you want to capitalize on it," she says. "You think, 'I didn't have such a great birthday when I was young. I want my kid to have one.'"

Linda Zwicky, one of the mother's working with Doherty on the Birthdays Without Pressure movement, puts it this way: "We're not trying to tell you not to have gift bags, or an entertainer, or 20 kids at your party. But just to sit back and think what fits for you."

— With reporting by Carolina A. Miranda/New York