Shop for great Usborne Children's Books!

The Birthday Party Collection

This page is a collection of my thoughts about the group that thinks we need a program and government involvement in order to restrain ourselves from throwing away our money and self-respect on extravagant birthday parties for our kids. If you are new to this, be advised that this is arranged blog-style, so the earliest entries begin at the bottom of the page. If the issue warrants that I continue to add new posts, I'll add them at the top.

This page is merely a collection of my writings on the birthday party craziness. For my homepage and all of my writings, go to


Thank you for visiting.
David W. Downing / St. Paul, Minnesota, USA

Sunday, January 28, 2007

See You in the Funny Papers

I've got a column on the opinion page of the St. Paul Pioneer Press today. It's another take on my visit to the birthday party meeting.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Birthday Parties Only Tip of Iceberg; THIS Takes the Cake!

Why does this birthday party issue bother me so much? I think because I see it as only one little part representing a much larger agenda. Just as the Birthdays Without Pressure activists say birthday parties are only one example of what's wrong with our consumer culture (and I agree with them there), I fear that their desire to rein in birthday parties is only the tip of their larger agenda -- an agenda that scares me.

I fear that what they really want is to remake this country into something else. They're really no different from say, someone like Jerry Falwell, who might want to remake this country the way he sees fit. Or Islamists, who might want us to live under Sharia law. Oh, sure, they may be well-intentioned, but that can pave a lot of roads. They have their vision for America, and they want everyone else to conform to it.

But where they are even more dangerous than Jerry Falwell or the Islamists is that they are able to hijack our official government entities -- at least the educational system -- in an effort to bring about their vision for a better nation.

Am I crazy? Am I some nut who sees black helicopters circling his house?

Judge for yourself. On Thursday, January 18, one of the founders of Birthdays Without Pressure, Julie Elhard, appeared live on the air with Joe Soucheray, on his Garage Logic radio show. What follows is an actual transcription that I made from a recording of that program.

Soucheray: "Is it safe to say this: If you could wave a magic wand, would you prefer to live in a community in which the adults do not throw extravagant birthday parties?"

Elhard: "I would wave my magic wand and and put me in Europe, where they don't do that. Where Europeans do not go extravagant with Christmas, or birthdays, or any of that. It seems to be something that happens a lot in this country and not in other countries. So, yes, I would prefer to wave my wand and just have a little more moderation in our consumerist and junk-filled culture."

Soucheray: "Are you familiar with a particular European model that you would prefer to copy, or is this something you've just gathered?"

Elhard: "No, I lived in the Netherlands for four years when I was studying music there, and it's a great country, and they live in moderation and they live in smaller places and they have time to go out for coffee or tea every day, you know, and see their friends, and the kids are not suffering because they live in small places and have fewer toys. They're great. They're independent, they ride public transportation to school, and there are a lot of great things about countries like that. [pause, and then longingly] I wish we could be like that."

I wish Soucheray had asked her, "Why on Earth did you come back?"

But really, how different is that from a Falwell-type longing for a country where everyone goes to church on Sunday, and no one lives together without getting married, and all the mothers stay home in the kitchen all day?

Or an Islamist wanting this to be a country where cab drivers don't have to give rides to passengers carrying alcohol, or blind people with guide dogs, or maybe even Jews?

The difference is, those groups don't have the public education system -- and our tax dollars -- helping them try to impose their "vision" on the rest of us. (That will never happen for the Falwell-type vision. The Islamist vision? I'm not so sure about that one. One day we may all be living under Sharia law in the name of "tolerating diversity."

Friday, January 19, 2007

Birthday Party Reformers Still Don't Get It

First, I want to emphasize that I absolutely agree that these over-the-top birthday parties being described are nuts. I am not writing in defense of ridiculous birthday parties. It's just that I think people who think they need an organization in order to stop themselves from participating in the foolishness are nuts, as well.

And while I agree that the Birthdays Without Pressure people and other advocates we've been hearing from (They made NBC's "Today" show yesterday!) have identified a problem, I think THEY STILL DON'T GET IT.

Putting on my sociologist's hat and my analyst's hat, I'd say that the root cause of Birthday Parties Gone Wild is that they are about the parents, not the children. The parties have become a vehicle for the parents' own entertainment and ego gratification. The parents use them to compete with their neighbors and enhance their own social standing. They have become about the parents' own fragile psyches, not the children's.

But some of the "solutions" being offered don't change this. Rather than a return to the simple, kid-directed at-home birthday party, it's still about the parents. And it's still overly complicated. For instance, I've heard people talk about how birthday parties are a great way to teach children about the world, and that they can use their parties to help the poor, for instance, by donating gifts to charity.

That's fine. If it's the child's idea.

But if it's the parents' idea, then all that's being done is that the child's party is being hijacked for a different sort of parental agenda. Whether the parents are using the child to "keep up with the Joneses" or advance their own "social justice" agenda, they are still using the child.

Let the birthday party be the child's.

The Birthdays Without Pressure website has a list of suggestions for better birthday parties. For the most part, I agree with them. (That one about everyone getting a present has to go. It's counter to everything else we've been hearing from Dr. Doherty and this group.)

But there's an irony here. By listing ways to have a birthday party that earns the approval of this group, they're simply exchanging one set of "community expectations" for another. And, they're putting them in writing!

I can see it now. One of the present complaints is that if a party doesn't give out gift bags to all the guests, bratty little Nevaeh will exclaim, "This is a rip off!"

But what if Birthdays Without Pressure achieves their goal and everyone accepts their recommendations for how birthday parties should be? One day, Nevaeh's little brother will come home from a party crying, "Mom, it was awful! They tried to give me a gift bag!"

Won't that scandal get the soccer moms' tongues wagging at the ECFE meeting! No more play dates for that child.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Teach Your Children Well: Pay Later

My previous post, about the birthday party meeting, was featured on Joe Soucheray's Garage Logic radio show yesterday afternoon, along with lots of Joe's and the listeners' thoughts on the subject.

One comment that came up on the show was that in the discussion about Birthday Parties Gone Wild, no one really seemed to be stressing the idea that parents could simply tell their children, "We can't afford it."

I hadn't mentioned it in yesterday's post, but the matter of "not affording it" did come up at the meeting. It was dismissed as a non-factor. Dr. Doherty said you can't simply tell your children "we can't afford it," because children these days know that you can just put it on your credit card.

If that's true, that's another indictment of the way we're raising our children. If children are learning that you can have anything you want, just by using your credit card, we're failing them.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Report from the Birthday Party Meeting

Last night I went to the meeting about Big Birthday Parties. (See previous post.) I was in for a surprise. I expected maybe two dozen people, but there were well more than 100.

This had become a media event. A news crew from the local Fox 9 station was there (It made their news program that night.). But that's not all. There was also a crew from ABC's news magazine 20/20! The speaker, professor Dr. William Doherty of the University of Minnesota's Family Social Science Department, said he had been fielding media inquires since 6:00 am.

(A delayed broadcast of the meeting is also scheduled for the St. Paul schools' cable channel 16: Jan. 24, 10 am; Jan. 27, 10 am & 5:30 pm; Jan. 31, 10 am; Feb. 3, 10 am & 5:30 pm.)

I found Dr. Doherty to be an excellent speaker. He was both informative and entertaining, a combination not found in enough professors. The topic of his presentation was "Parenting Wisely in a Too Much of Everything World," so it wasn't just about birthday parties, but about a bigger picture, and how Birthday Parties Gone Wild are one part of that. (To be fair, put in that context, the subject didn't seem as ridiculous as the newspaper stories about Birthdays Without Pressure made it seem.)

Dr. Doherty began by asking people to give examples of what they see as "too much" regarding children. Some answers included:

-- Too many TVs

-- Obesity -- too much food

-- Midnight hockey practice for second graders

-- Advertising directed at children (Dr. Doherty mentioned that some countries ban advertising directed at children. That earned applause.)

-- Too many presents

-- Too grown-up/sexy/revealing clothing for little girls

-- Over scheduling of kids

-- Too much homework

-- Video games

-- Too much lack of respect/manners

It struck me that many of these complaints are not really new. They may just be updated to reflect current trends and new technologies. If you go back to the 1970s, the 1950s, the Jazz Age, Shakespeare, the Bible, Plato, I think you'll find many of the same complaints about "what's wrong with kids these days." Indeed, a generation ago, people were saying the same things about those sitting in the audience.

Dr. Doherty then asked us to discuss with people next to us the reasons for these excesses. After a few minutes, people shared with the entire group the causes they had identified.

I was glad to hear that others also identified my primary reasons: high disposable income, and two-income families. Other reasons offered were parents competing against each other, with their children as proxies, and parental insecurity about raising successful children, which leads to overindulgence.

It was also pointed out that there are fewer children per family these days, which makes it easier to spoil them. Someone mentioned a culture of individualism, and a turning away from God, which, unfortunately, Dr. Doherty seemed to want to distance himself from.

These were all pretty good reasons, and I agreed with them. I was impressed, because I was sure this was a pretty "progressive" group in attendance (translation: liberal Democrats).

But as if to make sure I wasn't disappointed, there were a couple of anti-Bush related reasons offered: the devaluing of the dollar in China, which lets us buy cheap goods, and that after 9/11, we were told to go shopping.

Shopping available 24/7 was also offered as a reason for "too much." We can get whatever we want whenever we want. We don't have any limits imposed upon us. A suggestion to bring back "blue laws" to keep stores closed on Sundays was met with applause.

(This was the strangest moment of the evening: a crowd of people, a majority of whom I suspect would say that President Bush is shredding the Constitution and taking away their civil liberties, applauding the idea of the government closing stores on Sundays, after earlier applauding the idea of banning advertising.)

Personally, I think the biggest reasons for "too much" are prosperity and two-income families, which are related, of course. A woman I spoke to said she pays to have a birthday party at a commercial venue because taking the time to prepare her house for a party is just too much to imagine. I asked if it was fair to say that she is an example of someone having more money than time, and she said that is correct.

The truth is, despite all the complaints about the terrible economy and statements that this will be the first generation to have a lower standard of living than their parents, people have money. Our standard of living is very high. The highest it's ever been. And a big part of that is the two-income family.

But the two-income family has brought about vast social changes, including, not surprisingly, changes regarding how we raise our children. Familes have more money, but less time. But it's politically incorrect to point that out, because that's "blaming women," so I was glad to see it acknowledged at last night's meeting.

That was part of the irony I felt. This was a crowd that had to be left-leaning, yet they were echoing many of the concerns of social conservatives from the right. It was as though the "progressives" thought they were looking for "new" ideas regarding parenting, but what they were really longing for was a return to "traditional family values."

As Mr. Spock might say, "Fascinating."

Dr. Doherty himself expressed what I consider many traditional (what we've been told are outdated) ideas. (I think Joe Soucheray might say he sounded like a GLer.) He said we worry too much that children are fragile, and that we must protect their self-esteem. He said they have to learn that they aren't going to be good at everything, that they shouldn't expect a trophy just for showing up, and that they shouldn't expect to be given something when they go to someone else's birthday party -- they can take turns; their own birthday will come around each year.

About 50 minutes into the presentation, Dr. Doherty began to talk specifically about birthday parties. This didn't cover much new ground that wasn't covered in my previous post, so I won't get into details on it. He gave examples of extravagant parties, and talked about how people feel pressure to live up to community expectations, and the bar keeps getting raised.

Dr. Doherty said that it is hard to combat this individually, so that's why we need "community conversations" about reining in Birthday Parties Gone Wild (No, he didn't use that term. It's mine.). That's where I object.

I agree with the concerns about "too much."

I disagree that it should require some sort of organized program or "community conversations" to break the cycle. I'm fascinated by the way people express a sense of victimhood, of helplessness, as though they are powerless to not go along with the crowd. All you have to do is say "No, we are not going to spend $500 on your birthday party. Invite six friends over after school and we'll have cake and ice cream."

But that's too hard! is the cry. All the other parents are doing it!

I say, grow up and be the adults, people! If you can't resist peer pressure, how can you expect to be taken seriously when you tell your kids that they should? How will you be able to ask them, "If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you do it, too?"

After the presentation, I briefly talked to Dr. Doherty, and told him I had attended the meeting as a sort of anthropological exercise -- I wanted to observe the people who felt they needed meetings and programs to stop them from doing what they really didn't want to do in the first place. I like to think he understood what I was talking about, since to some extent that's what he himself is doing.

I know many of you listen to Joe Soucheray's Garage Logic, so you'll understand this next reference. If there was a Ray of Hope in the meeting, it was that Dr. Doherty expressed what might be called GL values. The members of the audience longed for those values, but they didn't seem to know how to embrace them. With that in mind, we can see Dr. Doherty as a sort of GL emissary to the Euphorians, speaking to them in their own language.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Just Stop It!

We've had the war on Big Tobacco. A villain has been made of Big Oil. Fast food menus are under attack in the war on Big Fat. Now, another front has been opened. Ladies and Gentlemen, meet the war on Big Birthday Parties.

First, let me tell you a little story. A few years back, Bob Newhart made a guest appearance on "Mad TV." In a sketch that reprised his role as a 1970s TV sitcom psychiatrist, Newhart listens to a patient's various personal neuroses, then gives her this straightforward advice:

"Just stop it!"

(Believe it or not, you can see it on YouTube! )

I thought of that sketch when I read a story last week in the local Highland Villager, a great community newspaper St. Paul is fortunate to have. To my mind, the story reads like a parody. You couldn't make up something this good! A group of local parents -- whom I suspect could be accurately described as upper middle class and well-educated -- have decided that children's birthday parties have gotten too extravagant.

I agree completely.

So what's my point?

The ridiculous part of the story is that this group of parents seem to see themselves as victims of society. Rather than simply telling themselves "just stop it," and refusing to join in what they see as an escalating, "keeping up with the Joneses" birthday party race, they've decided what's needed is an organization, a website, a public meeting (Tuesday night at 7:00 pm, at St. Paul's Highland Junior High School), and a University of Minnesota professor.

So we now have a group called Birthdays Without Pressure ( And our tax dollars are involved, even if only indirectly. This grew out of the St. Paul schools' Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) program, includes an ECFE teacher, the aforementioned U of M professor, and the web site, created and hosted by the University of Minnesota.

As I said, I agree that people have gone overboard with children's birthday parties. My kids have gone to parties at amusement centers, for instance, and I've thought, "What did they spend on all of this?" But even those events pale in comparison to some of the scenes described in the story.

But my point is, I don't need a "program" to help me NOT do the same thing. Just last Friday, my son had his birthday party at home. Some friends walked home with him after school. We played a game of pumpkin bowling outside, they had home-made pizza, cake and ice cream, opened presents, played a while, and then their parents picked them up at 6:00 pm.

What was so tough about that? If any of the other parents think we're cheap, that's their problem. But now I see we may have been ahead of the curve, by refusing to follow the curve in the first place! (I'm such a reactionary, I've become a "progressive.")

I'm not the only one to think this is nuts. St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Joe Soucheray took the birthday party crisis to the woodshed in his Sunday column. But I doubt that the Birthdays Without Pressure group will be adding Soucheray's suggestion for a simple party to their website. Joe says it's tough to beat a bunch of kids running around shooting each other with cap guns.

Coincidentally (I think), the Pioneer Press yesterday also had a feature story about Big Birthday Parties, obviously based on the publicity efforts of the Birthdays Without Pressure group. Read this story if you really want to get a feel for how nuts some people are. (There's also a sidebar listing some expensive birthday party options.)

What this story really makes clear to me, is that Big Birthday Parties aren't about the children. They're about the parents. But people being people, they're prepared to do plenty of rationalizing to convince themselves that it's really for someone else.

Cyndie Lund is one example of Moms Gone Wild. While snapping pictures at one of the expensive parties (yes, plural) she wedding-plannered for her six-year-old, she said:

"I don't put a dollar amount on this because it's something they'll always remember. It's so exciting to see the kids have fun."

There you have it. It's so exciting. So exciting for her.

Lund is also a believer in including the other kids' parents, too. "I encourage the parents to stay. I think the parents should be a part of it."

Of course. That way, you can show off in front of them.

Another mom, Amy Lindahl, said she was willing to spend $250 on a party at Club Libby Lu because she saw it as a gift of an experience to the other kids.

Oh, so it's sort of like charity work? How altruistic.

But one of the Birthdays Without Pressure moms, Julie Ehlhard, has now opted for simpler birthday parties. Still, she's worried about the consequences.

"I don't care what other people think about me, basically," Ehlard said. "But for my son, I don't want him to feel left out or disappointed or shunned by other kids because he didn't give out good party bags."

Don't worry, Mrs. Ehlard, from what I've read in these stories, the best birthday present you can give your kid these days is to NOT throw an extravagant party. Teach your kids that they don't have to have everything, that they don't have to be as immature as the adults, "keeping up with the Joneses," and when they grow up they'll thank you for it.