Two weeks ago I was at a ‘cake smashing party’ – for one-year-olds. Ten babies were lined up in front of ten cakes as ten excited sets of parents hovered with their iPhones.
Unfortunately, one-year-olds are not terribly advanced. Most prefer grabbing at other babies or singing and clapping with people they know over orchestrated photo-opportunities. Instead of cutely gobbling cake as he was meant to, the birthday baby immediately started howling and begging to be picked up. As did the baby next to him. Within seconds all ten babies were crying and crawling away from the cakes while their parents pleaded with them to ‘just smile and smash the cake once, please darling, then I’ll pick you up, ok?”
(Sadly for Instagram, the resulting photos were probably more Stephen King than Anne Geddes.)
The cake-howling birthday boy’s parents undoubtedly love him, they just didn’t seem to recognise their son wasn’t having a good time. But they’re not alone.
Kids’ birthday parties are no longer. In their place are ‘mini adult parties’. Mani-pedi parties for eleven-year-olds. Styled tent parties for 12-year-olds. (Styled anything for 12-year-olds!) Day Spas for pre-pubescent kids who have nothing to spa.
The one thing they all have in common is that they look great on social media. The only glitch is the kids themselves (‘member them?) either look miserable in the photos (have you ever seen a sadder looking kid than the North West at her Coachella-themed first birthday? Except maybe her cousin Penelope at her Little Mermaid party?) or else they have those fake photo smiles that look so wrong on children.
Remember when party decorations were a packet of streamers, a few balloons and a poster of a donkey without a tail? When you ran around screaming with your mates, got to eat as many party pies as you liked and were showered with attention from the people you loved?
Well RIP Pass the Parcel. And take musical chairs with you. Now, if parents haven’t paid a small fortune for a theme party and a professional to come and match cupcakes to flower arrangements to table setting to mood lighting, it’s like they don’t even care.
Of course, we all want our children to be happy on their birthday. But have the parties become more about the status anxiety of the parents, than the genuine happiness of the kids themselves?
Child Psychologist Lauren Brabham of Growing Together Psychology says that a potent mix of parents’ competitiveness and status anxiety is behind the drive to put on the ‘biggest and best’ party for their child.
The thing is, very young children haven’t yet learned to compare themselves to others. They certainly don’t care about having a better party than their buddy. “Competitiveness isn’t innate,” says Brabham. “We teach it through modelling.”
It’s all about us
In trying to do what’s best for our kids, are we giving them what we would want instead of something they’d actually like?
“It’s all about projecting the image of a perfect family life,” she says, “but they lose vision of what the child wants in the process.”
Would a child really choose getting their nails clipped at a mani-pedi party over playing with their friends? (And in case you’re thinking ‘what could be MORE FUN for a little girl?’ consider Kendall Jenner recently told Elle she was forced to get manicures when she was a child. “I never cared when I was younger and I hated getting my nails done. It just took up my play time.”)
“We need to be mindful that kids refer to adults to model age appropriate activities,” says Brabham. “So while children may get genuine enjoyment out of [more adult themed parties], it’s more about the shared relationship and seeing the reaction of the adult. They could get the same enjoyment out of more age-appropriate game like statues – they don’t need all the elaborate, fancy stuff.”
Kids will learn all too soon to compare themselves to others and come up short. But maybe putting that competitiveness off for one more year, and helping them have real fun while showing them how much they’re loved is a pretty good gift in itself.
What do kids really need from a party?
“Kids don’t care about matching decorations and plates etc,” says Brabham. “Keep the focus on shared enjoyment and fun, rather than ‘stuff’. It’s all about simple games and activities and creating memories, gathering people around and celebrating why it’s a special time for them.”
By all means, hire an entertainer, but you can easily set up party games yourself [see below].
Do keep in mind your child’s temperament when planning a party, says Brabham. “Every child is unique. With sensitive kids, for example, fewer guests with more structured activities and a shorter time frame might be more appropriate.”
Fun (and free) party games for kids
Oldies but goodies: Pass the parcel, pin the tail on the donkey
Gross but fun: Hiding stuff in jelly / bobbing for apples / food on a string
For tiring them out (when you’re exhausted): statues, musical chairs, three-legged race
Post tantrums or tears: sleeping lions