For his 4th birthday, my son wants a superhero theme and “no girls.” We’re having a smallish gathering at our home with his grandparents, a few friends from preschool and their parents. When I sent out the Evite, I felt a tinge of guilt for not inviting his whole class.
Most of the birthday parties we’ve been to have included the 20 students in his class, plus their parents and siblings, in a rented play space. The parties have been as large as 60 guests — that’s more than my grandparents had at their 50th wedding anniversary.
At these all-inclusive birthday bashes, there’s usually a circle time in which the kids introduce themselves (even though they’re all friends from school). Sugar is plentiful. But the real climax is when the bounce house gets inflated. The kids form a line and try to hold it together waiting for their turn to jump to their heart’s content — or at least until the three-minute timer goes off. We always walk home with an adorable treat bag filled with more sugar and chokeable plastic toys.
Our generation of parents gets a lot of flak for throwing lavish preschool birthday parties. Parenting experts chide us for spoiling our kids, for being materialistic, and for using birthday parties to show off our wealth. I believe there’s a kinder reason parents are going all-out for their 4-year-olds: It feels icky to exclude little kids from the guest list.
I allowed my son to invite six classmates to his party. He easily rattled off the names of his favorite friends and wanted a couple more. I told him no. We live in a small apartment in the city. Six sugared-up boys is the maximum we can entertain. And that’s when the niggling feeling of guilt arose in my belly. Should we have rented a play space for his whole class?
Every time I walk into my son’s preschool, I am overcome with happiness at the flurry of activity. Our son’s classmates run up to us to say good morning to his baby sister. They show off their latest temporary tattoo or ninja moves. I’ve known a lot of these kids since they were toddling around in diapers.
Preschoolers are at a magical age. Other than their aversion to the opposite sex, they don’t bully or form cliques. Friendships are easily made over superhero punches and rarely broken. It’s also a wonderful stage for parents. We can befriend each other without getting thrust into the kids’ drama. Inviting the whole class to a birthday party maintains this inclusive culture and avoids the hurt feelings that arise in the later childhood years.
Will some of my son’s classmates or their parents find out about our party and feel hurt for not being invited? I had a stern talk with my son about not mentioning his party at school. But I know it will be hard for him, at age 3, to have the self-control to do this.
We are having a small party at home because I feel our son would become overwhelmed by a large crowd. It would overwhelm me as an adult to have 60 people at my birthday party. There’s also an inverse relationship between how much money we spend and how much fun he has.
We recently shelled out $60 on tickets to a neighborhood kids’ festival with every imaginable delight: bounce houses, a train ride, live music, balloon artists, princess singalongs, and all-you-can-eat ice cream and cookies. Our son just wanted to chase his friends around the grassy area outside the festival tent. But his buddies kept getting pulled away by parents who, like us, wanted to get their money’s worth of entertainment.
“Let’s check out the train ride,” I said while gesturing to a line of 80 people.
Frustrated, our son had a meltdown and shouted, “I hate festivals!”
“I’m really trying to have fun right now,” said my husband, gritting his teeth and holding a lightsaber-shaped balloon.
I shooed my husband over to the ice cream table before he had a meltdown. I left the festival feeling like we had escaped Pleasure Island, where the parents — not the kids — are turned into donkeys. Next year when the festival rolls around, we’re using the $60 to buy a good bottle of wine.
Still haunted, we decided to keep our son’s birthday party as distraction-free as possible. There will be no lines to wait in or planned activities other than the “Happy Birthday” song. There will be plenty of blocks, Play-Doh, and toy trucks for the boys to play with — they can bounce on the couch cushions — most of the party budget is going to wine and beer for the parents.
Though I hope there are no hurt feelings because of our small party, we’ve decided to celebrate our son’s birthday the way he wants: chasing bad guys with a few of his best superhero buddies.