So far this school year, I think we’ve been invited to seven birthday parties (we’ve attended three). One was for our son’s best friend, where only a few kids were invited. But for the other six parties, every kid in the class was invited (there are 21 kids in the class). I don’t know all of the parents well enough to know whether they really want to invite 20 kids to a party, or whether they feel like they should out of social obligation or some sort of feeling that if they don’t invite everyone, people will feel left out. I’m sure that in some cases, it’s the latter. The result might be additional stress and expense for the parents, and way too many presents for the birthday child.
Kids don’t need elaborate birthday parties at theme restaurants. They don’t need clowns, ponies, or bouncy castles. They don’t need 20 birthday presents. They don’t need you to rent a venue large enough to hold not only all of their close friends, but also all of their classmates and acquaintances. If you love planning parties and money is no object, have at it (but know that your kiddo might get overwhelmed and melt down in the middle of the whole thing). But if you’re a parent who is worried about the cost of throwing the perfect party for your little one, please stop stressing about it! Our son’s fourth birthday was a day at the park with four of his closest friends. All we did was make food to share with everyone and hung out for a few hours while the kids played. No goody bags, no adult-designed games, no decorations… and the kids had a fabulous time (so did the adults, since we all got to chat together while our little ones played).
Last year, when our son turned five, we took the boys on a day trip to celebrate. It involved a train, which made their week. No presents at all, other than the ones that my husband’s parents sent. And our son thought it was a fantastic birthday. We’re already planning another train ride for his birthday this year, in lieu of a party or presents. The boys still talk about the train ride from last year, and have awesome memories of the day. It cost us about the same amount that people typically spend on theme parties (plus whatever they spend on gifts).
We kept Christmas very simple around here too – mostly focused on food and family, with a few thrift store toys in the mix too. Other than those, the only gift we purchased was a scrapbook that I made for my mother in law. I’ve been making scrapbooks for her every Christmas for several years now, and it’s a tradition that she and I both enjoy. I switched to digital scrapbooks a few years ago, and I much prefer them over the giant-mess-of-craft-supplies method that I used to use. I look online or in my mailbox for Shutterfly coupons starting in November, and the whole project takes me about half a day, usually on the weekend after Thanksgiving. Much more fun than spending that weekend in a mall, and I love that I can make the whole book online in less than a day – and there’s no mess to clean up afterwards! I used to spend a few weekends making a scrapbook, and it would look like my craft cabinet had exploded all over the floor by the time I was finished. The digital books are cleaner, neater and slimmer, and there’s a digital backup in the cloud if I should need it (I remember mailing the old scrapbooks off with a fervent prayer that they wouldn’t get damaged or lost in the mail… because replacing them would have meant starting all over).
But that’s it. No gift exchange with my side of the family – we get together and have fun instead. My parents come over every few weeks and spend an afternoon taking our boys on a little adventure: a picnic and a trip to a park or a lake or the library. They have a fabulous time and our boys adore my parents. My parents have given very few physical gifts to our sons over the years (and in most cases, it was something that they made, together with our boys… I can only think of two toys that they’ve purchased for our boys – a wagon and a wooden ABC board – and they both came from thrift stores). When we visit my parents, my father always takes the boys out in the yard to look for treasures (rocks, sticks, cicadas, etc.) or into the garage to work on some little project or experiment. My mother makes fabulous meals for all of us. My parents are a perfect example of grandparents who spend time with their grandkids but buck the tradition of showering them with tons of physical gifts. And the result is two little boys who think the world of their grandparents. My parents give the boys their undivided attention instead of toys. They take them on adventures and teach them things, but don’t buy them things (there’s really an endless supply of free places to take kids – you just have to think outside of the amusement park box). And the time that our boys spend with their grandparents is some of their absolute favorite.
So don’t be worried that people will be upset if you don’t conform to the norm with regards to gifts and parties. Kids love getting to spend time with people who love them (put the phone away though… it doesn’t count as spending time with them if you’re checking Facebook at the same time). And so do adults. I make the scrapbook for my MIL each year because I know that she truly loves it (and shows it to about 7,569 people over the course of the year – she takes it everywhere she goes), and I enjoy making it. But I don’t want parties or gifts to be a source of stress for us. I want our relationships with our friends and family to be the focus – not worries about making sure that we give just the right gifts or throw just the right party.
And so far, so good. We’re surrounded by great friends and family whom we adore. We love to cook for them and have them over to share in the fun that is our backyard. We pass on outgrown toys and clothes to friends with younger kids, and most of my friends and family have also been the recipient of amazing perfect-for-them thrift store finds that I’ve come across. But we try hard to not conform to expectations about gifts and parties, and instead do things spontaneously and naturally, focusing on fun and people and experiences over “stuff.”