The New Birthday Trend

Gray and rainy days of spring are perfect for thinking back over the past few months. It is also that time when parents give collective sighs of relief when, at last, the weather  turns and we can gently nudge our children outside to play. If you are a lucky, you’ve reached that sweet spot where your kids can be outside playing in your backyard, street or even better, neighbour’s yard, with minor supervision. If you are not there yet, well, you will be.

For me, the beginning of April is a time to reflect, renew and plan. I survived holiday season, birthday season and March Break. There are a few challenges along the way, but one thing we did this year that was different were birthdays.

To recap, we moved out of suburbia last summer. Life is different when you live rural. Playdates are sparser, birthday parties are ordeals in logistics with most being held in homes. My girls have not quite yet made the social connections to have sleepover  birthday parties with their classmates and still pine for their old friends. I also have birthday season starting right after Christmas and go to the end of February and then March Break hits. (To note, not just my children’s birthdays. Mr. L’s birthday, my sister’s birthday and my Mom’s birthday.)

The weeks between December – March are often like parenting boot camp. I’m not kidding. If anyone wants to some real-life experience what having 3 kids is like, be my assistant next year. Come see what life is like with three or more kids during Christmas, Hanukkah, birthday season and March Break. It can be great fun, and exhausting.

I am also birthday-partied out.  For the last eleven years I have coordinated: full-class indoor birthday parties, outings, theme birthday parties, favourite cartoon character meet and greet parties, sleepover, tea parties, art parties, movie parties, surprise parties, family parties combined with holiday gatherings and I’m sure there are a few more. I am on auto-pilot when it comes to coordinating all the details and the same spreadsheet is used for all birthday planning.

Planning typically starts mid-November for the upcoming season. If I lived in another era, it is almost like every year, the kids have a “coming out” party schedule. Besides coordinating schoolmates for any celebrations, there is family to consider. Now that we have moved further away, this is a challenge.

Not to speak of the cost. I always try to have a budget for each child, but as it goes things get added and life happens. Remember, Hanukkah and Christmas fall in there too. Before you know it, you close your eyes, cross your fingers and hope it all works out in the end.

This year, Mr. L and I took stock.

  • We live further away from family. The big family parties of the past inviting both sides to our home to celebrate are over.
  • Our kids are in a new school this year and have not yet made the friendships that lend themselves to a birthday sleepover.
  • They desperately miss their friends from where we used to live.
  • Places to have kid birthday parties here are more limited.
  • It is winter. Any home parties are all inside and we just came off a lot of entertaining for the holidays. Mr. L vetoed big in-home parties this year.
  • Every year he is desperate to go away somewhere warm.

So the decision became easy that we pitched to the kids. A family trip in lieu of birthday presents or parties this year. The girls were all in, old enough to understand the birthday parties of the past were  pleasant memories and staying at home would be a reminder that they were not with their oldest friends. Jacob, being in first grade, was a little harder to convince.

We had unintentionally put a pattern into place with Elizabeth. One large all-class party (usually in kindergarten) and then dwindling numbers until Grade 4 when it would be down to a few close friends. Both the girls had gone through this pattern. Jacob had not. He got his all-class kindergarten party last year complete with Iron Man. But to go from that to no party at all, well, his face said it all.

So we relented and planned like mad to have his birthday party with one caveat, it had to be outside of the home. His birthday is right after Christmas, two days to be exact. I could not wrap my head around hosting Christmas and New Year’s with family and then planning for a birthday party in our home.

Jacob chose a bowling party. Considering the lack of indoor birthday party spaces in the area and availability during the holiday break, it was an easy one to plan. His class this year is also only 12 kids so that seemed a reasonable amount. (For reference, his kindergarten class last year had been 24 children.) Except, unbeknownst to me unlike the suburbs, siblings come along to birthday parties. The time commitment to drive to the bowling alley in the nearest town means that parties are family affairs. So our little party of 12 kids ended up being closer to 20 kids. Not too big of a deal as being held during the holidays meant that some of his classmates could not attend anyway.

Around this time, we also booked our family birthday celebration, a cruise the week of the girl’s birthdays in February.

Post birthday party, holidays and back to school, the cruise seemed ideal. It was for the most part. Weather was great. We made sure to try to celebrate each special day and the crew decorated our state rooms. Docked for their actual birthday meant they got to choose a family activity for the day. We had a great time exploring underground caves and relaxing by the pool.

But sitting here on a damp cold April morning I have to wonder was all the cost and planning worth it?

There were great times and not so great times as there always is when you travel with kids. The dining room staff were on top of things. They brought cakes and sang for each girl on their respective days. Even Jacob got a birthday cake in honour of his birthday back in December.  We spent time together and got some sun on our faces.

The cost was certainly more compared to having two smaller parties and three presents, but it was also a trip full of experiences. Of course I had small gifts for each girl to open on their morning, but we also went that extra mile and booked a very fun but expensive excursion for Elizabeth’s birthday. Another experience. Our kids have way too much stuff anyway, why do they need more?

In the end, I don’t think the girls liked not having parties this year. It took some of the pressure off them and us. Would we do it again? Maybe.

As kids get older, birthdays shift from huge all-class parties to smaller gatherings or maybe no gathering at all. It doesn’t have to be a birthday to have a sleepover with friends or family come to visit. I think ensuring your child feels celebrated and special is all that matters. Our kids weren’t happier with large or small birthday parties or even no party at all. They just wanted the day to be about them.

The real question becomes, are you having the party for your child, yourself or their friends? It is tricky because we all want our children to have fun, make memories and feel special. Having done it all, it does not matter. If you are not the kind of parents who want to host a birthday party. Don’t. Go out and invite a group of friends to join you. Or having a small family dinner with a favourite meal. That may be just what your busy family needs. Even take a trip all together or just do something special for the day.

When I was a kid, my Mom used to pull us each out of school on our birthdays and we spent the day with her doing whatever we wanted and eating whatever we wanted. It felt special. We also had parties and sleepovers but I remember no matter what, we got that one great day.

Ultimately, I don’t think it matters what kind of party or event you have for children’s birthdays. From my experience, as long as your children know that for one day they have your undivided attention, to is good enough.

Now, are birthday parties a thing of the past for our family? No.

Elizabeth turns 12 next year and with that comes the possibility of a Bat Mitzvah. Mr. L (the Jewish contingent of our household) wants each child to experience this traditional coming of age party. I think this is a gray area, tradition coupled with what the parents think is best versus what the child may really want.

What if Elizabeth doesn’t want a huge party? What if she simply wants to spend a night in Toronto and see her best friend? Each child is different and we will have to consider what they want too as each birthday season arrives.

But who are we kidding? When we asked her about her 12th birthday and mentioned a huge Bat Mitzvah, of course she wants the party. She is that kind of kid.

Now, try planning a Bat Mitzvah with family and friends who are spread across the province in a rural part of Ontario, in February.

Oh vey.