Kids' birthday parties are out of control. It's time for the adults that throw them to get a grip.

The festivities have only grown bigger, more competitive, increasingly expensive — and a lot less fun for everyone involved.
Illustration of stressed out mother and wailing children with birthday supplies surrounding them.
Cari Vander Yacht / for NBC News
Get the Think newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Meagan Francis

Like many kids who grew up in the ’80s, I went to a few friends’ and classmates’ birthday parties every year, and they were mostly simple, thrown-together affairs. It was rare to find more than a handful of kids at a party, and the events were typically held at the friend’s home. The one birthday party I went to that wasn’t — the location a dingy party room in the Pizza Hut basement — was such a rarity that it still stands out in my mind 30-plus years later.

The whole thing can start to feel more like a joyless death march than a celebration of life.

I was in for a rude awakening when I had kids. By the mid-2000s, I couldn’t help but notice that things had changed. Birthday parties had become a lot better planned and executed, often featuring elaborate themes, decor and entertainment. And they tended to take place in some kind of venue, often nicer than the one in which I’d got married. Overall, there was just … more.

More planners. More parents. More kids. More gifts. Which, of course, leads to more cost, more eyes on the birthday child, and thereby higher stakes should said birthday child melt down out of disappointment over a gift, disagreement over the order of events or sheer overstimulation. And that was before the rise of social media.

In the age of “If it’s not on Instagram, it didn’t happen,” the birthday-industrial complex (as this Reuters article very accurately defines the situation) has grown only bigger, more competitive and increasingly expensive — but ironically, a lot less fun for everyone involved. Between the stress over planning and affording these shindigs, and the pressure to paint it all in the most pastel-positive light on our social media feeds, the whole thing can start to feel more like a joyless death march than a celebration of life. All this hoopla can’t help but overshadow the actual point, which is recognizing the birthday child on their special day. Someone needs to be the parent — I volunteer myself —and stand on the chair in the middle of room and yell, "STOP!!!!"

A recent BabyCenter poll showed that 11 percent of parents spend more than $500 on their baby’s FIRST birthday. (Twenty-five percent spent between $200 to $500.) According to one survey by supermarket retailer Asda, the average parent in the United Kingdom spends $28,000 on a child’s birthdays through age 21, the same Reuters story found.

Get the think newsletter.

That seems like an astonishing figure — until you do the math. Hundreds of dollars for a space big enough to hold everyone, $250 for a bounce house, $250-plus for an hour with a professional character, $150 or more for a custom birthday cake to feed all those people (professional character included), $10 per gift bag multiplied by 30 kids — and let’s not forget themed napkins, plates, cups and decor. When you’re focused on creating a perfect event for your offspring, it’s easy to lose track of your budget.

This would all be just dandy if these showstopper junior galas were bringing us —or our offspring —endless joy. But are they? When I talk to other parents, I mostly hear anxiety over not knowing the “rules” when it comes to what their 3- or 5-year-old child (sometimes even younger!) deserves from a birthday celebration. And then stress over the reality of trying to pull off an Instagram-worthy party while working within the constraints of a normal human’s budget, schedule, space, artistic limitations and tolerance for dealing with an entire kindergarten classroom, plus all their parents, for hours on a precious Saturday afternoon. Not to mention the resentment that this is an expectation in the first place. And it starts younger and younger, sometimes before the child will even remember the event.

Let me be clear: I have no bone to pick with the naturally artistic and organized parents who love planning impressive parties. If anything, this expectation that we’re ALL supposed to do it seems to take away from how special it is to have real talent in this area. If that’s you, I say, “Knock yourself out” and “You deserve to be celebrated as a special breed.”

Instead, we’ve lost touch with the idea that we all have certain gifts, and that party planning doesn’t have to be one of them in order for us to be good parents. If we can’t pull it off ourselves, we often cave to the pressure and hire help, whether we can afford it or not —but we’re sure to claim credit by posting all about it on Instagram.

“I worry about the message (these parties) send our to our kids,” teacher and parenting blogger Charissa West says. “When a 5-year-old's birthday party now rivals an episode of MTV's ‘My Super Sweet 16,’ it begs the question: How much is too much? The rise of entitlement has been an ongoing subject of concern among the general public for years now, and I think some of these birthday parties could very well be a case in point.”

She believes this pressure evolved organically and gradually. “Sure, for some it's about ‘Keeping up with the Joneses,’ and trying to outdo one another,” West says. “For most, however, I think it's been a gradual, casual ratcheting-up of expectations to the point that parents just assume this is ‘the standard’ for birthday parties.”

But that doesn’t mean we have to accept it as the new immutable normal. We can opt out of the birthday madness. Wherever you fall on the spectrum, I promise that there are plenty of ways to authentically and joyfully celebrate your child having made another trip around the sun.

Nowhere in the parenting books does it say that inviting 30-plus kids to a party will result in a happier, more well-adjusted child, and most of your kid’s classmates — the ones who can’t quite identify your child when their parents ask, “So, who is Carter again?” —will probably never even know it happened without them.

And, I promise you, most of your adult friends will appreciate keeping their Saturdays free so they can choose to lavish attention on your child in a way that’s more authentic to their relationship, less stressful for you and doesn’t require them to perch awkwardly on a chair for an hour watching a 3-year-old tear through a pile of gifts that collectively represents the cost of your car payment.

As for what to share on social media — well, even if you don’t post a single picture, I promise you it really happened. (Hot IG tip: Photos of a kid blowing out their candles always go over well, and the blur from the flames makes it hard to tell that the cake was your own sloppy but loving creation.)

Most of your adult friends will appreciate keeping their Saturdays free so they can choose to lavish attention on your child in a way that’s more authentic.

A few weeks ago, my 10-year-old daughter Clara was invited to a birthday party for her friend and her friend’s sister, along with six or seven other kids. When I arrived to pick her up (mercifully the parents weren’t on the guest list), Clara grabbed her gift bag, which contained a pencil and a few other trinkets, and hugged the beaming birthday girls as she said her thank-yous and goodbyes. All the way home, she told me about the fun she’d had: the three-legged race she’d nearly won, the hot dogs the kids had eaten in the backyard, and the homemade chocolate cake they’d had for dessert.

“That was the best party I ever went to,” she sighed happily.

It’s not surprising, though, is it? What kids really want is to have fun with their friends. The “wow” factor we get from an expensive themed cake or those favors you stayed up all night making may warm our try-hard parent hearts, but to the kids, they’re not what matters. So let’s all step away from Pinterest for a moment and embrace the charms of the simple birthday party. At the very least, we’ll all be a lot less stressed, sleepless and broke — and parents, isn’t that what you really want?