Friday, July 27, 2007

Birthday Bashes

Growing up, kids’ birthdays in our household were a simple affair. I must have had 3, maybe 4 birthday parties, my brother a little more that that; the majority of our birthdays being “my days”. For me, that meant not drinking milk, not eating my veggies, watching as much TV as I wanted, and eating unlimited amounts of mango ice cream and bhel. And birthdays were the days we most looked forward to.

My mother, a school teacher, did not agonize over parties and themes, invitation lists and entertainment. If I wanted, I was allowed to invite as many friends as our dining table could seat (which sat 6, then 4 when we bought a smaller table), but most of the time I was content to just go about my day, wear new clothes my mom got made for me and perhaps invite my best-friend-for-ever for a giggle fest on the front steps in the evening.

The gifts were simple. A pair of cheap earrings that my friends’ moms usually bought somewhat in bulk at a discount to be dished out at such times, handkerchiefs, socks (yes, socks), haircuts, water bottles, pencil boxes, ribbons to tie my hair in (always a spool of red, for school and another, more fancier one), and later when I stared college, a tube of lipstick, cologne, a week of free chai in the canteen.

But the simpler birthdays seem to have been morphed into something else these days. Most of the parties that I had been to in the last few years had way more guests than the birthday child’s age, were elaborately catered, some with an open bar, had some sort of an entertainment (magician, horse rides, DJ and such) or were done at a children’s entertainment facility. At the parties, the children themselves ended up being puzzled, bored, cranky and sleepy as over dressed mothers tried to shove spicy food down their gullets. A friend confessed to me that to her 3yr. old, birthday parties were just about getting a goodie-bag.

A bunch of parents in Minnesota, tired of the birthday extravaganza started a website called Birthdays Without Pressure. Their section – Keeping gifts out of control – has some good suggestions like – Give your child one nice present instead of several. Explain that the party itself is part of the present. But I have a problem with eliminating gifts altogether and donating to charity instead as another suggestion goes. It’s a kid’s birthday after all. As Judith Martin (of Miss Manners) points out: “They’d be much better off getting together with the other parents and agreeing on very small presents.” Besides, she noted, children learn valuable lessons giving gifts they would rather keep for themselves — and saying thank you even for things they do not like. The last part is especially important. I have given a few gifts to kids that have been tossed aside, not acknowledged, or acknowledged with a scowl or “I don’t like this” – much to my horror. This New York Times article (free subscription required) sums it up, although it seems to favor the no-gifts-let's-donate-instead approach.

Has kids birthday scene in India morphed similarly? What kind of birthday parties do you throw for your kids?