Of Pirates and Princesses

Of Pirates and Princesses…




Each year millions of parents knock themselves out planning elaborately-themed birthday parties they hope will make their kids’ fondest fantasies come true.  In a quest to keep up with the pricey celebrations thrown by the parents of their kids’ friends, or perhaps to give their children something they themselves never had, parents often exceed the bounds of sensible budgeting to rent ice rinks, hire professional entertainers, or spring for half a day at an expensive theme park.

Changing demographics, growing affluence, and an increase in the number of dual-career families have altered expectations, so that the simple at-home, cake and ice cream, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey party now seems to have gone the way of the tyrannosaur.  (Though, if you want to throw a dinosaur party, Paper Warehouse can supply the matching paper plates, cups, napkins, balloons, invitations, piñatas, party favors, hats, and goodie bags.)

A parenting magazine survey reports that 20 percent of the parents polled spent more than $200 for their child’s most recent birthday party.  As more working moms opt for convenience over economy, out-of-home parties have become big business.  Every year, the Chuck E. Cheese chain hosts two million birthday parties.  Fast-food places offer competitive package deals.  Yellow Page ads pitch rent-a-clowns and rent-a-magicians, fairy princess parties, karaoke, aerobics, you name it.  Michael’s Stores, Inc., and Jo-Ann Stores offer craft-related birthday parties.  For $10 per child, each guest can go home with a birdhouse she made herself.  Parents can bring in a cake and decorations, and there’s no need to clean up the house before and after the party.

But the cost of tickets to Disney on Ice for ten kids counts up, and an afternoon of laser tag can be overly stimulating.  Commercial packages might simplify the planning, but extravagant, fast-paced parties sometimes leave the birthday child in tears and the exhausted parents wondering whether it was worth it all.

Looking for an alternative to elaborate, commercialized parties?  With a little planning, a scaled down, back-to-the-family version can be as much fun as the high-priced spread.   If the goal of a birthday celebration is to make your child feel special on his or her day, think about initiating some traditions, creating some memories, and incorporating some home-grown fun.  Maybe every other year should be family party year, where the family does something special alone together—an overnight campout, a scavenger hunt, an at-home game night, videos and popcorn, a nature hike, a fishing trip, miniature golf, or an activity like building a snow fort, making homemade ice cream together, or camping out in the backyard.

A telephone survey commissioned by the Center for a New American Dream, a non-profit organization that promotes responsible consumption, asked 746 children, aged 9 to 14, “What do you want that money can’t buy?”  Two-thirds of them, when asked what they would change about their parents’ jobs, said they wished they could spend more time with their parents.


Birthdays offer ideal opportunities to teach and to develop wholesome traditions.  One mom I know writes her child a letter each year on his birthday.  She will read the letters to him until he is old enough to read them for himself.  She saves a copy of each letter and will present the whole collection to him on his eighteenth birthday.  Letters reflect on highlights of the child’s year, note positive qualities the parents have observed in him during the year, commend him on some of his achievements, and let him know how proud they are of him.  It’s a chance to cultivate character and to nurture godly values.

Some families opt for a party without gifts.  This calls for a fair amount of maturity on the part of the birthday child, but it’s a value worth trying to cultivate.  At the bottom of the invitation, the hosts state, “no gifts.”  Instead, they ask the guest to make a donation to a designated charity—possibly something like the Ronald McDonald House, Special Olympics, or Make-A-Wish Foundation.  The party should include food and fun, but the focus will be refreshingly much less materialistic.

Activities need not be expensive.  Sometimes playing dress-up out of the attic trunk can provide an hour of creative fun.  Stage a treasure hunt.  Let the guests help prepare some of the food—frost and decorate the cupcakes, make a pizza together.  Pick up two or three appliance boxes and provide materials for converting them to houses.  As every parent knows, boxes are nearly always more fun than toys.

As children get older, offer more choices.  Set a budgeted amount for a party, then let the child decide whether he or she would like to use it for a party, or for the purchase of a long-anticipated item, or for a chance to go out with a friend or two.



  • Let the party be planned (at least partially) by kids, for kids. Include your children in the decisions and preparations.
  • Set a reasonable budget, and stick to it. Children often have little concept of (nor do they generally care) whether the food and decorations are costly or inexpensive.
  • Make it manageable. Keep the guest list realistic (preferably no more than one child for each year of the birthday child’s age).  And do have other adults on hand to help during the party.
  • Keep the kids busy. Plan plenty of activities, and always have an alternate plan, in case an activity doesn’t work out.  Avoid competitive games with young children, as this may trigger frustration for some.
  • Avoid sleepovers. Having one friend overnight might be workable.  Having a dozen overnighters brings more trouble and responsibility than you’d ever bargained for.
  • Scale back expectations. While it’s fun to anticipate special events, avoid over-hyping.  Too much buildup courts disappointment.
  • Prepare your child in advance to respond appropriately to guests. It’s an ideal time to instill good manners.  Practice with them:  “Thanks for coming to my party.”  “Thank you for the awesome gift.”  (Instruct your child not to say, “I don’t like it!”  “I’ve already got one of these!” “This isn’t the one I wanted!” or other comments that offend the giver.)
  • Include your child in the follow-up. It’s a teachable moment for demonstrating social skills. Help your child write thank you notes.  A particularly welcome gesture might be to tuck in a photo you took at the party that includes the guest you’re writing to.


Whether your budget is lavish or skimpy, whether your teaching is intentional or accidental, the way you handle birthdays will say a lot to your kids about what you value.   Is the party about materialism?  Impressing others?  Giving the parent a vicarious experience?  Or is it about making the child feel special and having fun with family and friends?

With a little thought and creativity, parties can be fun, economical, and one of your best teaching tools.  A piece of cake.