Birthdays Without Pressure - 1/16/07

Smartmarriages smartmarriages at
Tue Jan 16 16:51:03 EST 2007

What do couples fight about?  Money, Kids, Time....and the escalating
pressure of bigger and more expensive children's parties.


Bashes for little darlings get bigger and bigger
January 16, 2007 
By Sharon Jayson

Her older daughter's birthday made Julie Printz realize she had gone
overboard with a tea party for 15 kindergartners.

"I tried to do something simple, but it escalated," she says. "I spent
plenty, I'm sure. I got obsessed with the details. I put so much time and
effort in the little gift bags I sent home. The night before the party I was
up until midnight."

Printz, 42, an applications analyst and mother of two from St. Paul, says
that party three years ago shows how parents get carried away with kids'

"I could see it on the faces of the parents when they came to pick up their
kids. They were impressed and terrified that 'I'm going to have to do this,
too,' " she says. "I contributed to the mania."

Now she's among parents and educators behind Birthdays Without Pressure, a
campaign launching today in St. Paul. Organizers hope it will start a
national discussion about a parenting culture in which birthday parties have
gone too far.

Far beyond cake and ice cream

Sure, there are plenty of extravagant bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah parties
for Jewish 13-year-olds, elaborate quinceañeras for Hispanic 15-year-olds
and Sweet 16s that rival wedding celebrations. But what has these parents
upset are parties for babies, toddlers, pre-schoolers or grade-schoolers
that don't look at all like the standard pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey,
cake-and-ice cream parties of yesteryear.

William Doherty, a professor of family social science at the University of
Minnesota who has assisted parents' movements to stop overscheduling kids
and regain family time, says he's involved after seeing party pressures
firsthand. His grandson is 21 months old, and he says his daughter started
getting questions about a first birthday party when the child was only 6

"In my day, at one year, you gave them a cupcake that they smeared on their
face and took a picture," Doherty says.

But today, many parties are themed events with elaborate decorations, cakes
and goody bags filled with loot to take home. Commercial party sites have
sprung up to fuel the party panic among middle- and upper-class parents.

"It's created a new industry," says Daniel Howard, an expert in consumer
behavior at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "It is real, and it has
made an impact on the economy."

Matt McAllister, a pop culture expert at Pennsylvania State University, says
he is not surprised at the growth of such bashes.

"With more and more media aimed directly at children, children are
socialized as consumers pretty heavily, so there is probably a lot of
pressure to have these consumption-oriented events."

'A joyous celebration'

But not everyone agrees parents have gone wild over birthday parties.

In many communities, over-the-top parties are more the exception than the
rule, says Lisa Groves, 37, of Denver, the mother of four daughters ranging
from 4 months to 10 years. There's a move for more low-key and smaller
parties at home, "making it more special with that smaller group," she says.

Joan Kaplan, 45, a real estate agent in the Atlanta suburb of Decatur, says
her 5-year-old daughter attended a party at the Ritz-Carlton featuring
horse-drawn carriage rides. But she also says most parties are at home, at a
local swimming pool or at the park.

Kaplan says she threw a party for 70 family members and friends for the
first birthday of her daughter, who was born after five years of

"We made it a big deal, and her birthday cake said 'Dreams really do come
true,' " she says. "But it was in our home. My aunt and I cooked all the
food. It was a joyous celebration."

Another parent from St. Paul, Debra deNoyelles, says she didn't join the
party-pressure group because she doesn't agree with the conclusion that
today's parties are all stress and no fun. She loves having big parties for
her son and daughter.

"My son is already talking about his July birthday," deNoyelles, 40, says.
"He is gearing up for his Star Wars party. We usually have home parties, and
I like to bake, so I bake a cake. I will often make a piñata.

"We usually have a theme, and we do a craft project when the kids arrive and
play a lot of games in the backyard. It's pretty traditional stuff."

The impulse to make a big deal of parties doesn't come out of the blue, says
Karen Sternheimer, a sociologist and lecturer at the University of Southern
California-Los Angeles.

Today's parents are more "emotionally invested" in their children, largely
because of smaller families. Sternheimer says birthday parties in America
didn't become popular until the early 20th century, when medical advances
made it more likely for children to survive illnesses in infancy and

"Now we're focused on psychological and emotional well-being," she says. "A
few decades ago, it was a nice byproduct, but survival was No. 1."

Another reason, suggests David Elkind, a child psychologist from Boston, is
that some parents are so worried about the increasingly competitive world
their kids will live in that they're sending them to academic summer camps
and educational after-school programs.

The author of the new book The Power of Play says play is viewed as a luxury
for today's kids.

Says Elkind: "Birthday parties may be one area where parents feel it's OK to
let go a bit and go all out."

For full article w/ photos:

You can definitely say that Bill Doherty is dedicated when it comes to
helping us wake up and smell the coffee - wake up to the effects of the
consumer culture on our marriages and families.  It's kind of like we're the
frog that starts out in cold water - we don't notice that it's slowly
getting hotter, till we're cooked. Bill has led us on many such "wake up"
explorations including his landmark Smart Marriages keynotes "How Therapy
Can be Hazardous to Your Marital Health (1999)" and "Who's Got Time to Be
Married?(2003)". This national, rational discussion on kid's birthday
parties is just another stepping stone on the path by which we can reclaim
our lives -- like his books "Take Back Your Marriage"; and "Take Back Your
Kids" to guide us in reclaiming our overscheduled lives.  And, like his new
out-of-the-box program, The First Dance, which began as "Take Back Your
Wedding".  It developed as his daughter, Elizabeth, was planning her wedding
and he realized how far the wedding industry had penetrated this crucial
family ritual.  He turned the whole thing on it's head.  More about that

I encourage you to read up on Bill - you can read the Hazardous keynote for
starters at: and order his
books on Amazon or at his exhibit at Smart Marriages Denver.  And, plan now
to attend his presentations - as usual, there will be standing (and,
cheering) room only. Bravo, Bill.  - diane

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