My friend’s daughter had a birthday recently. They are a middle-class family, much like ours, but I was astounded at the lavishness of the party, the return gifts, etc. On the way back, my daughter, who’s five, about the same age as the birthday girl, was quiet. Before going to bed, she turned to me and said, heartbreakingly, that she didn’t want to celebrate her birthday because we wouldn’t be able to give such ‘big’ return gifts. How does one hard sell home-made cakes and simple fun over three-tier cakes and Barbie takeaways to a child?
Ah, those over-the-top birthday parties. They’ve spiralled out of all control, haven’t they? Would you believe it, in the US, there is now Birthdays Without Pressure, an informal citizen-action group that’s trying to raise awareness and reverse the trend it calls “out-of-control birthday parties”.
I’m sure it’s not easy to get a five-year-old to see it that way, and her fascination with the big party and fancy take-home gifts is very understandable. However, it’s important that you don’t get caught up in trying to “hard sell” her anything. That smacks of insecurity and apologetic behaviour on your part. Which further reinforces your daughter’s feeling of “not having enough”. It’s best to just say that all parties don’t have to be like that one, and that you can have fun in your own way. She is very awed and taken up by what she has experienced, but by the time her birthday comes, you can start to plan her party with enthusiasm, and gently refuse to be drawn into comparisons with the other party.
Less is more: Make your child’s party fun, not just expensive.
For the long term, if you feel strongly about this (as quite a few sensible parents do), find like-minded parents who will think up interesting things to do on birthdays, instead of the big ostentatious party. This could include day trips, picnics or kiddie cook-outs, calling storytellers, renting fun films, etc.
And don’t feel apologetic about the cake not being three-tiered. Children pick up vibes from you on such issues very sharply—and if they feel that you are at ease with, and enjoying throwing, this party, that’s what will remain in their minds ultimately—and not what you “didn’t provide”. By the time your child is 8 or so, you could, like a lot of parents do, give them an either or option: a birthday party or a big gift. Usually children do choose the big gift, and the family can go out for a meal or make something special at home.
Without issuing homilies and guilt-inducing lectures, it is also important to subtly put some perspective on the table for our children. You need to find ways to let them see how much they have on their birthday, compared with more than half the children of the world or the kids around them. It may even be a good idea to include some kind act on her birthday. Soon, you will be able to switch your child on to what she does have on her birthday, rather than what she doesn’t.
Most importantly, do not get drawn into the trap of feeling you are not able to give your child a fairy-tale party—it’s more a matter of having different priorities, and not wanting to do it that way, isn’t it?
Some parents battle this whole thing by trying to paint the big-party parents as “bad” and “senseless”. Do avoid this—it only teaches your child to deflect her genuine feelings into sour-grapes kind of disdain, as well as a mean and nasty coping mechanism. Sneering at the rich is as bad as sneering at the poor.
My husband and I, and our two children, aged 8 and 10, will be staying with friends for 10 days. This is the first time the children are going to be house guests, and I do want to tell them a few things about how to be a good guest. I don’t want to cramp their style and make them all tense, but what do you think are the few essential dos and don’ts for children their age when they’re guests in someone’s home?
You’re right to want to set down a few ground rules. It is a tricky time—how you as a family live in another person’s household for 10 days will definitely affect whether everyone concerned has a good time, and everyone comes away happy.
These dos and don’ts are for your kids as well as for you!
• Try to go with the flow, with the general house style of your hosts. For instance, respect when they eat and what they eat; if 8pm dinner is too early for you, remember you’re on holiday, and have to do it only for a few days. If your host family is big on Indian food, and you or your kids are simply dying for a Chinese meal, you can eat that on one of your days out.
• Follow your host’s lead in matters of tidiness too. If he or she keeps an extremely tidy and neat house, do see that your kids don’t leave half-drunk water glasses or damp towels around.
• Do not expect your children to be entertained throughout your stay. While your host will have arranged some outings for you, they have to attend to their own chores too, so do try and find ways to get around the place yourself and don’t expect your host to play chauffeur and tour guide at all times.
• If there are other children, encourage them to play together, but don’t force it all the time. Allow kids to veer off in their own direction and read, and not interact with each other all the time. If there are fights, which make things quite awkward, intervene gently.
• Tell your children to treat your host’s appliances, computers, even light switches, as well as the host-kids’ toys, with some tentativeness—don’t just start using them, plugging things in, flipping lights on and off. Every home has its own peculiar problems, and you don’t want to cause inconvenience by inadvertently tripping the fridge.
• If your children have any specific allergies or strong dislikes, carry your own paraphernalia.
• See that your kids behave politely with any elders in the host family, and with the daily help too.
Gouri Dange is the author of The ABCs of Parenting.
Send your queries to Gouri at firstname.lastname@example.org