Birthday Party Drama

Birthday parties can be a little crazy. I always find that they’re an interesting sort of portal into understanding a family’s values. For example, there are those virtuous families who request donations for a good cause in place of birthday gifts. I always admire this choice, but you might remember that we’ve struggled with our–ahem!–charitable giving in the past. Then there are the birthday parties that make choices that we, well, let’s just say, we don’t admire them as much. Like when my 2nd grader was invited to the party to see the PG-13 movie or the “glamor shots” style photo shoot party that took place 25 minutes away on a Sunday morning. These invitations are discussed and approved or discouraged on a case-by-case basis. Or other nutty examples, like the recent post on Mean Moms Rule about telling attendees to bring their American Girl Doll.

At our house, we tend to do parties in our home–the only “destination” party we’ve ever had was one at the town pool. We’ve never done a whole-class birthday party, and I don’t force the girls to invite anyone. The only limits I place are that they can’t invite most of a class in a way that will leave 1 or 2 girls left out. So it’s always been fewer than ten kids, generally with a slightly overambitious craft project (like fairies or decorating cupcakes) and/or an overambitious cake. I do get a little nutty prior to a party, but even though the idea of outsourcing is appealing, my kids seem to like their parties chock full of homemade,  low-key, and wholesome fun. And that’s one of the many things I love about them.

An ongoing problem we’ve had lately with M and her friends is that her friends spend approximately a crap-load on birthday gifts. Or maybe I’m the one who’s just incredibly cheap. You tell me. Generally speaking, I spent the girls’ early years spending about $10 to $15 on a birthday gift, with $20 as an absolute upper limit except for very special cases like J’s BFF, who’s also a family friend. Gradually over the course of last year I began to sense that M was dissatisfied with this budget, and I even started heading more to $20 to $25. And then in June her 10th birthday rolled around, and I was shocked by the extravagance of the gifts she received. An example is, say, a $20 gift card and a t-shirt and a stuffed animal from a single friend. It felt like the gifts ran between about $40 and $50 per child. I was in shock. Time passed. Well, another friend’s birthday rolled around, and at M’s request, I ordered an item that cost $24. When it arrived, M said, “Great. What else are we getting her?” Thus ensued a huge, long discussion about gifts.

You know what this kid needs? More gifts!

It was a good talk, actually. I talked about our previous house, which was bigger/newer/more expensive and how we chose to move to our smaller/older/cheaper house because the neighborhood is friendlier and the lower mortgage let me spend more time with the girls. And that this falls in line with our family’s values, that we think people, relationships, and community are more important than consumer goods. And that even though I’m glad about our choice, I miss that awesome house sometimes, so the choices can be hard for me, too. Then we talked about how she doesn’t choose her friends because of what they’ll buy her, but because they’re fun to hang around with and because of their unique qualities, and her friends like her for herself, and not for the gifts that she gives. And she conceded that a lot of the stuff you give or receive for a birthday (for 10-year-old girls, these days it’s t-shirts and stuffed animals and accessories and craft supplies) is stuff you don’t even really care about a couple of months later. M even laughed about the American Girl Dolls that she was so thrilled with when she purchased them or received them as gifts, because these days, she’s sort of “over” them. I said that none of her friends were in need, and giving them more than $25 worth of stuff that they probably wouldn’t care about after a few weeks felt wasteful to me. Instead, I said that she could supplement my budget by making something meaningful and I’d help her for that, or I’d pony up extra cash if she wanted to donate to a cause in her friend’s name, or she could spend her own money.  It was funny, too, because that night I was struggling to close her bedroom door, because the old doorknob often doesn’t catch the first 3 or 4 times. And just before I finally shut it, M laughed and said, “Mom, I bet in our other house all the doorknobs worked right away!” And I laughed because I’d been thinking the same exact thing.

Since that talk she’s gotten gifts for two parties. Each time she supplemented with a bit of her own cash and once there was small re-gift. I felt pretty happy with how we resolved it, because I felt like M understood and appreciated that I wasn’t just trying to be cheap or mean. But Cute W was like, “What? She’s still giving all that? So we’re just perpetuating the escalation.” Well, yes. But if there’s a time to take a stand on putting a spending limit on birthday gifts, it’s when you’re inviting kids to your own party. So we’ll revisit it when June rolls around again.

Meanwhile, we’ve been discussing J’s 8th birthday coming up on October 1st. She’s going into 2nd grade (yes, I’m a redshirter, and I’d do it again) and she really wants to have a sleepover. M had maybe one or two sleepovers in 3rd grade, and it feels like it didn’t really get going until 4th grade. But this is one of the perils of raising the second daughter: she’s corrupted by the first. I know that M’s gotten invitations that have made me roll my eyes and wring my hands (see paragraph 1), and I didn’t want to be the Irritating Mother of Corrupt Values And Insidious Influence. So I sent an email to a couple of mothers of J’s friends with a little explanation, about how J keeps requesting a sleepover, and I think that they’re a little young, but of course there’s nothing inherently evil or corrupting about a sleepover. Then I offered a multiple choice:

So, please choose whichever option most closely resembles your thought when you hear “Sleepover”:

A. There is no way that my daughter and/or I are ready for her to go spend the night at someone else’s house.
B. My daughter would be thrilled, but I’d just as soon put off this sort of thing for another year or two if we can.
C. We’re fine with it, but I’m not sure how it will go, so we might want to try a practice spend-the-night at a friend’s house first to see if it’s feasible.
D. Sounds great to me.
E. I’m happy to send her along with a PG-13 DVD, sparkle nail polish, and a pack of candy cigarettes.
I laughed out loud when the first mom replied with E. I was like, um, she knows that I was joking about that one, right? Because I was totally just kidding. That was the other end of the spectrum. In any case, it appears that we’re going forward with the sleepover! Which, of course, means that there will be more party drama in our near future.


At this very party a friend leaned over and said, “I hope you don’t mind that we got a Teacher Barbie–I know you’ve resisted Barbies, but my daughter had her heart set on it” and at that Exact Moment M was opening a Trampy Slut Barbie from another guest.


So, do any of you parents have Birthday Party Drama? Invitations that you wish you’d never opened? And am I crazy about this gift limit? I’m not the crazy one, right? Right?


  1. June

    Hey, I have a $30 limit on all of the graduation gifts I just had to give. I was bummed when I I had to raise my birthday party limit to $20 because I couldn’t find anything for my previous $10 limit, Thank goodness I’m past that now, it’s been at least 3 years since Alex got invited to or had a birthday party.

  2. Michelle

    My girls are still small, and most of the parties A has been to have been family friends. But I agree – for a school friend, I’d probably say $20 was the absolutely upper limit. Honestly, I wouldn’t feel bad if we ended up finding something cool at 5 Below. I hate getting piles of junk that my kids don’t want and/or won’t play with (which happens to us a lot around the holidays), so I try not to perpetuate. When in doubt, I usually turn to craft supplies and/or books (which are both easy to do on the cheap!).

  3. @Hollow Squirrel, June, and Michelle–thank you! You know, I’m at that point where I’m like “Everyone’s crazy, everyone’s crazy, everyone’s crazy. . . wait, am I the crazy one?” So I appreciate a little perspective. And of course, it’s not just crazy but kind and generous. Oh, crap, I almost typed “and crazy” again!

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