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My super sweet spoiled kid? How to avoid party wars

Live entertainment, big-ticket goodie bags, gourmet food, high-tech games — kids’ birthdays are becoming more and more elaborate, and a lot of parents feel pressure to break the bank on children’s parties. Before you rent out the Sesame Street set, Parenting magazine shares helpful advice on how to prevent birthday bashes from getting out of control.
/ Source: TODAY

Live entertainment, big-ticket goodie bags, gourmet food, high-tech games — kids’ birthdays are becoming more and more elaborate, and a lot of moms feel that parents’ willingness to break the bank on children’s birthday parties has gotten completely out of control. According to 28,000 moms who responded to a Parenting magazine poll, 82 percent said that birthday parties are too extravagant, having become more of a show for parents than a celebration for kids.

Elaborate birthday parties range from inviting friends to sleep at the American Museum of Natural History for the night to re-create “Night at the Museum” for $80 a head, to overnight zoo safaris ($145 per person at the Bronx Zoo). For parents looking for the ultimate sleepover, FAO Schwarz offers a private sleepover package for $25,000! American Girl will stay open after hours for approximately $250 per girl — but attendees need to make their own hotel accommodations. 

How can parents keep up?  The answer is simple for younger children: Don't even try. All a preschooler really cares about are cake, songs and presents in the company of friends. Whom do you want to impress — the Joneses or your child?

Rachel Schewe of Coppell, Texas, has taken her 2-year-old, Emily, to over-the-top parties with lavish themes, goody bags with birthday-party-size presents, and intricate cakes from gourmet bakeries. But for her daughter's second birthday, she chose a joint sandwich-and-cupcake affair at the local park with Emily's friend Sam, who'd just turned 2 himself. She asked that the handful of guests donate a book to the local children's hospital rather than bring gifts. “My daughter had a great time and didn't miss something bigger,” she says.

And, of course, it is possible to have a theme party that's actually simple in scope. Kellie Gaines's daughter wanted a bug party for her third birthday, so the Murrieta, Calif., mom sent out bee invitations to 15 kids, held an easy rubber-bug hunt in the backyard, and served a homemade ladybug cake. It was a short, sweet, and successful gathering that didn't end up sapping her wallet or energy.

School-age kids might indeed start to notice the disparity in birthday extravaganzas. If your child doesn't understand why she can't have a bash as big as her friend's, be casual but firm. Simply say, "This is how we do it in our family."

According to another Parenting magazine poll:

  • 40 percent spent over $200 on their child’s last bash
  • 73 percent bought their child’s last birthday cake
  • 58 percent hosted their child’s last party at home
  • 22 percent started planning their child’s party more than 2 months ahead of time.

But is it all really worth the effort? One in four moms says that their child has had a meltdown at his own celebration! Some tips to prevent kids from getting overwhelmed at parties:

The best age to start throwing kids’ parties for your child’s birthday is probably around 4 or 5. By then, a child has friends, a distinct taste in toys, and some experience with cake and ice cream. Of course, few of us can hold out this long. So if you must have a party for your 1-year-old, go ahead. Just make sure there are lots of grown-up food and drinks, and don't expect the birthday baby to be very interested. (He's also likely to get grumpy with so many people clamoring around him.)

For a more pleasant celebration, it's smart to keep the attention off your baby and work around his nap and feeding schedules. Simplicity remains the rule for 2- and 3-year-olds, too: You might offer cupcakes — the perfect-size confection for little ones — with cardboard “Blue's Clues” characters stuck on them. (Check your local stationery or party store.) They'll appreciate more-elaborate parties with themes and planned activities later on.

How many kids should you really invite?The general rule, often ignored: age plus one. That means four friends for a 3-year-old's birthday. For toddlers, it's best to invite at least one friend she sees a lot and feels comfortable around. If your child goes to day care or preschool and is used to being with a large group of kids, she can probably handle a few additional guests.

On the other hand, grade-schoolers have definite ideas of whom they want to invite, so you can use the opportunity to teach them to be considerate of others' feelings. Explain why inviting 10 out of 12 kids in the class is bad form. Better to invite everyone and hope for some no-shows. Inviting four out of 12 kids, however, is more a matter of discretion and will work better if the bash isn't held immediately after school. Teach your child not to talk about her upcoming party around those she didn't invite (and then cross your fingers).

How much should you spend on goodie bags?
Eleven percent of moms spend over $10 on each goodie bag, which can start to add up when attendance is in the double-digits. Keep in mind that kazoos, candies and plastic bracelets may be junk to us, but they're treasure to a 4-year-old. Stick to your guns and a budget, though. Any more than $5 per goody bag isn’t really necessary.

Think outside the bag as well. How about sending everyone home with a packet of seeds to plant in the garden, or some colored modeling clay? One reader simply handed out a small box of colored sidewalk chalk to everyone at the end of the party. Most kids sat right down to draw on the patio. Cost for all this bliss: 90 cents each.

Some fun, inexpensive ideas for take-away treats that won’t break the bank:

1. Skip the candy (parents will appreciate that), the noisemakers (ditto) and the bitty flower-shaped erasers — they just end up as clutter. Instead, give guests a clever party favor, like My Pet Fish soap ($6,

2. Go for quality over quantity: Classic novelties like glow sticks and yo-yos are good options. So are art supplies: colored pencils, markers and kid-safe scissors.

3. Consider giving just one higher-ticket item: a disposable camera, card game, kaleidoscope or colorful miniflashlight.

4. Turn a craft or an activity that's part of the festivities into the take-home: Kids can paint photo frames, bead jewelry or sculpt creatures out of make-and-bake clay.

5. Think outside the bag — try Chinese takeout boxes, plastic flowerpots, popcorn buckets or mini paint cans. Or, forgo containers entirely. “For my son's baseball party, I bought a bat-and-ball set for each child at the 99-cent store and tied a ribbon around the end. I saved time and money, and the kids got a big, fun gift they could use,” says Tina Bryson, a San Marino, Calif., mom of three.

6. For more clever favors, check these sites:, and

Inexpensive, creative ideas for entertainment:For kids’ entertainment, go beyond the usual clown or magician — these are also less expensive than traditional entertainers:

1. What could be cooler than having a fire truck pull up to your house? Many fire departments will send over a fire engine for kids to clamber on while they learn about safety from a real firefighter. Some supply helmets to guests (you should make a donation to the fire station).

2. Hire two high schoolers to play CDs and lead a dance party. Or have a couple of cheerleaders demonstrate a routine for the kids. Toddlers and preschoolers love to wiggle around and can try to copy the moves.

3. Hairstyling appeals to nearly all girls; see if a local stylist will create updos, French braids, ponytails or crooked hair parts.

4. Ask a music teacher to lead a sing-along. Gather (or borrow) drums, shakers, tambourines or musical toys so kids can play as well as sing.

5. Run, kick and jump: Your child's favorite camp counselor or a high school athlete could teach soccer skills, run a T-ball game or practice gymnastics with the kids.

6. Find a crafty professional (art teacher or preschool aide) to design an art project such as holiday cards, candy wreaths or nature designs.

Party-Game Makeovers:

Pointy party hat
Why: The elastic pinches chins and necks, the pointy tops poke, and they never stay on during the whole party anyway.Better: Inexpensive plastic headbands turned into antennae with the addition of pipe-cleaner stems and Styrofoam balls as adornments; make them ahead of time or let the kids paint or decorate the balls as a party activity. Or make paper-bag hats, which can double as name tags: Just roll up the edges of white deli-size sacks into a brim and decorate ahead of time or at the party.

Cardboard noisemaker
Why: They get spit-soaked, and after being in circulation for a half hour or so, no one can identify his own (used) one.Better: Buy plastic kazoos (about $1 apiece at toy or music stores), write names on them or put on stickers to lessen germ-swapping, and let everyone hum “Happy Birthday.”

Perilous pinata
Why: Who thought of blindfolding kids and giving them sticks to swing wildly about? And the candy grab afterward requires crowd control worthy of riot police.Better: Do-it-yourself treasure balls. Scrunch a small toy favor inside a wad of construction paper. Tape into a ball shape, then wrap with a long crepe paper strip, taping stickers, tattoos and small toys along its length. Secure the end of the roll with a sticker. Let kids toss, roll or unravel their treasure ball (make sure they're light and won't hurt partygoers).

Sugary party favors
Why: They've had their cake; they don't need candy too. Better: Think nonedible, interactive and instant fun: Sidewalk chalk, stickers and a sticker book, a puzzle or a jar of bubbles are all fine, sugar-free alternatives.

Make them give thanksSeventy-one percent say that their child sends thank-you notes to her party guests, but 41 percent say that they never get them from other kids. They're a gracious touch, and learning this early is a nice idea. Young kids can draw a picture of the present, then you fill in the words yourself. An older child can sign his name and, by age 6, should be able to write his own note. Don't worry about the spelling.  Lost track of who gave what? Don't mention the gift specifically — thank your guest for coming and being part of your child's special day.

Finally, remember that following guidelines is all well and good, but as every parent knows, sometimes the rules simply have to go out the window. Just so long as they don't all go out at once.

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