Monday, 29 September 2008

Fairy bread and roses

Two weeks have passed since my daughter's seventh birthday party, and my post-traumatic stress syndrome has started to wane just enough that I feel I can begin to talk about it.

Children's birthday parties are a source of profound angst for me - political, social and moral angst. I have a cousin who, as a boy, had some mild behavioural and developmental difficulties, but was a fundamentally good kid. A child in his class threw a birthday party, and invited every single one of his classmates except my cousin. It was a shitty, cruel thing to do, and clearly the birthday child's parents should have known better. You can imagine the effect it had on my cousin and his parents. From the day I heard about this, I vowed to avenge birthday-related injustice whenever it arises.

My daughter's sixth birthday was the first on which she'd ever had a large bunch of friends to invite. My philosophy is that you must either invite a very select group of friends, so the omitted friends know that it's nothing personal, or you have to invite everyone so that no one feels excluded. My daughter and I couldn't agree on the select group, so we ended up inviting her whole class plus her non-school friends. (A fundamentalist Christian family had the audacity to send along a non-invited smart arse of an older sibling while the parents themselves did not attend, which flies in the face of all birthday party etiquette I know of.) So as not to discriminate against low-income families, I instituted a 'no presents' rule, which the well-to-do families ingored, thus drawing even more attention to the low-income families who didn't bring presents. (I had to chuckle, though - my daughter's best friend gave her a submarine she'd made herself out of her mother's empty Winfield packets).

It took me a full year to recover from the sixth birthday, which was logistically more challenging to organise than the Beijing Olympics. My friend has a baby daughter with a birthday close to my daughter's, so we decided to hold a joint first and seventh double birthday party extravaganza. Both being busy working mums, we liked the economies of scale this was sure to generate. Both being crazy left-wing feminists, we didn't know how combine our radical outlook on life with the demands of children's partyage.

Me: 'Should this event have some sort of girly theme?'
Friend: 'Like Barbie?'
Me: 'I was thinking more along the lines of suffrage, but Barbie is good too'.
Friend: 'Suffrage Barbie it is then'.

So far, so good - we'd thematically combined frivolity with strong feminist role modeling (kind of). But now there was the fraught issue of presents to attend to.

Friend: 'What's your take on presents?'
Me: 'Hate them. Orgiastic capitalism at its worst, environmentally ravaging wrapping paper all over the place, shite plastic toys made by child labourers in oppressive regimes, low socioeconomic birthday attendees placed under needless pressure to enter into mindless consumption'.
Friend: 'Fun though'.
Me: 'Yep'.

We agreed there would be sustainable gifts only: recycled or home made. Or that's what I thought we agreed. I told my guests that the rule was sustainable gifts; my friend told her guests there was to be no presents at all. (As it turned out, both sets of guests generously defied the instructions, and brought the girls a lovely array of pressies.)

And then there was the issue of entertainment. Nobly, my friend wanted to do some science tricks for the children, and organise a treasure hunt based on decoding anagrams. I recognised the intellectual merits of this, but cautioned my friend that the kids would probably want to shove their gobs full of junk food and run about like nutters. In my experience, that's what kids like to do. Hell, some grown ups I know like to do it too.

My friend and I compromised. We'd have some structured activities, but nothing too cerebral. A pinata would add some vigorous activity to counter the junk food and encourage healthy lifestyle habits, we thought - but my friend expressed some concern at the possibility of a Barbie pinata. I wholeheartedly agreed. After all my criticisms of Tony Veitch, we were not going to let our children grab a stick and thump an effigy of a woman - not even a fictional, plastic woman. (In fact, I was mildly disturbed by the prospect of any pinata at all. We settled for a colourful donkey in the end, and I was deeply disturbed at the level of clobbering it took to yield a handful of crappy hard lollies.)

The party came and went, and the kids had a great time. And was this anything to do with the sound ideological basis of their birthday party? Not at all. Ultimately, it doesn't matter how austerely feminist and left wing your parents are - kids are kids. They like to
shove their gobs full of junk food and run about like nutters. As I cleaned up the wrapping paper afterwards, I just took comfort in the fact that no one had eaten until they threw up.


The ex-expat said...

Due to having a birthday in early January, I never really had huge birthday parties as myself and/or my school friends were out of town. As a result of this loss, I LOVE organizing kids birthday parties.

The Korean kids on their first birthday traditionally get a gift of a pen, string and money which denotes them as a scholar, having a long life or being rich. You can change the gift and the symbolism associated but I think that's pretty cool. They don't seem to get presents for their birthday, just lots of cake and food which is seen as more than enough of a gift for a country where 2 generations ago food was in short supply. Instead they receive presents on children's day (an official holiday) and money from older relatives at Lunar New year and thanksgiving which the parents usually save a portion of to go towards their future education.

This is the best Kid's Birthday theme I've ever seen and perhaps an idea for next year?

Anonymous said...

I am glad someone else goes though this kind of birthday party angst too :-) Well not glad...

Hugh said...

After leaving home I basically stopped celebrating birthdays, and should I ever have kids (no plans at present) I wouldn't celebrate theirs either.

Anonymous said...

I went to a dinner the other night, and most people there had kids. Big range of ages. We adults fed the kids, and then ate a huge feast and settled in by the bonfire while the kids went completely feral playing bullrush, screaming, rolling and tumbling over each other and comparing marshmallow toasting techniques. Then...they crashed! They were deposited in heaps in the back of vans, on mattresses on floors etc and the adults got onto the serious business of drinking wine and bitching about the government.

I don't think it takes much to keep the little screamers happy. Just the excitement of each other really.

Lucy said...

I went through much birthday-party related angst as a child which was pretty much entirely down to several girls at my school attending all of my parties and never inviting me to theirs. As an adult, it occurs that they may just not have had them some of the time (although there were a few snubs I'm certain of) but when you're eight it all seems pretty crushing socially, especially when there's only five girls your age at school anyway.

Mikaere Curtis said...

My wife and I love putting on parties for our kids. The only problem is that their birthdays occur 3 days apart, which compounds the logistics.

We basically ask what kind of birthday they want and then we figure out how to do it. We do live action roleplaying (think D&D with foam swords and costumes) and we've put on parties where all the guests go on an adventure together.

My favourite party game is a kind of musical chairs where instead of chairs you have little pictures on things around the room (on the wall, door, shelves etc). You have one picture each kid, and a matching picture in a hat. When the music stops, each kid picks a picture. One picture is pulled from the hat, and they child who chose that picture is out (and the picture is removed from both hat and room).

It's easy, and big and small kids have as much chance of winning the prize.