|Death to the Goody Bag
Kids’ birthday parties have evolved in a Darwinian sense: Only the strong parents survive
By Sarah Pekkanen
I was wrestling an uncooperative bag of groceries out of my minivan when I spotted our 6-year-old neighbor, Ike, approaching me, his little brow thoughtfully wrinkled. “This ought to be good,” I thought.
It’s always fun to hear the questions Ike, a budding philosopher, is grappling with. One day I overheard him chatting up a group of bewildered-looking construction workers. Turns out Ike was polling them on whether they believed in God—and writing down their answers in his little black notebook, like a Gallup researcher recording the pulse of America.
From the look on his face, it was clear Ike had something equally weighty on his mind today. “I got the invitation to Jack’s birthday party,” he announced. “But what’s the theme?”
Now I knew how those construction workers felt. I groped through my foggy, sleep-deprived brain until a memory shook loose: Ike’s birthday party a few months earlier had featured a Scooby-Doo theme. An elaborate treasure hunt wound its way from a pirate ship made out of tablecloths to a “Mystery Machine” (the family car in disguise) and culminated in the thrilling discovery that a ghost had stolen the birthday presents and it was up to the kids to save the day!
And hadn’t my children gone to an animal-themed party a while back—one that offered real chinchillas and giant lizards for them to stroke? What about the magician who enthralled a room full of preschoolers by making scarves change colors and quarters vanish—after which the kids decorated magic wands and popped balloons to discover toys hidden inside?
Ike was still staring at me with his round blue eyes. So I told him what I always tell my own kids when they ask me something I don’t have an answer for: “It’s a surprise!”
But the truth is, I don’t do themes. I don’t make obstacle courses out of old tires and ropes, or hire clowns, or serve cakes so elaborate they could grace the cover of a Pottery Barn Kids catalog. I am, in short, a complete flop at throwing kids’ birthday parties.
Maybe it’s because when I was growing up in Bethesda, birthday parties were all about a few rounds of musical chairs in someone’s back yard. My most vivid memory involves my older brother’s party, in which the entertainment was unwittingly provided by a 10-year-old boy who’d worn a football jersey with the name of his sister printed across the back (apparently his parents had fallen behind on their laundry—I’ve never met them, but feel a deep kinship with them).
Back then, birthday parties were just a sugared-up version of our usual Saturday afternoons. A pack of us kids would gather to drink grape Kool-Aid and eat peanut butter sandwiches decorated with indentations from a mother’s thumb. For me, the highlight came when I got a piece from the concave side of the cake—the part loaded with extra icing to make the cake look even.
I’d like to pretend I don’t make a fuss about birthday parties because I’m trying to recreate the kind of carefree, unscheduled childhood I had for my own kids. But I secretly think it’s because there’s a birthday party hex on me.
How else to explain my dismal track record? When Jack turned 3, I invited over all his friends and many of my own, reasoning that they’d enjoy eating pizza in our back yard. It rained. Everyone showed up—and some people seemed to have rented extra children and spouses to bring along. As the walls of our house receded, I careened from one crisis to another (“No, no, little Winston, don’t rub ice cream into our walls—use crayons, like our kids do!”). At one point, as I sprinted past a group of preschoolers, I realized they were all staring at me in shock. I was holding a pair of kitchen shears I’d just pulled from the hands of a future juvenile delinquent—I’m pretty sure it was one of my own kids—and running with them, tips up.
A few months later came my son Will’s second birthday party. This time, the weather was great. Only my time-management skills were slightly off. With two minutes left until the doorbell started ringing, I raced around, my hair still wet, frantically kicking sippy cups and dirty socks into closets while simultaneously dialing Domino’s. (My husband, Glenn, was hiding to avoid the stress-induced fight I customarily pick at times like these.)
It isn’t only my own kids’ parties I manage to ruin. My family recently went to a party at Kenwood Country Club—bowling was the theme—for a neighborhood child. Will, then 2 years old, announced to the assembled guests that he needed a bathroom.
Unfortunately, he used language frowned upon at country clubs.
Glenn tried to lead him to the men’s room, but Will banished him with a stern look, shouting, “I go SELF!” After a minute, my husband tiptoed in to find Will prepared to go about his business. The only problem was, Will was sitting on a urinal. While we waited for the blue, circle-shaped imprint of the deodorizer to fade from his bottom, we crossed the country club off a dwindling list of establishments that still welcome us inside.
The only thing I do right at my kids’ birthday parties—and this I report with mixed emotions—is I never forget to hand out goody bags. But I’d like to have a little chat with the person who came up with that concept— “Hey, let’s reward kids for going to birthday parties!”—because every parent I’ve ever met secretly loathes goody bags. We may admonish our kids to stand firm in the face of peer pressure, but no mom or dad seems strong enough to be the first to just say no to handing out goody bags.
Who could bear to have the final moments of their child’s birthday party be filled with the wails of ripped-off-feeling kids? Imagine the playground taunts: “Hugo’s mom didn’t even give out goody bags after the moon bounce and fire-breathing juggler and dinosaur excavation! What a rotten party!”
So for now, I’ll keep filling those overpriced little bags with stickers and tiny plastic toys—and you parents can keep throwing them in the trash the second you leave the party. But as for themes, well, I’m sticking to my routine of defective piñatas and inadequate supplies of juice boxes.
Isn’t that a great surprise, Ike? (Yeah, my own kids never fall for it either.)