Making a song and dance about children's parties
I confess to being somewhat old-fashioned about children's parties. In my day, you put on your best frock, took a small gift and played Simon Says and Hunt The Thimble. There would be just six other guests, you didn't complain when the same child won every game and for reasons which escaped me at the time, the parents always made you play several rounds of Dead Lions.
You wisely ignored the fish paste sandwiches in favour of the jelly and ice-cream and went home perfectly happy with a balloon and a slice of cake. There was the occasional fancy-dress party, where boys came as cowboys and girls as 'princesses' in bridesmaid dresses and, even more occasionally, you might be treated to a magic show by an elderly gent with an Italian name and a tailcoat. Generally though, you just got fistfuls of Twiglets, mum and dad in silly hats and a modest present at the end that you abandoned in the car on your way home.
Nowadays, there has to be a hired hall the size of a hangar, a professional 'facilitator', paper plates that reflect the 'theme' and ever more original 'party packs'. Invitations are issued to all 30 pupils in your child's class, along with instructions that each child holding the party must be given £5 by each guest to put towards a present of their choice. Of course this means that the birthday child gets a new bike rather than 30 plastic toys just like the ones back home, but if you're sending twins to a party hosted by four children, it makes for two hours' pretty expensive childcare.
Over the years, I have shuddered at the amount of party food I've seen chucked away, and been embarrassed when my children came home with party packs that cost more than the birthday present they arrived with. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry when I overheard one young guest whisper to her friend: “You don't get good party packs here”, before handing hers back to me, with a look of contempt that said it all.
I have smiled through gritted teeth at disco parties for toddlers clearly high on E numbers, braved laser parties for five-year olds that made those testosterone-charged paint-balling afternoons for City brokers look like a vicarage fête, and felt positively frumpy at little girls' make-up parties that Katie Price would have been proud to attend. As one friend with two daughters says, “If children have been bowling since they were two and have done the stretch limo and the roller disco by the time they're twelve, what have they got to look forward to?”
So why this vogue for ostentatious events? A psychologist friend, a mother of two sons, attributes it to an unhealthy striving for perfection, coupled with anxiety that the modern child should be constantly stimulated. “Parents today can't tolerate their children being bored for five minutes,” she says, adding “but children should enjoy simplicity when they're young and use their imagination.”
It's the parents' problem then? Yes, maintains another friend, a teacher. She believes that not only do children prefer old-fashioned entertainment, such as the bonfire party she holds for her son's birthday each December, but that they’re also intrigued by it. “Many kids today are amazed to learn that they can actually eat sausages cooked on a real fire.”
I suppose I should be grateful that someone else forks out for my children's entertainment, because I'm certainly not going to. Putting a dozen items on a tray for Kim's Game and pinning a tail on a badly drawn donkey are enough for me. Unlike the schools that ban sports days because they create winners and losers, I confess to rewarding winners of party games with a sweetie, and I make do with just one pressie for Pass The Parcel, not one tucked into each layer. Life isn't fair, kids, so get used to it.
But then we adults are no longer content to keep the celebrations simple either. Weekends in Venice or eye-wateringly expensive spa days are all the rage for 40th and 50th birthdays. And what about the trend for 'shower parties', where mothers-to-be are 'showered' with gifts, or (look away now if you're of a sensitive disposition), 'gender-reveal' parties, where a live scan of a foetus is screened and the sex of your unborn child is revealed to your guests by the colour of the cake?
Blimey. No wonder children have such high expectations of parties if they've been programmed this way since they were in the womb. Bring back Musical Chairs…