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When I was a kid, birthday parties were basic: a sheet cake from the grocery store, a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey, maybe a piñata in the backyard. There was pizza, candy, and soda, and you might head home with a goody bag full of stickers, pencils, and scented erasers. Getting a pastel-hued party invite in the mail came with the promise of both a great time and a Saturday-afternoon sugar high.
Oh, how times have changed. The last child's birthday party I attended had a petting zoo, circus performers on stilts, and a live butterfly release. Another had Disney princesses hosting high tea with fine china. I know parties probably aren't this elaborate everywhere, but in the big city where I live, kids' parties are over the top.
I won't lie – we celebrated my son's first birthday in a grander fashion than my husband and I intended. What started as a small family gathering turned into a catered lunch with custom "cheeseburger" cupcakes. But, we reasoned, it was his first birthday and a chance to gather all of our friends and family. My son and his fellow 1-year-olds may have spent most of the party spinning the wheels on his new tricycle, but the adults appreciated the effort.
When his second birthday rolled around, we felt less inspired to plan a party. We'd recently attended parties that seemed more for the benefit of the adults and older kids than the toddlers, much like we experienced with our son's first birthday.
What's more, our son was too little to tell the difference between a birthday party, a playdate, or a trip to Target. We wondered if we wanted to put effort and money into something he wouldn't remember. If we skipped a party or two now, we could put that money toward celebrating when he was older and could tell us what he liked and how he wanted to celebrate. Until then, we decided, we'd just skip the parties and celebrate on a small scale.
But we were still nervous about it, so we asked our little guy if he wanted a party. He said no! But he did mention that he wanted to "see trains." So we took him to a local children's park called Train Town with my parents and had cake at home. It was a wonderful day.
Over the next year, whenever we attended a birthday party, we'd ask if he wanted one for his upcoming birthday. The answer remained "no," so we continued to let him lead. At that point, we were almost feeling guilty – but bottom line, we said we'd do it when he wanted a party. And the kid really didn't seem to want one. We weren't ignoring his birthdays, we just weren't celebrating them in the way that various cultural forces, most especially social media, kind of made me feel like we should.
On his third birthday, he wanted to ride the train at the zoo, so off we went. He said it was his "best day ever," and I can see why. It was relaxing, easy, and fun – just like those birthday parties I remembered from my childhood, and unlike the stress-inducing parties we'd been going to.
I've been asked if we feel like we're depriving him of something by opting out of these birthday parties. Nope, I don't, not even slightly. I don't regret not spending a small fortune and not stressing for weeks over party planning.
In the past few months, he turned a corner and understands more. He's also been to some parties he liked, like a backyard barbecue with a piñata and a bounce house in the park with ice cream. He understands now what parties are and he looks forward to them.
We're still several months away from his fourth birthday, but now he says things like, "When we have my birthday party, I want to do this" or, "I want to have my party here." And he will. On his next birthday, he'll be having a party, because that's what he wants. And all we ever wanted was to celebrate his way.
Opinions expressed by parent contributors are their own.