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Are Expensive Kiddie Birthday Parties Really for Parents?

07/09/2013 12:29 EDT | Updated 04/08/2014 11:59 EDT

I was at my friendly neighbourhood department store the other day, on a quest to buy a mini hockey stick for each of my twin boys. As we found the aisle where these items were situated, we approached a man and a woman who -- gasp -- had scooped up the whole inventory of mini-hockey sticks and were just about to buy all of them. We're talking about 25 hockey sticks, people.

Now, granted, the sticks were relatively cheap at $4 bucks a pop, but that's not the point. My thought was "what on earth are they doing with all of those mini sticks?" Obviously they're not for playing a real hockey game; you would require regulation-size sticks for that. As we descended upon the parents who were busily discussing their plan, they turned to look at me and my very expectant and anxious-looking boys.

"Oh. Did you guys want a couple of hockey sticks?" the man asked my sons?

My boys, sensing the magnitude of the situation, put on their best "cute face" and nodded.

"Oh, OK -- you can have these two. I wouldn't want to disappoint you now," the man said.

Whew. Disaster averted.

The man then explained to me that he was buying the huge inventory of mini hockey sticks for his son's birthday party. Specifically, he was going to put them in his son's friend's loot bags! Yes LOOT BAGS!

Let's also remember and assume that most birthday party loot bags have more than one item in them. Based on the hockey sticks alone, this dad was going to spend $100 on just the hockey sticks, not including anything else! I was shocked and somewhat intrigued. I mean, let's think this through to its logical conclusion:

- 25 hockey sticks @ $4 per stick = $100

- There will likely be more than just a hockey stick in the loot bag, so for the purposes of this discussion, let's make what I think would be the conservative assumption that there will be at least $3 more of "stuff" in the bags as well. At this price, we're looking at another $75 bucks.

- Now, let's also consider that with 25 attendees at the party, we're looking at a pretty big party. Can we say "expensive?" Also, let's also make a bit of an assumption that considering the hockey motif as exemplified by the loot bag, along with the amount of kids attending...hmmm...me thinks that this party was at a hockey rink. Call me crazy, it was just a feeling. Now we're really talking about big bucks. Ice time is not cheap, my friends. We're talking big bucks. Where I'm from, you're looking at anything from $200 - 400 an hour or maybe more.

So now we're at $375 minimally and we haven't even addressed, the food, transportation, birthday presents, and other must-haves that are part and parcel of a "good" kid's birthday party.

Can we say indulgence?

This very long preamble is a set up for the real point of this post: birthday parties and loot bags have increasingly become an obscene display of excess and expense for no good purpose.

When I was a kid (here we go, I know), things were much simpler. You got a few candies and maybe a cheap plastic toy in your loot bag. As for the birthday party, it was with a few kids from your class or daycare, a homemade cake and a game of pin the tail on the donkey. The thought of spending hundreds upon hundreds of dollars on a party was not even a consideration. If my parents had had the money, there's no way that they would have spent it. It wouldn't have been considered necessary, and if anything, it would have been considered not only excessive but insane. A sure-fire recipe for both a spoiled child and financial disaster, no doubt.

I am not chastising those who do this from a holier-than-thou vantage point as I, too, have been guilty of overindulging my kids. Why? Perhaps it was the desire to please my children and see them smile. Perhaps it was the desire to be seen as a great parent, one who spared no expense to provide their child with whatever it took to make them happy. Perhaps it was guilt.

Yes, guilt.

Guilt that I may not be actually fulfilling the hallowed tenets of motherhood as well as I could have. After all, being surrounded by perfect parents both in the media and at the playground, it's hard to ignore how I'm not reaching the standards that have been set for this important role.

I don't think that it's a stretch to say that guilt is often the primary driver of so many things we do as parents. Because we're frazzled, exhausted, stressed and otherwise compromised, we don't often meet our own lofty expectations of what it means to be a good mother or father. Because we feel guilty, we overcompensate financially, often in the form of things. After all, if we can provide our children with tangible evidence of how much we care about them, we can appease our feeling of guilt for perhaps not meeting the expectations of parenting set by others. We can also assuage our feelings of guilt that come from spending too much time disconnected from our children as a result of all of the other distractions that there are in our day to day lives.

As a result, we are raising a society of highly-indulged, coddled and spoiled children and we only have ourselves to blame. Guilt may be the driver behind our subsequent overindulgence of our children but it doesn't make it right. Nor does it make it right that we are, in many instances, trying to make up for our feelings of parental inadequacy and engagement by spending lots of money. Deep down, we all know the truth: money can't buy happiness.

Taken to its logical conclusion, it can't buy our kids' affections either. In other words, it doesn't matter how much "loot" is in the said loot bag, how many presents we buy our kids, how much we spend to rent hockey ice time for that spectacular kid's birthday party that all the parents and the school will talk about for months to come. No, despite all of our financial attempts at making ourselves feel better about our parenting abilities, the fact of the matter is that it just doesn't fly. Kids know. Kids see through our materialistic smoke and mirrors and at the end of the day, kids just want us. That's all. Presents be damned.

Next time our child's birthday rolls around, how about a good old-fashioned homemade cake, a simple game of pin the tail on the donkey and a loot bag containing a few treats and a plastic toy? Who knows? Maybe we'll start a trend.

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