Whose Birthday Party Is It Anyway?
From street level, a Papa John’s pizza place doesn’t look much different on a weekend than a weekday. The window advertises the same relatively bland, melted cheese discs you come to expect from every exported American chain. But every Saturday and Sunday, these mild-mannered restaurants are transformed into some kind of throbbing mid-morning disco, full of four- and five-year-olds climbing all over the booths and tables. Eventually, you learn one thing about Papa John’s: Avoid these places like the plague on weekend mornings.
As our family found out firsthand, the pizza party is a well-oiled factory for churning out reasonably priced, cookie-cutter children’s birthday celebrations. There is the emcee, rotating through a slate of the same ten-speed games; the balloon artist, who can make three things; the face-painter, whose line is the scene of much jockeying and scowling among the children; and finally – if you are well to do enough – the magician! The pizza party is for the parents trying merely to survive a child’s party with hope that the honored family member will be pleased enough not to descend into a public tantrum. Children seem to like it well enough, but I began to wonder whether their birthday parties have become just another, dreaded battlefield for adults to display status and privilege.
Recently, with displays of wealth increasingly the norm in all facets of our lives, parents have been overtaken by the extravagant birthday business, taking a local family event and turning it into a national holiday. The functions come complete with sumptuous buffets, open bars, stage performances, and choreographies fit for a Bollywood production. When you’re sitting in a hall eating fine food, it’s hard not to be impressed with how far a five-year-old has come in life. Why, even the child’s relatively low-paid teachers show up to these events, soaking up a chance for an entertaining and enchanting evening on the tab of their kindergarten student.
“Enough!” I cry, my pleas muffled by the din of a world clearly speeding by me. For there’s a solution. A parent of one of my daughter’s classmates introduced me to what is, perhaps, the most elegant and simple parenting tip: The Rule of Birthday Guests. The child should have in attendance as many friends as her age, she said. I paused for a moment to appreciate the perfection of her solution. The one-year birthday party has one guest: the child. You should celebrate it with her as a family affair. The three-year-old can have a couple of friends over to play; the seven-year-old can gather a few classmates.
As with most things involving our children, we adults cannot resist overtaking their life events. We insert ourselves into outings, pester our children to be Facebook friends, try to make their friends laugh. We want to be cool parents—not merely respected by our kids, but liked. We likewise want everyone to know we have made it! so we find ourselves in a birthday arm’s race. But can’t it be different, simpler, happier?
One late night a few weeks ago, I couldn’t sleep. My mind was flickering from one issue to the next, none of them particularly important, but all of them distracting enough to prevent me from sliding away for the night. Finally surrendering, I plodded over to my computer and sought solace in the Internet, the always-open lounge for procrastinators and insomniacs. I hoped eventually to read enough stories to fall back asleep, but came across a surprising one that made me bolt wide awake. I found myself reading about the 2017 solar eclipse on a NASA website. For much of the world, it will be the only chance to see a total solar eclipse for decades.
And it will happen precisely on my daughter’s tenth birthday.
The cosmos answered my plea! As we watch the sun’s blazing corona form a perfect, glowing ring around the moon, the whole family will sit together in the mountains and share this amazing event. Sure, the birthday girl will eventually start thinking about her friends and when she’ll have mobile phone coverage. I’ll wonder how a decade went by so fast. But we’ll be together, on her birthday, during an event we’ll remember for the rest of our lives. Sure beats an overpriced pizza party.