Live exotic animals in your living room, Giant Scalextric set up in your garden, a double-decker bus equipped with bouncy castles, or a huge silver truck containing the UK’s only 8 driver racing-car simulator parked on your drive: These are just some of the options available if you’re planning your child’s next birthday party. Has the World gone mad, or am I just hopelessly out-of-touch?
If, like me, you’re of the opinion that putting up some bunting and having a few friends over for jelly and ice-cream and a run around the garden makes for a perfectly good children’s party, then you’ll be horrified to read some recent statistics: According to a survey on party spending by Smile.co.uk internet bank, over half of the 3,500 parents who took part admitted that ‘they plan to or have spent’ up to £500 on their child’s fifth birthday party (apparently the worst offending anniversary in terms of extravagance).
This is, however, nowhere near the staggering £10,000 the Beckhams reportedly lavished on Brooklyn’s fifth, inviting friends to a large marquee in their garden equipped with entertainers, a DJ, and magic show. And then there’s the £20,000 Willy Wonka style affair organised by Quintessentially Events earlier this year for a seven-year-old in Gloucester, whose guests were invited by tickets hidden inside chocolate bars to a glorious spectacle of dancing oompa-loompas, a giant gob-stopper pond, miniature bumper-car track, carousel, circus games and three different chocolate fountains. I’ll take your Willy Wonka party and raise you £30,000 – yes, apparently it’s not unheard of for competitive parents to spend £50,000 on their little darling’s special day. No wonder Kate Middleton’s parents became millionaires from their children’s party props and costumes business!
In the US, this trend of one-upmanship is becoming so out of hand that fed-up parents have launched a campaign called Birthdays Without Pressure, asking people to call a halt to the whole thing. And who can blame them, with reports of a wealthy New York father throwing a $10 million party for his 13-year-old daughter’s birthday party, including hiring the band Aerosmith and giving out $10,000 worth of gift bags.
But it’s not just the spiralling cost of parties that’s worrying us Brits; a recent study of just under 1,000 parents in the UK carried out by online party experts http://www.Partydelights.co.uk found that 100 per cent of parents admitted feeling stressed about their children’s first birthday. Selina, a mother of two from Wiltshire says she felt enormous pressure to make sure everything was perfect for her son’s first party. “I remember staying up until 2 o’clock in the morning making beautiful hand-stitched party bags, and embroidering each one with the individual guests’ names. I never made that mistake again! You learn when you’ve done a few more parties.”
But, whether you give in to the pressure and organise a huge event with entertainers and themed activities or not, these days there are a number of unwritten rules at any children’s gathering that few of us dare to ignore. Take the issue of food, for example. Gone are the days when a few jam sandwiches, a bowl of twiglets, and some Wagon Wheels would do the trick: Now, it’s all been “Jamie Olivered”. According to Partydelights, the top three foods served at parties these days are birthday cake (95 per cent), crisps (88 per cent), and cheese (82 per cent), with much of the traditional fare being replaced with healthier low-sugar and low-salt options, like wholemeal bread, fruit juice, white meat, and fresh fruit and vegetables such as carrot sticks, cherry tomatoes and corn on the cob. But, if you’re planning to come up with some new menu ideas of your own, be careful! Anthony Worrall Thomson did just that last year, with his recipe for “Snickers pie” (five Snickers bars combined with mascarpone, eggs, sugar, soft cheese and puff pastry; the fat equivalent of three deep-fried Mars bars). According to an article in The Scotsman, it was highly criticised by a leading nutritionist who said that one Snickers pie in a lifetime would be enough, while another top chef labelled it “awful”.
Perhaps he should have stuck to birthday cake, which as the number one favourite children’s party food, remains the piece de résistance with which we’re most likely to want to impress. Another word of warning, though: Once you get a penchant for the perfect cake, it’s a difficult habit to break. Anne, a busy GP and mum from Wiltshire started making cakes for her children’s birthday parties as a challenge to herself, having never really baked before. She borrowed a book from her local library and asked her children to decide which cake they’d like – a decision she’s come to regret. She says; “With the girls now choosing more and more elaborate recipes, and their birthdays only five weeks apart, it can sometimes feel like all I’m doing for weeks on end is making cakes!” Going to great lengths to get the perfect cake doesn’t always have to mean spending hours in the kitchen, however. Take the example of Joanna Bowden, editor of LittleTimes. She admits to travelling from her home in Devon to Choccywoccydoodle in London each year to buy her daughter’s birthday cake – a guilty pleasure she tells me she intends to give up. I’m not sure I believe you, Joanna!
Whether you’re planning to bake it yourself, or travel to Paris to get it; there’s one thing about your birthday cake that’s almost definitely true. It’s destined to be sliced up in to tiny little pieces, wrapped in a napkin and sent home in party bags along with a couple of plastic toys, balloons and packets of sweets. Or, is it? In the good old days, this would have been the norm. But, not any more. Kids are becoming more and more discerning, and nowadays it’s not uncommon to receive a Tamagotchi or even an iPod as a going home gift.
Perhaps that’s not the case in your neighbourhood, but with the average cost of a party bag in the UK reaching the princely sum of £7.48, a new wave of parents is deciding enough is enough and shunning them altogether in favour of more altruistic alternatives. Suggestions include making and decorating your own fairy cakes, having a lucky dip, or holding an activity-based party where the children take home the fruits of their labour. Others are opting for more ethical alternatives offering gifts with “integrity”. A quick check on Google will pull up various websites offering anything from fairtrade handmade wooden toys, to 100 per cent recyclable party bags guaranteed to not end up as landfill fodder. Friends of mine recently took the idea one step further, refusing birthday presents at a joint party for three six-year-old girls in favour of non-compulsory donations to their favourite local charities. Veronica, one of the mums who organised the party said, “I felt very strongly that because we were organising a multiple party, we didn’t want parents to feel the pressure of buying presents for each of the children, plus the thought of spending all that money on party bags filled me with horror. So, we talked to the children about it and they decided they would rather ask people to help rescue local dogs, cats, and horses instead. We raised £170, and instead of party bags, the charities we supported gave us stickers and postcards to give to our guests to take home. Our kids didn’t feel they’d missed out in any way, and when the excitement of the party was all forgotten, we were treated to special tours of the animal rescue centres. It was a great experience for everyone involved, and I’d love to see more people doing it.” I don’t think this is exactly what she had in mind though: One of the mums chatting on http://www.mumsnet.com recently recalled a party where each of the kids was sent home with a live goldfish!
And if you’re putting your feet up reading this, thanking your lucky stars you can escape all this madness for a few years because your baby’s still happily nestled in the womb; think again. Thanks to an old episode of Sex & The City featuring Miranda being subjected to a baby shower, these are fast becoming the latest thing in the UK. Thankfully as the mother-to-be you are not expected to organise the whole event, but you do have to look suitably grateful (if not a bit confused) when presented with a nappy cake. No, it’s not edible; it just looks like a wedding cake, and is made up of two or more tiers of disposable nappies layered with useful baby items, wrapped in a huge cellophane bag and topped off with a bow. “Whatever next!” I can hear my grandmother tutting.
A final word of warning: If just thinking about organising your little one’s next birthday party is starting to bring you out in hives, then maybe you should count your blessings while they’re still young. As every year passes it could get a lot worse; as 17-year-old Rachael Bell’s parents found out this year. While they were away on an Easter break, Rachael decided to organise her own “let’s trash the average family-sized house disco party” by advertising for likely revellers on MySpace, resulting in around £20,000 worth of damage. Suddenly, a few fingerprints on the paintwork and a bit of cake trampled into the carpet doesn’t sound that bad!