by Parth Pandya
I am a child of the 80s who grew up in the middle of middle class India. This naturally meant that the things that today’s generation of kids take for granted was an exercise in extravagance at that time. A birthday was an occasion where you would mandatorily visit your local deity and garner some blessings (and perhaps a gift or loose cash) from your elders. The only party we knew was a political entity who came around the time of elections every five years to garner some votes.
I remember my sixth birthday celebration vividly. In Kodak Eastman color. I say so because the celebration was the only one I had in the first decade during which I also got the chance to take some lovely pictures with my parents, friends and family. It was truly a momentous occasion, a rare one.
Three decades later, while the earth has been quietly spinning around the sun, life has come a full circle for me. I am a parent of two Gen-Z boys. Parenting does not come with a manual, but does come equipped with a to-do list. One of those activities is chaperoning the children to birthday parties.
The math itself is intimidating. Both my children have twenty kids each in their class. Even if ten kids from each class invited them for a birthday, that takes away twenty weekends of the year. Add to that friends from the building and you realise soon enough that you can’t buy gifts at a pace that matches that of the party requests.
In full disclosure, everything that I state below will be applicable to me as well since I too host two of these birthday parties every year.
It doesn’t matter when the birthday actually occurs. The celebration is almost always pushed to the weekend. Months before the birthday comes about, parents have to pick the place of the jamboree. Should it be a new gaming zone or a new restaurant? Do it at home or in an indoor sports place? It can’t be too far, it can’t be a repeat of another birthday party, it has to be something your child likes, it has to be something the other children like too. Once you navigate the labyrinth of choices, the booking is made. Just as you heave a sigh of relief, you realise that only half the battle is won. The food has to be organized, the return gifts have to be bought and in today’s hyper-connected world, a WhatsApp group of all the parents who are bringing their tots to the party has to be created.
Note that it isn’t that simple though. There are people who aren’t able to confirm until much later and that dreaded head count that you need to provide to the place hosting the party isn’t ready until much later.
The day of the party nears. You have done your due diligence. A Ninjago cake has been ordered (because Mickey Mouse is so yesterday) and is set to be delivered at the right time for the party. The caterers have been told the menu and you hope and pray that their output matches the recommendation that led you to them. Everything is set. The birthday child, the siblings and the parents.
You arrive early at the venue to receive everyone. No one arrives on time. You wait, and still no one arrives. The birthday boy is getting fidgety. Hungry. And then they come. The swarm of parents and the attendees of the birthday party.
A birthday gift is recklessly shoved into your hands by the child as you are greeting the parents. The child attending the party has most likely got no idea what he or she is gifting. It doesn’t seem relevant to them.
“Come, let’s play” is the call, and off they go into the rumbly-tumbly world of bouncy balls and places.
An hour later, the famished masses are dragged away from the play area by their parents and the children are gathered for the most-awaited cake-cutting ceremony. The cake naturally tends to be the center of attraction and it requires an exceptionally focused adult guarding it to ensure that the cake is not squished before it is cut. The Happy Birthday song is sung with gusto, the cake is cut, pictures are taken and the children are distributed on the chairs in anticipation of the food. Most rookie parents make the mistake of giving hungry children the cake before the food. Sugar on an empty stomach for the little brats simply spurs them to more devilish deeds. Food is brought out but not all children eat the lavish spread well. The hosts generally always order more than what is needed because who wants to host a party with insufficient food? Birthday parties are a great example of how good food is wasted inconsiderately.
Eventually, when it is time to say goodbye, the return gifts are brought out. Kids are so used to getting one that I have had many a kid walk up to me at the start of the party itself and ask me what the return gift is going to be. The goodie bag with the little trinkets is one that all parents hate and yet they impose it on other parents.
The party ends and parents of the birthday child pack their cars with all the gifts and head home. The children open their gifts and enjoy them, but not with the same sense of awe and gratitude that we did. Often, when we celebrate my boys’ birthdays, we ask the guests to not get gifts but instead donate that to charity because the act can go a long way in instituting a higher sense of compassion in children.
The dauphins of France might not be as spoilt for choice as today’s children are. Which naturally means that they will be more dissatisfied than the brats of French royalty ever were. The ease with which they get everything also breeds a sense of entitlement.
Birthday parties have become an obligatory celebration for the parents because of peer pressure and an entitlement for the children because they know no better. Perhaps it isn’t too late for parents to stem the tide. To realise that hosting fewer but more meaningful parties is a better choice. That the yearly journey of the earth around the sun for your child can be special without streamers and a gathering and return gifts. The choice is ours.