As a child of the seventies, I grew up when birthday parties consisted of inviting a few of your best friends over for some homemade cake and ice cream, opening one or two gifts from your parents, and then running through sprinklers in the back yard. Today, this experience would be considered borderline child abuse. Birthday parties are a big deal now. They include protocols that I, as an older parent, was completely unprepared for, including the custom of giving gifts (the loot bag) to all attendees. For you first-time parents, I describe what is now expected at birthday parties, and what you might face if you defy convention and insist on doing things your own way. 

Birthday PartyCredit: By Parties-birthday.jpg: Kitetailsderivative work: BD2412 T (Parties-birthday.jpg) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Parties-birthday.jpg: Kitetailsderivative work: BD2412 T (Parties-birthday.jpg) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (


First, you can still have a birthday party at your home, but it must be outlandish. You need bounce houses, train rides, and some sort of animal (petting zoo, donkey rides). Blow-up inflatable swimming pools with slides are also acceptable.

If the birthday part is in the winter months, then you have fewer options for a home party. For a girls party, you might have to do a dress-up tea party or make expensive crafts that the guests can take home. 

Having the party away from your home is better because you don’t have to clean up the mess afterwards (or clean the house in preparation). You will pay for the convenience, but doesn’t your child deserve the best possible party? They turn 3 (or 4, or 5) only once, right? Scores of businesses now get a big chunk of their revenues from birthday parties. When I was a child, having a birthday party a the roller rink was exotic. Now, you have many more choices. Here are just a few:

  • Paint your own pottery stores
  • Gymnastic centers
  • Indoor skydiving simulators
  • Dress-up, princess parties for girls that include outfits and complete makeovers
  • Indoor bounce house complexes
  • Laser tag centers
  • Zoos
  • Interactive science-based theme parties
  • Go-kart racing tracks
  • Water parks

Who to Invite?

There are pitfalls when it comes to deciding who to invite. If your child has many friends in her class at school, she must invite not just her friends, but the entire class. Otherwise, she risks creating hurt feelings and the associated classroom disruptions. You might say, kids need to learn that not everyone is their best friend. They should grow a thicker skin. But just like the illusions of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, we must keep the illusion that everyone likes you. This means that you must invite anywhere from 20-30 kids from her class, along with her non school friends. The cost of your party just tripled. 

The Dreaded Gift Bag Dilemma

Kids now all expect to receive a gift bag at birthday parties. Providing cake, ice cream, and an afternoon of fun is apparently not enough incentive for them. Not understanding how engrained this practice is, we neglected to give a gift bag at one of our daughters early birthday parties. Big mistake. An unconscionable faux pas.

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Here is an example of a "loot bag" that you fill with party favors for your guests.

Birthday Cakes

An elaborate, themed birthday cake is a must. Kids today watch cake making reality shows. To them, a generic store-bought cake is boring. Because making cakes with edible action figures and other unusual items requires special ingredients and preparation, expect to pay a hefty sum for the cake. By the way, the special ingredients make the cake taste kind of funny, and not in a good way. You pay more for a less tasty cake.  

Birthday CakeCredit: By Gandydancer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Gandydancer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

A Word About Pinatas

Because the cake apparently does not have enough sugar to rile the kids up, birthday parties, at least in Texas where I live, must include a custom-made pinata full of candy. If you want to cut the sugar high, you can fill the pinata will a non candy item, like stickers or balloons. But that will not go over well. The kids expect candy. 

Slumber Parties

Your child at some point will ask you to have a slumber party for their birthday. I can’t stress this enough – Don’t do it! Imagine a dozen screaming kids, crying fits, insane drama (especially with girls), absolute refusals to sleep, endless arguments about where to sleep. We made the mistake of having a slumber party for my daughter’s 8th birthday. I almost went to a hotel that night and left my wife to deal with the chaos. Never again.

Finally, as if these high expectations are not enough, remember that every time your child gets invited to an extravagant birthday party, they expect the same or better for their party. Good luck!