I realize not all morality finds its origins in the 80s, but in this case, I think I am on good ground. When I was growing up in the age of the 8 inch-high bangs and pegged pants, Birthday parties were nothing like they are in today’s suburb.
It’s true that in post-industrial Ohio, my family was not well-off and with 5 siblings you had to be pretty choosy about how you celebrated the day you became you. Plus, the law of “But you did it for …. why can’t you do that for me?” was as unavoidable as gravity itself. Every birthday party I ever remember included three phases: playing games together, eating cake and blowing out candles, and opening gifts, usually from your parents.
The party itself was always at the person’s home whose birthday it was. Remember how that was a treat in itself? You got to go and see where your friend lived. And if you had been there before, then you knew exactly where the toys were and what toys he had. This preplanning saved precious playtime.
I don’t remember any organized games, though if I press my memory, it’s possible we played something like “pin the tail on the donkey” or took a few swings at a piñata from K-Mart. Maybe Ohioians just weren’t that original back in the 80s? Maybe it was our Midwestern sensibility that kept us getting too creative, but in the age of Pinterest that day has come to an end. “Rainbow” or “pancake” themed Birthday parties with appropriately matched games, gift bags, food, and outfits are a dime a dozen in the suburbs. (I should know, because we threw one of each.)
Back to childhood for a moment: Eventually, the parents would call the kids down to sing “Happy Birthday” and watch the wax candles get blown out from an eight year old missing four teeth. The best part was always opening presents. Friends sometimes brought gifts but they were usually small, something from the Dollar Store, a card that was hand-drawn, or a hand-me-down toy. At most, $10 was spent on gifts. Maybe it was because we were working class but it always felt to me that the emphasis was never really the gifts.
In contrast, in today’s suburbs, birthday parties have become more like birthday spectacles with the constant pressure to out perform neighbor and the previous year’s best extravaganza.
First, you must spend at least a month planning the theme and activities that go along with the party. You might consider throwing a My Little Pony birthday party with matching cake, decorations, games, costumes, food. Or how about a Pancake and PaJama’s birthday party. I’m particularly interested in playing the donut toss that comes along with this one. Afterwards, we can eat pancakes, donuts, birthday cake, and take home fruity pebble treats for “after the sugar crash.”
But you know, maybe that just isn’t quite enough?
To take it up another notch you need to rent your very own activity center for the party. Here we have gymnasium with bouncy floors, or maybe you could rent out “kid hell” as I call it, Chuck E. Cheese. There are buildings made up to be a kind of super-sized McDonald’s play place. In fact, living in the suburbs, I’ve never taken my kids to one of their friends’ houses for a birthday party. It’s always been at some business that was rented out for a few hundred dollars, complete with swag bags for everyone, pizza, pop, cake, and $30-40 gifts from all your friends.
Is this white suburbia’s idea of the quinceanera, with the only difference being that that it happens it every year rather than once in a lifetime?
This expansive consumerism rooted within suburban culture, posing as a birthday party is based on the “greed on getting.” In bell hooks’ fantastic book on class, Where We Stand, she quotes a social therapist — Fred Newman — who remarks that:
The culture of getting often leads most of us to be ‘deprive, emotionally disadvantaged, and underdeveloped.’
…Getting is not necessarily immoral but ‘it’s simply that, like cholesterol, in many life situations getting isn’t very good for our emotional health.’
Everyday sexism, racism, and the other isms are as much the products of the culture of getting as they are expressions of the way the economy and politics are organized. In the absence of creating a new emotional culture, there doesn’t seem to be much hope of doing a lot about them (160).
In other words, on the surface, a birthday party may not seem like much, but if we hope to bring about a new culture, one that challenges and resists sexism, racism, and fascism, than even a birthday party becomes a site of resistance and the landscape of which an alternative space may be created. I believe that, the space we ought to be creating should be one in which class hierarchy is not reinforced and generosity, rather than getting, is the underlying ethic of the event.
Within this context of getting, the issue of what we might call “suburban guilt” arises. It is related no so much to the guilt that working class parents feel about what they can and can’t provide for their children, but is found in the overcompensating that middle-class parents do by way of reinforcing a culture of getting through the practice of overspending on their children:
When we work too much and are bereft of meaningful time, we overcompensate by spending. This is why children and teenagers are the new consumers; they are given economic rewards in place of genuine engagement and connection by parents who are not fully emotionally developed and who lack time (162).
The culture of getting is often reinforced by the guilt from overworked, emotionally distant parents, hoping to make up for their absence and placate their guilt through the overcompensation embedded within the birthday spectacle.
The cul-de-sac represents a dead-end in which the culture of getting, emotional distance, overwork and overcompensating to make up for it are all compounded upon themselves creating a closed door to new possibilities. What we need is a break-through, the creation of alternative spaces in which the cul-de-sac is short-circuited, and resistance new ways of life can be shared and established.
I have found it particularly challenging when my kids are invited to these parties. Yes, these are often friends and family I care about, yes we want to be present in their lives and celebrating the birth of loved ones is a good way to do that but this subtle, if pervasive, culture of getting has a knack for spreading like a virus through the ever-ready channels of peer pressure. But we cannot, nor do we want to, keep up. Will ours be the weird kids who bring no gift, or the homemade gift, or will we give in and drop more money than we should on a piece of plastic for someone who already has a sea of plastic spread across their bedroom floor? And when it comes time to throw our own party in the suburbs the choice will be between no party at all or a party that is in constant competition with — and will be judged by — the standards of today’s birthday spectacle.
Birthday parties can be a way to build and sustain community, rather than just another opportunity to entertain and inundate children with commercialism. So we’ve followed that line of thinking and decided to try our own form of resistance this year. We threw parties for each of our daughters this winter. Both were creative, fun, and yes, we used some ideas from Pinterest — unfortunately not the donut toss. Most importantly, we held the parties at our home. We limited the number of friends who could be invited — for instance, the four year old was allowed to invite four friends— so that it would remain intimate and affordable. We serve food and freshly roasted coffee to encourage the parents to stay and hang out. We tried to make the party about connecting and generosity, and found the need on a number of occasions to discuss with our kids why we were doing what we were doing. Oh and our kids opened presents from us before the party, which meant that when a few friends did bring gifts it wasn’t the mountain of gift-wrapped boxes that so often becomes the focal point for the event. In fact, at one of the parties one of the kid’s friend stated, “Ah, she didn’t get very many gifts. I feel bad for her, I get millions of presents on my birthday.”
Where are the 8 inch-high bangs and pegged pants when you need them?