When I was a kid (back in the dim, dark days of the 1970s) a birthday party was the highlight of the social calendar.
There weren’t very many of them, certainly not one for every child in the class, and I don’t think they started before age 7 or 8, or whatever age parents then thought kids could be trusted to be left without one-to-one supervision.
The girls donned floor-length party gowns (mine, I think, was green and velveteen) and bows in our hair, and the boys wore smart shirts and possibly ties, certainly real trousers and shiny shoes. Then we sat cross-legged on the floor and played Pass the Parcel, or were blindfolded for Pin The Tail on the Donkey, or Blind Man’s Buff. All very Victorian and charming. Then there were little triangular sandwiches made from white bread (crusts off, hoorah!), filled with salmon paste or egg mayonnaise. There might be fizzy drinks and paper straws (straws? It MUST be a special occasion!). A round birthday cake encased in a paper fringe, with the appropriate number of candles on top rounded things out. There was usually jelly and ice cream to eat while the cake was cut, wrapped in a napkin and stuffed into your party bag to take home, where you would whine to be allowed to eat it, be told ‘It’s nearly dinner time!” and when you did eventually get it, you’d spend most of your time sucking the icign out of the soggy napkin. The party bag might even have been attached to a helium filled balloon, if the hosts had gone all-out.
It was heady stuff and only death or German Measles could stop you getting to a Birthday Party.
My eldest is turning six this week. We invited a few of the children from his class over to our house for a party. We don’t have a huge house so it wasn’t the whole class, just his favourite few. I’m a little nervous, but not about the prospect of having a house full of children: no, I’m nervous that they might all be too busy to come.
I managed to shoe-horn A’s party into a weekend in between two other birthday party weekends from his class, but I still wasn’t sure if people would come. So far I’ve only heard from a few people: one kid can’t come because he has a football (American) game. One can’t come because she has a skating lesson. Our favourite family friends might not make it because their son has a basketball playoff match.
Did I mention that these kids are six?
I know people who spend two hours two nights a week sitting by the pool at the Y while their eight year olds trains for the swimming team. I know six year olds who are on three or four sports teams (American football, baseball, basketball, soccer or icehockey). They also go to Karate classes. Then there’s the Cub Scouts and Brownies.
My children go to swimming lessons once a week (if I remember to take them) and the little one has a knock-about ‘sport’ class one morning a week when he’s not at pre-school and I think that’s extravagant! We play board games and video games and maybe they watch a little too much TV on Saturday mornings. We probably spend a bit too much time in toy stores. We kick a ball around the garden and try to learn to get along. We read. We make up stories. I’m grateful that I can’t imagine my eldest volunteering to do anything that would take him away from his toys yet, if ever.
And I just can’t believe that we’re wrong: that we’re somehow putting our kids at a disadvantage because they don’t yet know how to dribble and pass and be a “team player”. I don’t believe that having extra-curricular activities to run to every day after school and every weekend does much for a six year old’s health or disposition. I worry about what it does to the family dynamic when the parents have no time for themselves and become slaves to their children’s schedules. I wonder when these children have time to think and to dream and to become curious. I secretly suspect that they don’t. I strongly suspect that this constant stimulation shuts down their brains and breeds incurious adults who need to be busy but never really question anything and swallow whatever the ad-makers put on the mass media brain-suckling-tube. I foresee a hideous, dystopian future — a brave new world, if you will — all caused and created by childhood over-scheduling. (I have also been accused of over-thinking things.)
Or maybe I’m just ticked because I’m scared no-one will turn up for my boy’s party!,