We took our two-year-old son to a funky disco birthday party recently.
We stood in the spacious party room of a Toronto condo building, drinking flutes of white wine, and watched at least two dozen kids deliriously dancing, hopping, twirling to the music. One two-year-old girl tried out some breakdance moves, spinning on her back. Nothing could have been cuter.
The dance floor was a raised white plastic platform lit from beneath in randomly flashing squares of light. It was like a small-scale dance club, complete with professional-quality sound system and lighting. The kids squealed and chased the soap bubbles popping out of the electric bubble-blowing machine. There were costumes and disco-themed gifts for each guest, treats of every sort, two kinds of birthday cake and, after all that, loot bags.
By every measure, this three-year-old's party was a complete success. So what was with that grinchy voice in my head? The same one that keeps cropping up, telling me I miss the simple birthday parties of bygone days? Those modest events couldn't hold a candle to the elaborate affairs we seem to attend regularly, so why do I keep thinking they were somehow better?
My son rarely goes to a home-based birthday party any more. A number of them have been at warehouse-sized indoor play centres filled with climbing equipment, little vehicles, play houses, ball pits and sandboxes. One birthday party coming up is at a play centre that charges a starting rate of $395 for a two-hour party, which includes pizza, cake and drinks.
Maybe these fancy parties are a daycare-kid phenomenon: Two dozen kids (and their parents, at this age) don't fit into anyone's house. But who says everyone in your class has to come to your birthday party? My friends with school-aged kids tell me this social obligation continues for years, at least through kindergarten. Help.
My issue isn't that people hold special activities for their children's birthdays, but that the events are starting so young and getting so big. The parties we've attended are all for children who are turning 2 or 3. Will we find ourselves taking our son's friends on a Caribbean cruise for his sixth birthday party, just to keep up the excitement as the years pass?
American writer Bill Bryson once wrote about a charming trait of so many Brits he had met while living in England. He was impressed by their ability to express joy over the simplest things - an "ooh, doesn't that look lovely" contentment with a cup of tea or a few biscuits on a plate. I share his sentiment. An unpretentious ability to fully appreciate all of life's smallest pleasures has to be a key to daily happiness.
I think this is what my nagging voice is trying to warn me about. Three-year-olds don't need all of this to be excited at a party, not even our pint-sized social butterflies. Friends, candles and presents are a tried-and-tested recipe guaranteeing birthday satisfaction. Doing too much teaches kids to expect too much - even need too much - before a social gathering is officially fun.
Could this be the top of the slippery slope that leads to spoiled rich kids? Will my son become jaded, will life seem boring without elaborate stimulation?
I know I'm worrying too much: It takes much more than a few fancy birthday parties to spoil a child. But just to be safe, our little guy will have his third birthday party at home with three or four friends as guests.
They will play with our son's toys, then sing Happy Birthday to You, blow out the candles and eat cupcakes. Our son will open his (hopefully modest) presents while the other kids watch - an apparently gauche practice sometimes skipped at parties we attend, where we leave our gifts on a table and never see them again. At the last party he attended, our son asked us half a dozen times when he could see the birthday girl open his present. It never happened. Kids get a vicarious thrill out of watching others open gifts.
Maybe our future teenager will moan about his lousy toddler birthday parties and how he was jealous of his friends' far better events. But I'm willing to bet he will be the happiest boy on his birthday, and his friends will go home entirely satisfied. I suspect that the next morning he will wake up asking when he can have another birthday party.
And, if we're lucky, he will some day grow up to appreciate that pleasure is found in simple things, and that the key ingredient of fun is the companionship of friends and family. That, and a cake with candles on top. Ooh, doesn't that sound lovely.
Janet McFarland lives in Toronto and is a reporter for Report on Business.