Kids' Birthday Party Ideas: $500 a Year in Gifts?!

Last Updated Apr 12, 2010 1:17 PM EDT

By May 1, my friend Annie will have either attended, or dropped her boys off at, nine birthday parties this year. Nine afternoons watching 4- and 5-year-olds pin the tail on the favorite animal of the birthday child and bludgeon each other trying to crack open piñatas. And that's at the survivable parties, the ones parents give for their kids at home.

Annie's not complaining - she's too sweet for that, which is probably why she and her popular kids keep getting invited to all these parties - but if it were me, I'd demand a margarita, a bottle of Advil, and a stipend to pay for all those gifts.

Annie, I hate to break it to you, but if this keeps up, your kids will go to 27 birthday parties in 2010. She tells me she aims to spend about $20 per gift, more like $30 if it's a close friend or both her older boys attend. So at this rate, she'll shell out at least $500 this year for gifts, not including wrapping paper and cards.

It's not that I begrudge kids their birthday celebrations; it's the excess I loathe. Maybe I'm still suffering PTSD from the 11 kids who went berserk at our house during my daughter's party last year. More likely, it's the regret over lost Saturday afternoons I've spent at Bounce U, a brick barracks filled with inflatable houses that the kids flop around on. It's usually beautiful outside. Inside, the parents are prisoners, trying to make small talk over the relentless Bounce U soundtrack, with its inaudible lyrics and a bass line that could rattle windows, if there were any:

THUMP THUMP THUMP THUMP: "How does Johnny like school?" THUMP THUMP THUMP THUMP

"What?" THUMP THUMP THUMP THUMP

"Is he having fun at school?" THUMP THUMP THUMP THUMP

"Oh, we've been staying out of the pool. I'm thinking of signing him up for swimming lessons this summer, though." THUMP THUMP THUMP THUMP

You don't have to tell me - I sound like a geezer. After the bouncing, all 20 kids and their parents get shepherded into the party closet room for pizza and cake. Two hours later - which somehow does not include time for opening presents, even though it might allow kids an opportunity to practice their "thank yous" and "you're welcomes" - we're all spit out back in the parking lot, blinking as our eyes adjust to the sunlight.

I know, I know. It's about the kids. We all want to make our little ones feel special on their birthdays. But parents shell out $450 for a premium party package at Bounce U (though if you want to go at off-peak hours and invite fewer guests, you can get in for as little as $129). If each of the 25 guests spends $18 on a gift for their "friend," the kid is getting $450 worth of loot. I guess that makes it a wash.

Rather than exchanging $900 worth of presents, pizza and bouncing, couldn't we all just close our wallets, go to the park and have a little cake? Maybe do the relay race where the kids dress up in adult-sized clothing and try to run? That one cracks me up every time.

I e-mailed around to my wise friends, looking for some hope. And the not-so-subtle subtext of their responses (after they first crossed the Butlers off their party invite lists) was, "Get over it. This is part of being a parent."

I'm working on it. One thing that helps is giving cool gifts for $15 or less. We often go with books. We've also learned that every 4-year-old adores a flashlight, and kids of all ages love a Stomp Rocket. Give a diary with a lock on it for a 5-year-old girl? You'll be her hero. Even if you're not springing for a party at Bounce U.

Got ideas for birthday party gifts, $20 or less, that a birthday boy or girl will love? Tell us by signing in to add a comment below, or send me a note by using the 'Contact Sarah Lorge Butler' link at left.
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