Jane Breinholt, mother of five, must have given 50 birthday parties in the past 25 years. (A conservative estiamte. She gave an extra party every for each child until he or she turned 8. After that, she gave a party only on the occasion.)
Looking back on all those birthday parties, Breinholt realizes she did it because it gave her a chance to be part of her children's world.When her son was 7, his world was cowboys. She passed out bandannas at the door, red or blue. And it was the Red Cowboys against the Blue Cowboys for the rest of the afternoon.
Her son helped her plan the games. They had relay races on Hippity-Hop horses. They pretended they were horses nosing red or blue balloons into a corral.
Later, in the woods behind their house they played a cowboy version of capture the flag, tying stolen bandannas onto a big pole, wrestling and chasing each other and yelling. The party wound down with each little boy warming chili (in a tin can with his name on it) over a bonfire.
"No one wanted to go home," says Breinholt.
When Breinholt's daughter turned 13, the girl's world was shopping malls. Breinholt devised a treasure hunt in a malls, per suading merchants to pass out little treats and the next clue when the girls hit their store. The last clue took them to a restaurant, where Breinholt had reserved a table and ordered cake and ice cream.
"The girls still talk about that one," she says.
Though she has given many wonderful birthday parties, Breinholt doesn't count herself as the msot memorable party-giver around. "Oh no, my friend Becky Johns must spend a year preparing each party. She does things like a build a catle in the dining room, with turrets on the table."
Nor does she spend earth-shaking amounts on a child's party, Breinholt says. "We lived in the East, where people have fewer children and a typical party might be taking a group of children to New York City for the day. If I could cite one difference between children's parties on the East Coast and here, it would be that they are more sophisticated there. And here we are more creative and fun."
Whether they are creative or sophisticated, expensive or merely entertaining, children's birthday parties are becoming increasingly elaborate. Some parents are disturbed about what they see as a trend to overdo but aren't quite sure if or when or how to halt the holiday.
As Stephanie Williams says, "When we were young we used to invite six kids. Now my 8-year-old daughter has to have 15. And the parties she goes to are so fancy -- I find myself saying `I can't deal with this,' and just hire someone to come and give the party for me."
Virginia Ann Nourse, mother of two boys, says, "It's a rare party where the kids come and play pin the tail on the donkey and eat cake and the grandparents are there sitting on the couch. Like when we were young."
She also has found herself caught up in the excitement. For her son's 5th birthday she hired a karate instructor, "and we had seven little boys kicking away in the back yard," she says, laughing at the memory.
Nourse lives in Stamford, Conn. If the East Coast is where the birthday binge is originating and it seems to be, Nourse can predict one trend that may het hit Utah: a social calendar for 4-year-olds.
"Here, some preschools have strict rules," Nourse says. "If you invite one child from school you must invite every child in the class. That's 24 kids. And your child will be invited to 24 parties."
And parents will be buying 24 presents. They, too, are getting more elaborate. In Salt Lake City, a quick survey at one second-grader's birthday party turned up several gifts that cost more than $15.
Are parties getting too elaborate? "Not necessarily," says Meredith Brokaw. This New Yorker (owner of "Penny Whistle" toy stores, wife of Tom Brokaw, mother of three college students) was in Salt Lake City recently to talk about her new book, "`The Penny Whistle Party Planner' -- the complete step-by-step guide to planning, giving and enjoying parties for children of all ages."
Brokaw's birthday party philosophy is much like Breinholt's. "You learn so much about your child when you give a party together," she says. "This is the one day that sets them apart from the whole world. When you give a party together you let them know how special they are to you."
Her book gives detailed directions for 23 children's parties -- with themes ranging from "Artist" to "Western Round-up." Her children enjoyed the treasure hunt and scavenger hunt parties the most, she says.
Are the parties elaborate? Probably. But fun. "And I don't think it is intimated anywhere inthe book that you have to have a party every year or that you have to spend a lot of money," she says.
5000+v One thing that does come through in her book, though, is that Brokaw enjoys entertaining youngsters in her home. Others may not. They may want to make their child feel special without having ice cream on the carpet.
Utah parents can take their children to one of several dozen birthday party rooms. A McDonald's birthday party costs $43.95 for 12 children, including hamburgers, cake and games.
Or you can have a dinosaur party at the Museum of Natural History. Or a hay ride at Wheeler Farm. Or a "Grandma's Attic" dress-up party at Gregory's Toy Store. Or wear bonnets and coonskin caps and have a pioneer party at the Lion House.
Lion House birthday parties were started in 1970 by Kathleen Carpenter, who got the idea while raising her children on the East Coast. Through word-of-mouth advertising, the number of parties has grown. These days the Lion House holds 10 to 20 parties a week, and it books a year in advance.
A Lion House party if $74 for 10 children and two adults. In LDS circles the trend is for an extra-special 8th birthday party (marking the year a child is baptized). A hostess at the Lion House reports that while their parties are designed for 6- to 12-year-olds, they give far more parties for 8-year-olds than for any other age.
Another trend: Busy parents who want to entertain at home are hiring professionals to help them. "We tell parents all they have to do during the party is take pictures," says professional party planner Anneli Doxey.
Doxey and her partner Lisa Smith charge $50 to $120 for a party, which includes all entertainment and refreshments.
One of their most popular preteen parties is a craft party. The two women bring T-shirts and paints and help each youngster decorate a special souvenir of the party. Doxey says she got the idea for her business from an ad she saws in a New Jersey newspaper. Nourse reports the T-shirt party (for the same price Doxey and Smith charge) is popular in Connecticut, too.
The point to remember about all this is that if your child gets invited to a party that is fancier than one you've ever given or eve rplan to give, that's OK. It doesn't mean you don't love your child.
It just means that there are parents out there who really get into children's parties. Nice parents, like Ellen Koucos, who used to own a party planning business (until she had to get a job where she made a decent salary) and who apologizes up front for anything she may have done to encourage this trend toward the elaborate, but who refuses to stop having fun.
"I love to plan parties, to color coordinate everything, to develop a theme," she says. "Right now my daughter and I are planning her '50s birthday party." They'll have a cake shaped like a jukebox and the guests will dress in circle skirts.
"I want my children to have memorable birthdays, and to tell you the truth I don't see any negative effects from it."
And in fact she'd like to be able to afford to work at party planning again. "It's the most fun job in the world. All day every day, you're around happiness, children, smiles, cake and balloons."
Koucos may have given those of us who are less fun a good idea. We could start giving our kids '50s parties, too. The way parties really were in the '50s. A few friends, pin the tail on the donkey and cake.
Now does anyone know where we could rent some grandparents to sit on the couch?