My Kid Always Has Big Birthday Feelings & I Feel Party Dread

When faced with such intense pressure to enjoy yourself and feel loved, wouldn’t anyone lose their sh*t?

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How To Throw An Epic Kids Birthday Party
The Good Enough Parent is an advice column for parents who are sick of parenting advice. Romper writer and educational psychologist Sarah Wheeler answers your questions about parenting with humor and humility — and without the guilt trips.

"My kid's birthday is coming up next month and so is my anxiety. Every year he gets SO excited about having a birthday party and I put all this effort into it, but then the day of, he inevitably ends up hiding for half of it and/or having a meltdown during inopportune moments. In the past, he has told everyone to shut up during the birthday song. I'm already dreading this year's party, and trying to figure out how I can mix things up (on both our parts). So tell me, GEP, what am I doing wrong?!”

When faced with an intense parenting conundrum like this one, it is best to consult the experts. I’m not talking about Dr. Spock or Dr. Becky, but rather the mother and father of ‘80s child-rearing wisdom, Jan and Stan Berenstain. In Too Much Birthday, one of the most worn issues in the extensive collection of Berenstain Bears books that I still keep, the Bear family wrestle with just this question. How is a thing like a birthday — at once precious and delight-inducing, but also overwhelming and, at times, downright harrowing — to be dealt with?

Like your little one, Sister Bear loses her sh*t part of the way through her much-anticipated party. She cannot tolerate that someone else gets the pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey prize. She doesn't want to kiss anyone in spin-the-bottle (who could blame her?). When it’s time to sing and blow out the candles, she bursts into tears. She becomes the absolute worst version of herself on a day when she thought she’d be feeling her best. Scratch that. She becomes the worst version of herself because she ought to be feeling her best.

We don’t normally become the focus of intense attention for hours on end, receive a mountain of stuff, forget to eat lunch, and maybe somewhere in the back of our minds, ponder our own mortality, all in one day.

What a very human (or, OK, anthropomorphized bear) response. When faced with such intense pressure to enjoy and take in and feel loved, wouldn’t anyone go a little crazy? It calls to mind the myth that sugar causes hyperactivity, a phenomenon often observed at birthday parties, wherein kids eat cake and bumrush a piñata and then go insane. But most doctors agree it’s not actually sugar that causes the crazy times. In most cases, it’s the birthdays themselves.

Why? Because it’s a lot for them. We don’t normally become the focus of intense attention for hours on end, receive a mountain of stuff, play games, and forget to eat lunch, and maybe somewhere in the back of our minds, ponder our own mortality, all in one day.

But it’s also a lot for you, and that matters, and they pick up on that. Like in most Berenstain Bear tales, Papa Bear also f*cked up considerably re: the birthday. He ordered the ponies AND the merry-go-round. He got high on the birthday ether, and that led to more stress for everyone. He laughed like a big old dumb-dumb when Mama warned him that there was such a thing as “too much birthday.”

Sister Bear at her birthday party, having had too much birthday

What I want to know is: How does your child actually want to celebrate his birthday? What if you sat down with him and asked, “I noticed last year on your birthday you seemed excited but then at the party, you got upset and hid in your room. What was that about?” Could he tell you? Does he really really want his whole class there, but can’t handle it in his own home with all his stuff? Does he only really care about the cake, and he’d just share that with them?

You are not the only one with this problem. If you ask most parents, birthday parties are fraught as f*ck. Parents, too, find them overwhelming, or unpleasantly expensive. They worry about whether they need to invite everyone, and whether other kids will come. If their child is neurodivergent, disabled, or otherwise likely to be rejected by their peers, they may not get invited to many birthday parties, or they may have anxiety about anyone coming to theirs.

How can we, collectively, be the birthday change we want to see in the world?

So how can we, collectively, be the birthday change we want to see in the world? One way would be just to keep more of these things private or small. Until he was 7, my son only wanted family to celebrate his birthday. I felt this need to convince him otherwise, so sure was I that he was missing out on some rite of childhood by not having a crew of hellions ring in the year with him and go home with their pockets stuffed with piñata candy and little favors that would instantly become garbage littering their mothers’ homes. But my picture of what kind of birthday would please him was only my picture, and, come to think of it, wasn’t exactly my own idea of fun anyway, just a time-worn template heavily informed by the very specific moment in which I live.

I realized we actually had a great opportunity to build a birthday from scratch. To sketch something intentional, rather than perfunctory, on the birthday tabula rasa that was my young child. The family parties were sweet, and eventually were opened up to a few friends, and even this year, when seven 7-year-olds ate cake and played pass-the-parcel (I allowed him the choice of one consumerist, competitive activity) in our yard, it was pretty low-key for me and for my easily-overwhelmed, introvert-ish child.

Many parents (and their kids) find it much more enjoyable to skip the party altogether and invite a few friends for a more in-depth activity, like a showing of Wicked or dim-sum and a movie. This flips the script on the “quantity over quality” mentality that all us Papa Bears tend to have when it comes to kids’ birthday parties. It gives your kid the chance to really think about what feels celebratory to them, and it usually requires less cleanup.

It can be hard, for some of us, to navigate external social pressures to have a certain kind of birthday. In some schools or social circles, it may seem almost revolutionary to celebrate in certain ways. One mom told me that, after a certain age, the other kids, all from wealthier families, didn’t want to go to a party that wasn’t at some expensive trampoline-paintball-jumpatorium type of facility. This can be painful to navigate, but it’s important for you (if beyond your kid’s ability) to remember just how arbitrary all of these expectations are.

A friend who recently moved to Spain told me that every month, the parents in their kid’s class whose children had birthdays that month would get together, pick a date and place, and invite the whole class to a shared party. No one brought presents, but everyone chipped in a few bucks for pizza, or rather, tortilla española, and it was highly chill. That is a great way to take the intensive focus off of one kid, include everyone, and keep it simple. Maybe it feels weird to be the one to suggest this on a class text thread, but, you know, being a hero isn’t always comfortable.

If now you are the only one who feels overwhelmed by all these newfangled birthday ideas, honor the spirit of your child’s wishes and keep it simple. Follow what I call the “Coco Chanel Rule of Parenting.” Look at your birthday plan for the year and take one thing off. And then, let the feelings be what they are.

Also, remember that spin-the-bottle is not a kids' birthday party game. That’s just plain weird, folks.

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