Celebrating outside of the gift box

As suburban birthday parties trend toward large, thematic and expensive, many parents are exploring alternatives to a big bash.

Birthday cupcake

Parents don’t only want to tame the expense, they also want to create more meaningful or unique ways of celebrating consistent with their family’s values.

The birthday party was once a simple, quiet neighborhood get-together with a homemade sheet cake or, if you were a really lucky kid, a party at McDonald’s with paper crowns and Happy Meals. The modern-day birthday party has certainly evolved into an extravaganza that sometimes rivals a three-ring circus.

Elaborate themes, high price tags, massive attendance, non-stop entertainment and overstuffed goody bags impress the neighbors and fill the kids with glee but some parents find themselves wondering if all this overstimulation for a birthday is really necessary.

The University of Minnesota’s Department of Family Social Science has concerns that these “over-the-top” parties may ultimately do more harm than good, possibly fostering feelings of entitlement, jealousy, competition, stress and materialism.

For parents wishing to spend their dollars in a more meaningful way, there are many creative alternatives to celebrating a child’s special day.

A family excursion

With party venues costing about as much as a weekend getaway, why not spend that money on an overnight trip to the beach, a theme or water park, or a nearby big city? Let your child be part of the planning or make it a surprise! Fill the day with the foods and attractions your birthday boy or girl loves. Photograph the day, creating a photo journal afterward to preserve the memories in a sentimental gift.

A day on the town

Let your child grab one or two good friends and head to a spa for a manicure, play laser tag or zip around a go-cart track. No need for limo pick-up, your minivan will suffice. Spending your dollars on a little adventure or special activity will be long remembered without costly bells and whistles.


What does every kid love most about vacation? The hotel! Spend one night in an affordable, nearby hotel that has an indoor pool and order room service. Some parents who opt for this alternative get a suite and allow their child to invite a close friend or two.

Celebrating for a cause

If the idea of more gifts for a child who has everything leaves you flat, try throwing a birthday party for a cause. Encourage your child to select an organization that is either of interest or special significance. Create invitations that instruct guests to bring specific items or a monetary donation in lieu of gifts. For instance, pet care items can be collected to support a local animal shelter, or baby items for a new mother in need. Backpack drives, food drives, coat and blanket drives and toy drives can also help various charities at different times of the year.

Unplugged parties

Parties should be about friends and fun, not colossal expense. Reserving a picnic pavilion in the local park, going to the bowling alley with a few friends, hitting a movie followed by ice cream sundaes, spending a few hours at a roller rink with pizza —none of these require reservations with a party planner if you keep your group modest in size. Some local eateries will let you go “behind the scenes” to make your own pizza or submarine sandwiches. The fee is usually very reasonable and the kids can make and eat their lunch.

For more encouragement and ideas, visit Birthdays Without Pressure.

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