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Jason Offutt: Birthday parties now full-contact warfare

By Jason Offutt

The Boy was awake at 6 a.m. on a school day. That wasn’t like him.
Although the Girl’s 7-year-old brain won’t let her sleep past 5:30 a.m., if we’d let the Boy sleep in on a weekday he’d probably wake up when it was time for him to go back to bed. Which he gladly would. That’s only during the school year, of course. Weekends and summers operate under different rules of chronology.
But today was special. It was his ninth birthday.
As a kid, birthdays consisted of me springing awake early in a manic frenzy, running downstairs and seemingly waiting until the start of the next millennium to open my presents (at that point it was still roughly 28 years away).
However, my Birthday Present Opening Expectation Ratio compared unfavorably to my parent’s Expectation Reality Equation.
My parent’s ERE read something like this: Breakfast plus the Newspaper plus Coffee (possibly spiked with whiskey) equaled You Can Now Talk Without Fear of Death. The equation was completed (slowly, I might add) while I ran around the house like a confused dog.
Later that day, a group of friends would come over, we’d run ourselves stupid, eat cake and ice cream, I’d open more presents, we’d run again, then the other kids would go home and I’d pass out from exhaustion. My parents would pass out later for an entirely different reason. Then it was over until next year.
Birthdays don’t work like that any more because parents have taken the celebration out of the children’s hands.
Yesterday’s parent: What do you want to do for your birthday, son?
Yesterday’s kid: I want to have Tommy, and Jimmy, and Sam, and Karl, and Jimmy…
Yesterday’s parent: You already said Jimmy.
Yesterday’s kid: And Tommy and Timmy over to my house. And we can eat cake and play in my tree house.
And it was good.
Not any more. Today’s parents have expectations beyond free-range children eating cake. There’s Competitive Birthdaying.
Today’s Mom: What should we do for the Boy’s birthday?
Today’s Dad: We could just have kids over to play in the tree house.
Today’s Mom: Are you kidding? The Smiths had a hot air balloon, fireworks, one of the actors who played a gorilla in the original “Planet of the Apes” movie, and a live tiger at their son’s party. Do you want us to be those parents, the ones who don’t have live tigers?
Today’s Dad: Those Smiths. They think they’re God’s gift to nine-year-olds’ birthday parties.
Today’s kid: Can’t I just have my friends over to play in the tree house?
Today’s parents: NO.
Although the Boy cared as much about where his party was as he did taking a bath, we reserved a spot at the local movie theater. Movie, cake, presents, snacks, the works. But after all the thought, the planning, and hand wringing, we took seven eight-to-10-year-old boys to the one kid-friendly movie our town’s theater offered.
It was a Disney princess movie.
By the time the party was over I wished I’d have had some of my parents’ coffee.

Jason Offutt’s latest book, “Across a Corn-Swept Land: An epic beer run through the Upper Midwest,” is available at amazon.com.

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