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A Chicago dad bemoans the power of big birthday

Childhood didn’t used to be like this. A Gen X childhood birthday party was an honest, humble affair. Likely just a family party: hot dogs, a box cake and some Transformers. You open the Transformers then smash them together with your cousins while the adults fret about the Bork confirmation. If you were particularly social, you had school friends over. If you were a real high roller, you went to Chuck E. Cheese and contracted meningitis in a ball pit.

But now? Will it be go karts, climbing, laser tag, an art studio or a yard full of inflatables? Gymnastics, maybe? Or perhaps you can just have Jojo Siwa come directly to your house and give a concert? Make sure you feed everyone. Plan a theme that is thorough and profound, from plates and cups to goodie bags. Oh, did I mention goodie bags? You have to give the guests presents now. It’s sort of a gift exchange. Parents you don’t know spend money they don’t want to spend on your kid, and then you spend money on their kids, as well as on the magicians and the trampoline park. Trying to start a college fund? Just cross your fingers that the oceans will rise and wipe us out before your kid is of college age.

The big birthday, like the wedding mill and big funeral, has risen into a monstrous machine that is culturally ingrained and de rigueur. I suppose you don’t have to have a big party — but your kid doesn’t have to have friends, either.

Oh, and the guest list? Back in my day, whippersnappers, most kids didn’t move towns unless they were military brats or their parents were in witness protection. Now, every kid has been to four schools by first grade. Daycare, Pre-K, JK, K, K+, etc. etc., and assorted Suzuki music programs — and they’ve got friends from each of the schools. Friends that don’t enjoy one another’s company and probably shouldn’t be in the same room, but why not pay for them all to do a high ropes course and then give them a go-bag of erasers and whistles anyhow?  

My daughter has decided her birthday should be a Disney villain/dance/class/costume theme. I’m relatively sure that’s three themes, but she claims there’s a synergy there. And how can I argue? This week alone she’s headed to parties at a martial arts dojo, ceramics studio and one on a private island where you’re allowed to hunt a human. (They get ten minutes to run before you can release the hounds. It may sound cruel, but we live near the North Shore — it’s a popular theme with the Sheridan Road set.)

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to rent a Tilt-A-Whirl and call Dove Cameron’s agent. Birthday parties don’t plan themselves.

Follow Matt at The Paternity Test Comedy Podcast.

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