Beirut Birthday Blues
Whatever happened to good old-fashioned birthday parties?
Remember those? Our mothers made us dress up (in a dress!) and put some thought into the gift we were going to bring, since it would probably not be exchanged. It was held at home, and there was often an older cousin or sibling present to keep us kids entertained and work the cassette player [yes, I am JUST old enough to remember those too ..] while we played musical chairs or pass the parcel. We ate jello boats, popcorn, ice cream and cake, and we always left with a little bag of goodies and a huge smile on our faces.
Just thinking about those days makes me happy and also a little sad, as we hunt around Beirut for a place to hold a party for our daughter, who actually turns 5 today: Happy Birthday, my Angel! I thought our requirements were simple: we don’t want loud music, we don’t want to serve fast food, and we don’t want a Disney/Character theme. There is a terrific thunderstorm outside as I write this, but being the beginning of summer, we would also like to have it outside. That combination pretty much rules out nearly every venue I can think of in Beirut, including our apartment, (no garden). I have been to lots of birthday parties since our children started school. Some have been sweet and lovely. Some, not so much. At one, 4-year-old girls were given manicures and makeovers, although thankfully mine declined out of shyness. Then we watched a rather strung-out looking “Cinderella” in an overused wig stomp across a stage to loud hip hop music…it had the kind of bizarreness of a Monty Python sketch.
At another, the girls were invited to change into princess costumes, (ok, that part was cute), and then brought up on stage to dance …while the boys watched. Is this a good message to be sending to children of this age?
At yet another, the birthday girl (also 4), was suddenly whisked away, only to reappear being carried back in on a throne, dressed in a mermaid costume, while a humongous cake with fireworks was rolled up to her. She looked kind of cold and a little scared…I would be too.
I know what you’re thinking. I should just lighten up. Those parents just wanted to do something special for their kids, and the kids probably loved every minute. You’re right, I just feel like these extravaganzas for children have gotten a little out of control and I’m yearning for something a bit simpler.
I’m also not crazy about the character obsession, because I’m wary of the fact that our kids are becoming targets for marketers before they can even read. If you think I’m exaggerating, consider this: Children as young as 18 months are able to recognize logos. In her book, Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture, sociology professor Juliet Schor says that marketers are taking advantage of this and targeting children under 3, who can influence their parents’ buying decisions. Anyone that has tried, and failed, to negotiate with a teary toddler over a box of blue cereal in the supermarket knows that this is absolutely true.
And let me just make it perfectly clear that I am not immune to this marketing science myself. I currently have Dora, Barbie AND Hello Kitty Band-Aids in my bathroom, OK?! I don’t need them, but the smile that suddenly appears when I put one on a scraped little knee is worth giving into consumerism for that moment.
I do think though, that we should be mindful of the kind of marketing messages our kids are exposed to, and how they are affected by them. Professor Schor found in her research that 11-12 years olds who are “more materialistic and consumer-oriented, develop higher levels of depression and low self-esteem, headaches and poor relations with their parents”. Hmmm. Come to think of it, I think that applies to adults as well. Children as young as 4 and 5 can use brands as indicators of popularity among other kids, and do, says Susan Gregory Thomas, who has written another book on the topic called: Buy, Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds. Ooooh, it’s all beginning to sound quite sinister, isn’t it!?
So back to our Birthday Conundrum: As parents, how do we fulfill the sweet birthday wishes of our little girl, who does want everything pink and princess-ey like her friends, without giving in to the peer pressure of being ever more extravagant and theatrical or falling prey to evil corporate marketeers?
Am I over thinking this? Probably. If you think this is bad, you should see me in a toy store….all this plus the environmental issues get factored in and I get total decision paralysis, it’s ridiculous.
I had wonderful birthdays growing up. Yes, there were presents and parties, but the best gift that my parents gave me was waking up with a delicious feeling inside that today was special, which I carried with me from the moment I saw my birthday breakfast set up on the table, until I put my head down that night.
And I still believe in the basics: A space to run around in the sunshine, some games, and a nice big cake and ice cream to share with friends. If that sounds too old-fashioned, just call it vintage.