Kids' birthday parties: the good, the bad and the seriously cringe-worthy

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

Beyond the carefully choreographed Instagram pics and acres of bunting, there's a less attractive side to children's birthday parties. It's often cringe-worthy, sometimes shocking, and has parents way ahead of their kids when it comes to bratty behaviour.

As a birthday party host of some years, I have a front-row seat to the darker side of these celebrations. I see the sneaky splash of gin in Mum's Fanta and the perplexing attempts at paleo party food.

I smile politely at Dad's new girlfriend in a fairy dress from Strippers-R-Us and resist the urge to trip up the little shite who just opened someone else's presents.

Sure, I've also witnessed the seamless deployment of party perfection,  it's just not nearly as interesting, so here I give you my standout examples of parties gone bad.

Competitive parenting

At some point in certain parents' minds, their child's birthday celebration makes a sideways turn from special family milestone to an opportunity to scale the heights of social superiority. This is generally perpetrated by a female parent and I call it 'one-upmumship'.

I was reminded of this recently by a couple of mums having a fairly robust debate around whose bouncy castle had actually been the biggest. The passive-aggressive nature of their discourse escalated rapidly, culminating in the scarier mum attempting to shut down the other with a quick-draw bejeweled iPhone containing 362 Pinterest pics to ram her point home.

One-upmumship follows a premise of more is more and bigger is best. For example, why have just one form of entertainment when you can have it all. I was once booked for an event resembling a trade show for party entertainment, with everything from a petting zoo to some sort of circus act.

The guests were completely overwhelmed and opted for the familiarity of the backyard trampoline. Uniformed staff served the catered lunch to bewildered seven-year-olds, while their parents sipped champagne and mouthed OMG at each other.

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The 'birthday diva'

This thankfully rare creature is created only after several years of overindulgence by doting parents. Like the dictator of a small and troubled country, this child becomes so full of their own importance that it begins to leak out in unpleasant ways.

Carefully chosen gifts are ripped from the arms of guests before they make it through the door, everyone is told exactly how much the festivities cost, and the hired help is treated with disdain as proud parents busy themselves photographing every precious moment. Exclamations of "I get to go first" and "I'm the birthday boy" while elbowing guests out of the way are also commonplace.

Crimes against common sense

Recent genius ideas include letting preschoolers loose with hot glue guns, a pinata containing unwrapped lollies hung above an oily driveway, and party games engineered to allow only the birthday boy to win, leaving his friends in tears or building up to nuclear meltdowns.

Too matchy-matchy?

A manic approach to theming is a common problem for the over achieving parent. This individual is easily identified by a tightly clutched colour wheel and an overuse of words such as 'adorable' and 'bunting'.

Although children don't care if the chair covers are exactly the same shade of teal as the tableware, to the theme-obsessed parent, it is imperative. Once a theme and colour palette are arrived at, this parent sets about micro matching every conceivable item in a relentless quest spiralling into madness.  

This parent embraces waste and is unmoved by environmental considerations. They are capable of single-handedly brokering several tonnes of non-recyclable party crap, which after one afternoon of service transforms the local landfill a delightful shade of teal for approximately six hundred years.

Bigger than Texas

Some parents feel it's not enough to invite the whole class, they must invite the whole country. I stipulate a maximum of 15 children at my parties, which is sometimes treated merely as a starting point by parents who know better.

The record for ignoring my rule sits at 52 children. As I packed up to leave that epic gathering, a lonely beer bottle rolled across the floor, dribbling it's last drops before being halted by a piece of cake that had experienced some terrible things in its short life. It quite eloquently summed up the situation for me.

PG-rating optional

A notable party I attended for six-year-olds had the speakers blasting and a bunch of kids gleefully dancing around to something along the lines of "I'm gunna nail your ass m…..f…..".

Unless you want your eight-year-old snapping her fingers and calling "what up bitches' to her crew, keep the gangsta rhymes on the down low.

Guests behaving badly

Not all party crimes are perpetrated by the hosts. Guests bring their own special kind of carnage.

From classic moves such as dumping uninvited siblings into someone else's carefully planned event, or not bothering to RSVP and then showing up anyway, there are any number of ways guests can mess with you.

I've seen lingering adults quietly hoovering all the kid's food, overheard the self-appointed party boss attempting to run the show, and averted my eyes to the aftermath of too many cupcakes vs. trampoline.

Guests demanding to know if there are party bags is a common yet bratty move, although in said brat's defense, whoever invented these angst-inducing little bags of detritus needs a good slap. Contents are generally dumped unceremoniously on the floor and items rated mercilessly by the trained eye of seasoned guests.

This tradition appears to have replaced that bit at the end of the party where you used to say "thank you for having me".

For those of you on the kid's party scene, perhaps you are now asking yourself "was that wrong?". Although I thank all the over achievers, birthday divas and paleo princesses for giving me such great material, yes, it was wrong.

This is an edited version of  an article with first appeared on Stuff NZ.