27 May 2015

Competitive consumption for kids

4:46 pm on 27 May 2015

Wanton destruction is rife on the child birthday circuit. And the primary warhead of choice is the party bag, not the birthday cake.

Birthday cake at a children's party.

Sugar hit - the traditional birthday cake is no longer enough. Photo: 123RF

It's often fired in a salvo which includes the mid-sized bouncy castle, the children's entertainer (fairy, clown, face-painters) and pass-the-parcel, where everyone gets a prize.

Parents organising their little darlings' parties should become familiar with the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. It holds that two or more sides with terrible weapons (particularly nuclear) won't blow the world up because the threat of using the devices is enough of a deterrent.

Our little darling had her party at the weekend.

At last year's festivities one of her friends turned up late and left early. His farewell included the immortal line: "I'm leaving now. Where is my party bag?" He is not to blame for this. It is us, the parents, creating first-world monsters of consumption.

The parents at our party wanted out of the competitive-partying too but the general consensus was that wasn't on the horizon - unless we got everyone in a fairly wide circle to agree a détente. What happens when our kids are teens? Birthday trips to Paris?

Party bag for childrens birthday party.

Size matters - our party bags are bigger than yours. Photo: 123RF

A quick delve into history suggests this is may be nothing new. And, like so many historical hangovers, we may have European aristocrats to blame.

They liked to hand out "wedding favours" known as bonbonniere. It was typically a small box filled with sweet treats. The giving spoke to their wealth and prestige because sugar was so expensive. Over time, others obviously picked up the habit.

Victoria University's Dr Paul Jose, an expert in developmental psychology, said he was born and raised in the US and had seen the over emphasis on materialism first hand. There had been a definite trend of this filtering down to children.

He didn't believe the US had "deliberately infected" other countries as it was a universal human impulse to want to be nice, to entertain and give. A lot of what was happening came from a good place.

However, people also liked to impress and sometimes this meant things were getting "over the top for six-year-olds".

"What I fear is some kids become entitled… entitled bratty kids are not the way to go."

Dr Jose said the great challenge for parents was managing expectations (see the foot of this story for Dr Jose's dos and don'ts). If this didn't happen things tended to spiral out of control and it was corrosive for relationships.

Children needed to learn the "value of gratitude" and be grateful for what they received, he said. This was far more positive.

Dr Jose believed the focus should be more on "shared experiences" than lavish gifts.

Child at a birthday party.

Sweet values - childrens' birthday parties are not only about consumption. Photo: 123RF

This year we were determined to manage the expectations. We were not the new French. The children could just eat cake.

Pass-the-parcel was easy to jettison; there's nowhere you could fit a bouncy castle, even a smallish one in our garden, and we were holding the front-line on party bags.

We kept old fashioned hide-and-seek (no prizes), musical statues (no prizes) and a treasure hunt. We let the kids amuse themselves the way they used to, before competitive consumption and compulsive entertainment became the norm.

We did let ourselves down with the treasure hunt. Each child "found" something which included some sweets and a badge in a little bag. We weren't quite the US and Russia of parties, more Iran.

That afternoon the birthday girl went to her third party of the weekend and returned with party bag number three.

On the way home she declared her "heart" was sore from eating too much sweet stuff. If we parents can't rein in the expectations in future, we'll all have sore hearts.

Dr Jose's tips


  • Talk to your child about the party -who they'd like to invite; what they'd like to do and how they can help.
  • This helps set appropriate expectations and then you can work around this.
  • If your child is asking for a pony and you're not giving them one them tell beforehand - in a nice way.
  • While elements of the party may be planned it needs to have an element of surprise and fun. It should be authentic for your family and age level appropriate.


  • Make/allow comparisons with other parties. Stick to your guns. This is what your family does not someone else's.
  • Build up expectations beyond what is possible or you want.
  • Have a 100 per cent focus on the birthday boy or girl. There needs to be enough room for others to be seen and participate. It's a communal occasion.
  • Plan every minute. There should be free play time.
  • Keep them a reasonable length. Two hours is probably plenty enough.