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Kids' birthday parties are out of hand. Whatever happened to cake, ice cream and pin the tail on the donkey?

Published July 6, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

You discover it in the bottom of the backpack, wedged between a homework folder and the cellophane-wrapped baby carrots your kid didn't touch for lunch: a Blue's Clues party invitation.

"Look, honey, you're invited to a party this Saturday," you croon to your darling offspring.

Inwardly, you cringe, knowing exactly what this means: a precious weekend afternoon squandered at an ear-splittingly loud kiddie restaurant in a soulless suburban strip mall.

The chaos of two-dozen 6-year-olds vying for attention and plopping coins into impossibly noisy video games. The screeching. The clanging of bells, the pulsating music, the stage show featuring animated characters that no one seems to be watching as they tear into their pizza, their little mouths smeared with greasy orange sauce. And then there is the aftermath -- a sugared-up, over-stimulated kid clutching a ripped goodie bag, furious that the festivities have ended, refusing to put her shoes on and whining about how unfair it is that Megan got a Rugrats stamper as a prize and she didn't.

The question I silently pose to myself each time is this: Take the Extra-Strength Tylenol beforehand as a preventative, or wait for the headache to actually kick in?

I don't know about you, but I'm getting tired of schlepping my kids to round after round of birthday parties that have become meaningless exercises in one-upmanship, wretched excess or sheer overload.

My 7-year-old daughter recently attended one in a spacious karate studio. The instructor encouraged guests to leap, screech, slam into punching bags and kick at imaginary enemies. They marveled, wide-eyed, as he cracked a wooden board in two with his bare hands. It was a very impressive event, a way for young 'uns to expel some of their enviable, boundless energy while learning rudimentary martial arts.

But it didn't stop there. Kicking off the second round of entertainment, a clown suddenly appeared, equipped with a guitar, sheet music and a bag brimming with balloons. She cleverly twisted pastel-colored balloons into nifty shapes for each guest after she'd led them in a sing-along. Each kid then received not one, but two goodie bags, the first containing candies, and the second filled with stampers, markers, and (get this!) a hand-sewn Blue's Clues stuffed animal, courtesy of the child's mother.

I do admire this woman's stamina and her way with the needle and thread. But if you're not exactly the Martha Stewart of mothers, how can you keep up?

Another gala in my daughter Katharina's social circle featured a "real-life" Barbie who assisted a dozen 6-year-old girls with dress-up attire and taught them how to sashay down a runway like a real model. Unfortunately, my firstborn had to decline this invitation. Not just because any self-respecting feminist mother would balk at the concept, but because she had a previous commitment -- another birthday party.

So far I've only mentioned parties given by little girls. But my research shows that mothers of boys experience similarly excessive gatherings, like the ever-popular laser-tag parties. Held in vast, black-lit warehouses, these events enable junior guerrillas to race through a labyrinthine space "shooting" at each other with mini-laser guns. The last kid "alive" is the winner.

Another mother I know relates the details of an all-boys party at a swank health club. For two hours, teenage instructors led the kids in a series of Xtreme games, like swinging on ropes and zooming down indoor, man-made "hills" on skateboards. Each kid was then rewarded with an electronic hand-held video game, in addition to the "regular" goodie bag filled with sweets!

Whatever happened to pin the tail on the donkey, or other wholesome games, like hitting a piqata? Does anyone have at-home parties with cake and ice cream anymore?

Certainly not the mother who rented out a VFW hall for her daughter's fifth birthday. More than three-dozen preschoolers were treated to four hours' worth of excitement, from a tractor ride in the field adjacent the hall, to a visit by Ariel, a "real" mermaid, who organized games and distributed prizes. Then, in a bizarre turn of events, the child's mother donned a Cher costume, stepped up to the karaoke machine and serenaded guests with her version of "I Got You Babe." The birthday girl then took her own turn at the mike, wowing the crowds with the Spice Girls' "Wannabe." Like mother, like daughter.

A bagpipe player closed out the festivities. But not before each child received a kiddie-size, plastic chair with his or her name hand-stenciled on it, and a packet of stickers to further decorate it.

"A few kids actually threw up afterward, they were so over-stimulated," said a mother who accompanied her two daughters. "There wasn't a single minute of downtime. It was really unbelievable, the whole thing. And it lasted way too long."

Granted, the Cher party is an extreme example. But on the whole, aren't we baby-boom parents a wee bit out of control with the birthday celebrations? Are these galas supposed to be for them, or are they an effort to assuage our collective guilt for being so damn busy we barely pay attention to our offspring? Then again we may be upholding the American ideal that says each generation must exceed the previous generation -- in income, education and even birthday parties.

Each time another invitation arrives, I scratch my head and feel a wave of nostalgia, as I recall the parties I attended as a kid in the 1960s. They were innocent, simple affairs, and certainly each kid in my class did not have a party each year. But when they did, they were held at home and attended by a few neighborhood kids. We played quaint games like tossing clothespins into an empty milk jug, musical chairs, even hot potato.

The most thrilling party of all took place at the home of my best friend Helene, whose father happened to be a mortician. A dozen or so fourth-grade guests gathered upstairs in the family's comfortable living quarters for cake and games, but really, we were all distracted by one thing: the corpse downstairs in the funeral parlor, awaiting burial the next day.

Which kid would dare to sneak down the stairs when Helene's mother was not looking, tiptoe up to the satin-lined casket and touch the hand of the ice-cold body? Certainly not me. Sure enough, one of the boys boldly met the challenge and was showered with our high-pitched shrieks and choruses of "Oh, my god!" and "What did it feel like?" when he returned.

Who needs laser tag when you have dead bodies?

Frankly, I think my two kids, ages 7 and 3, couldn't care less about the nature of the parties they attend. All they need is a place to run around, play with their peers, eat a piece of cake and sing "Happy Birthday." Then again, have we conditioned them to expect increasingly more elaborate annual gatherings, creating greedy little monsters?

I resolved to break the cycle with my two daughters by throwing them each a small-scale party every other year. It's not that I'm opposed to merriment. Hardly. Like us, kids are entitled to a good time with their friends. I'm just trying to keep it all in perspective.

On non-party years, we arrange a family-only field trip. Last year, we visited the Statue of Liberty, an attraction not far from our home in New Jersey, yet one we'd never seen up close and personal. On party years, we keep it simple, like the Twister-playing, Spice Girls-dancing gala we had at home recently for a few of Katharina's pals. No one complained. A good time was had by all, as far as I could tell. (Except for my younger daughter, who in the middle of the festivities, squatted on the lawn and peed.)

A friend with three young children recently had an epiphany at her son's birthday party. She had invited four of his nursery-school friends for lunch and ice-cream cake, followed by a movie.

"Just before we left for the theater, workers coincidentally arrived to repave our driveway," she said. "These 5-year-old boys were transfixed as asphalt heated to 1,000 degrees was poured and smoothed on the driveway. We almost missed the movie, they were so into it!"

"I know of friends hiring their local fire department to give kids a ride on the engine, and have been to innumerable Bubbles the Clown/Magician/Singer/Entertainer parties, but nothing gave a bunch of little boys such joy as seeing real-life construction men in action. I told my friends that I'd arrange our bathroom renovation to coincide with Andre's sixth!"

Sometimes it's the stuff of everyday life that kids find most fascinating. If anyone knows the little-girl equivalent of pouring asphalt, just let me know.

By Janet Mazur

Janet Mazur is a freelance writer whose stories have appeared in newspapers and magazines in the U.S., Australia and in England. She lives in coastal New Jersey with her husband and their two daughters. She is deliberately avoiding thinking about her daughter's 4th birthday, which is next week.

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