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Show of hands: Who here remembers his first birthday party?

Yes, that does sound silly. But when Dr. Bill Doherty became a grandfather, he was startled to learn his daughter was being asked what kind of "bash" she would throw when the baby turned one.

A professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota, Doherty visited a party store and saw "shelf upon shelf of first-birthday items." He also overheard this interaction between a woman and her son, who looked to be about 9 years old.
Boy: "This one's nice."
Mom: "That's not your color scheme!"
This led Doherty and others to create the Birthdays Without Pressure project, a series of conversations about and strategies to combat birthday-party madness.

Increasingly pressured to keep up with the pint-sized Joneses, parents are spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars on fetes at commercial venues or home parties that feature live entertainment, pony rides, bounce-house rentals, and party bags crammed with toys and treats.

Do kids expect this? Too often they do. One child complained that her birthday party "just wasn't magic enough." 

At another party, a 7-year-old guest wanted to know why he hadn't been given a party bag. Told that the family had decided to forgo this custom, the boy responded, "This is a rip-off!"

No expense left behind?
Shocked by that kind of entitlement? Remember: We built those children. Ours is a culture of entitlement and consumption -- and, more to the point, of competition. If your neighbor has a clown and a magician, you'll feel pressured to have a clown, a magician and a petting zoo.

Next year that won't be enough, though. Your kid will say, "Billy's party was at a pizza-and-games place and we each got $20 worth of tokens." Fearing that your child will be looked down on, you invite his entire class of 28 kids to a similar extravaganza even if you can't afford it.

"There are some parents who are competitive and they drive this," Doherty says. "Then there are parents who don't want their kids to be left behind."
It's tough to hold the line against this kind of conspicuous consumption. But it can be done.

The Birthdays Without Pressure site offers tips for family birthday rituals, party games and other techniques to help parents celebrate without breaking the bank or compromising their own beliefs.

Reflecting on your family's values is an excellent starting point. For example, if your family is on a budget (or even if it isn't), you might choose an inexpensive, low-key celebration and put the rest of the money you would have spent into a college fund.

Parents who think their kids already have enough toys could insist "no presents, please" and donate to charity any gifts that do show up. Those who want to reduce their environmental impact could opt for a creative party at home without disposable plates and cutlery and party bags stuffed with plastic junk.

There's no law that says kids have to have parties with all their friends, let alone the "party week" -- one celebration with family, one in the classroom and one with invited guests -- that's becoming the norm in some areas.

Some creative alternatives

Here's how a former co-worker handled it for years: A dozen or so of his son's friends would show up at 10 a.m. Richard handed each one a Super Soaker and sent them all to the wooded area on his property. There they could form teams or just run around like crazy beasts, squirting one another at random.

The boys also got got to decide when it was time to eat (caribou hot dogs on the grill), watch Will open his gifts and cut the cake. At 4 p.m. they'd go home, having attended the Best. Party. Ever.

Another friend of mine lives in an affluent area where birthday one-upmanship is fierce. Think "a pair of Ugg boots" (which cost as much as $150 per pair) rather than a goodie bag for each girl at one party. I wish I were making that up.

Meghan doesn't want to buy into the competition, so she gets creative. She received free use of a swim-club room to stage a "Fake Pajama Party" for her daughter's fifth birthday. In the middle of the room she set up a small camping tent and filled it with big teddy bears she got for less than $2 each at a post-Valentine's Day sale.

Each of the pajama-clad girls was allowed to enter the tent and choose a bear to take home. Although Meghan had a list of games planned, the kids seemed more interested in running around, screaming and whacking each other with the teddy bears. She decided to ditch the games and let them run and scream.

"Kids' lives today are so structured and scheduled and categorized. The chance to have no structure for two hours worked really well," she says.

After all, the party is supposed to be about kids. It's not about adults competing to throw the best bash. Have the party that fits your child's needs -- and your budget -- rather than giving in to grownup peer pressure.

Got any tips for fun celebrations that won't break the bank?

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