Sarah Donnelly isn't having a great day. It's her seventh birthday, and she's surrounded by all her best friends. And a clown. And a pony. And a magician and a guy dressed like a cowboy and two women in suspenders with bright red yarn for hair and big hearts drawn around their eyes, who keep handing people balloons and asking who they like best, Hannah Montana or Dora the Explorer.
Everyone's here to make sure that Sarah has the best birthday in the world, but she's kind of having a shitty time. What Sarah really wants to do is take off her scratchy party dress and go out front and watch the guy who's blowing up the balloons that the raggedy girls are handing out. But her mommy says she has to stay in her seat and eat birthday cake and stop whining, because she's the guest of honor and leaving wouldn't be nice, would it?
Sarah is tired of being nice. She sets her white plastic fork down on the frilly pink vinyl tablecloth and whispers to her mother, "Mom, when is it not going to be my birthday any more?"
A friend gives Sarah's mother, Sherry, a reassuring, it's-almost-over pat on the shoulder. "I know," Mom hisses through clenched teeth. "But her brother's turning four in six weeks. I have to go through this all over again!"
Poor Sarah. Poor Sarah's mom. Today, in their giant backyard, draped in 40 pounds of streamers and encircled by thousands of dollars worth of merriment, neither is taking much pleasure in knowing that they're at the best birthday party in the great, big gated Paradise Valley community where they live. It seems unlikely that either would care at this point as the merry-go-round starts up for the hundredth time and the pony takes an unexpected dump on Raggedy Andy's shoe that they're merely the latest in a long line of mother-daughter duos who are feeding the current trend in over-the-top, over-produced kiddy birthday parties. Neither Sarah (because she's too young) nor her mom (because she's too, well, frazzled at the moment) has given any thought to how they've been feeding the multimillion-dollar industry that's sprung up around Sarah's desire for everything she sees on TV and, just maybe, Mom's inability to "connect intimately" with her daughter.
It's no surprise that experts are horrified by this burgeoning business in ridiculously opulent birthday parties, this newish industry that's busting at the seams with more and more lavish ways to acknowledge the first day of Little Johnny's fourth year. It's a trend forwarded not just by maniacal moms with disposable incomes and no extra time, but by moms in every income bracket who feel guilty because their busy lives keep them away from their kids. It's a trend that the super-est Super Moms support, even though many of them would like to give a permanent time-out to the guy who invented the chains of "grown-up" (some say downright sleazy) party places they're hiring for the day, places that pour their tiny daughters into glittery cat suits and glop them with enough eyeliner and blush to choke a birthday clown.
Nutso birthday bashes for little kids aren't just a local trend, but they certainly are thriving in the Valley. Phoenix is home to both a monthly magazine and an annual guide devoted to planning prepubescent parties, and to both chain shops like the Lolita-esque Club Libby Lu (where your daughter goes in a kid and comes out a Pussycat Doll) and locally owned companies that are busily preparing to franchise.
There are: Valley-based Frills to Fairytales and its sister company, Cuddle Bear Creations, both about to launch as national chains; A Child's Joy, which can provide everything from a petting zoo to inflatable "bouncy houses" and carnival-size mechanical rides; Star of My Party, which will send a film crew to your home and pop out a special-effects-laden, scripted movie featuring your wee thespian; and Girly Girlz, another local business that's about to franchise its ersatz tea parties, where the tarts being served are 4-year-old girls.
Michelle Hoffman, who's lived in Fountain Hills for the past seven years, says that the parties where she takes her kids 9-year-old Paige and 6-year-old Drew are more opulent than any she's seen. "We've lived in San Francisco and London," she says, "and still I haven't seen anything like the parties moms put on here. It took me a while to get used to catered playdates, too. With me, it's crackers and juice boxes, not finger sandwiches and Libby Lu."
There's nothing wrong with a catered playdate, says stay-at-home mom Donna Kurtz. She spent most of February planning her daughter Daphne's fourth birthday party. She supervised the assembly of 18 handmade invitations, ordered a designer cake shaped like a trio of balloons, and has already started stuffing the gift bags that each party guest will take home with them a week from Saturday. Headquartered at the kitchen island of her Fountain Hills home, she's making a list of finger foods for the separate party she'll throw for the parents of her guests that same day. Each hors d'oeuvres option is lobbed to Daphne, who's seated nearby, coloring.
"How about little stuffed mushrooms for the grownups, Daph?"
Daphne never looks up from her coloring book, and her response is the same one she's given to every question about her upcoming party. "I just want a princess," she says.
Donna looks peeved. "She's really into the Princess Jasmine movie," she tells a visitor. "But we've been to two princess parties already this year, and I want to do something different."
"Honey," Donna tells her daughter for the fourth time that day, "at your party, you'll be the princess!"
Daphne doesn't look convinced.
Although there are no national studies on the trend in over-the-top birthday parties, it's nearly impossible to have a discussion about them without hearing a reference to MTV's addicting but dreadful My Super Sweet 16, the reality show that documents obnoxious, affluent teens as they plot their 16th birthday bashes. Experts and parents agree that the show has helped propel the "faux mitzvah" fad.
The only thing more ubiquitous than a layer cake at one of these stupendous soirees is the klatch of moms huddled in a corner, heaping criticism on the hideous excess around them. They like to talk about, for instance, the Scottsdale mom who requested gifts valued at $30 because, the year before, her child received presents worth less than the favors handed out at her party. And there's the one about the little boy whose mom, before she agreed to let her son attend, wanted to know if there was going to be any "good stuff" in the party gift bag. There are the endless complaints about parents who register their birthday boys and girls at department stores, and about the three-hour extravaganzas for 1-year-olds who sleep through the whole shebang, and the limousines, the competitiveness, the nerve of the mother who dumped plans for the Lord of the Rings-themed party her son wanted after he was invited to a party with a similar theme a month earlier.
Some of the moms are sour about the number of "half-birthday" parties they're being invited to these days by moms whose children have summer birthdays. "I'm supposed to come to two parties for this kid just because he was born in July, when it's too hot to have the outdoor party he wants!" crows "Sheila," who, like most of the whiny moms, admits to having thrown a giant birthday party or two but says she hates them. She won't give her real name for fear of seeing her child blacklisted from the PV birthday party scene after word gets out that she complained.
One mom says that her husband hates how stressed she gets while planning their daughter's birthday bashes, but that last year, when she held a simple, elegant tea party for her Amanda's sixth birthday, the girl wept "all weekend" because her party was "too small."
"This year," she says, "we're having her party at Scottsdale Air Park, and she's going to arrive in a helicopter."
"Kid parties are big business," says Laurie Prendergast, owner of A Child's Joy. She's been a children's party planner for 15 years and has watched her business grow to fit an expanding market. The call for more and better parties has increased so much that she and her husband purchased a 10-acre farm in Laveen to accommodate all the ponies, bouncy houses, super slides, and mechanical rides they own.
"There's a lot of gravy money here in Phoenix," says Prendergast, whose company has feted the progeny of Jason Kidd, Randy Johnson, and the triplets of former Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza. "That's why you see so many high-end parties the discretionary incomes here are so high."
But it's not just the wealthy who are shelling out big bucks for absurdly magnificent dos these days. "We get calls all the time from just ordinary people," Prendergast says. "I do just as many parties in south Phoenix, and even Maryvale, as in PV or Anthem. We even did a party once way out in Florence!"
But it's the moneyed moms who have the oddest requests, and Prendergast has had her share of them over the years. "One lady wanted llama rides," she recalls. "She had adopted a boy from Peru and she figured he'd want llamas at his birthday party. The problem is that no one has any llamas for rent around here, and I don't think you're really supposed to ride them anyhow. The mom ended up going with superheroes instead. Wonder Woman was there!"
Prendergast can book a clown or juggler or face-painter for about $120 an hour, which Girly Girlz manager Patti Council says is extravagant. She can do a girly tea party for eight pretty misses for less than $400.
"I spent more than that on my own daughter's parties 20 years ago," says Council, who runs the Girly Girlz location in Peoria. But Prendergast swears that, in today's kid market, money often isn't an object.
It's also not the point. "You can go to a party where they have rides and a pony and every child gets a gift bag," Prendergast says, "Or you can go to the one where you make Froot Loop necklaces and have a cupcake. Which party would you prefer?"
That's a no-brainer for Donna Kurtz, who doesn't think she's throwing such a big bash. Sure, she's hired a pony, a bouncy room, and a juggler. She's having a crafts table and really great gift bags (with Bratz dolls in the girls' bags and Ben 10 flashlight watches in the boys') and a separate party for the parents, complete with a catered brunch. And so what if she's specified that guests bring gift cards but no gifts, please! from one of three department stores listed on the invitation. Last year, Daphne got stuff that her mom is certain was re-gifted.
"I buy birthday presents all year 'round for Daphne's friends," she says. "So why shouldn't she get something back? I'm throwing a great party for her, so it's normal to expect the kids to bring her a little something."
A great party, yes, but, as she keeps insisting, not a ridiculous one. After all, she's hosting in her backyard rather than renting a facility or taking the kids to a party place. And she's not using a party planner; she's hiring the juggler and the pony and the pony wrangler herself. And she did abandon her plan to have her husband follow Daphne with a camera during a gift-card shopping spree, then post the photos on a Web site so that guests could see what the birthday girl bought with their gift cards.
"Plus we're only having 18 guests," she points out, "not counting however many parents show up. But they'll be in a separate room. I want the kids to have fun, and you can't have fun when your mom is saying, 'Don't get your dress dirty!' "
Sure enough, on the day of Daphne's party, a dozen-odd parents are nestled into a comfy sitting room, where Donna has had a coffee bar and fancy pastry buffet set up. Outside, tiny guests decorate caramel apples, thread candy necklaces, get their faces painted, and line up at a temperamental cotton candy machine. Most of the kids seem a little overwhelmed, unsure of which activity to invest in next the pony ride? the jumpy room? or reluctant to leave the fun thing they're already engaged in. Inside, Donna has strung a neat blue ribbon across the doorway of the parents' party as a subtle reminder that they should stay put and out of the way, which has some of the moms rolling their eyes and muttering.
"This is kind of tacky," one of the moms whispers to another adult. "Why invite us, then not let us watch our kids have fun?"
Another mom laughs. "Actually, the whole carnival thing is kind of tacky," she says. "At Caitlin's party, I had a portrait artist do charcoals of every little girl, and the moms were invited to pose, too."
Ellen, another mom, comes to Donna's defense.
"At least we're not at Libby Lu," she says, and a chorus of mothers groan in agreement. Club Libby Lu, a nationwide chain of party salons where preteen girls get made over as rock stars and supermodels in silver pants and spandex halters, is a sore spot with these ladies who lunch. Each of them, it seems, has a daughter who's been to a Libby Lu party or has fielded a request from her daughter for a birthday bash there. Just about every mom at Daphne's party has a story about her kid being trotted through a Libby Lu fashion parade and sent home with a small backpack full of eye shadow and lip-gloss and, apparently, a rather cheeky new attitude.
"Libby Lu!' says University of Minnesota professor William Doherty, an activist against giant kid parties, in his don't-get-me-started voice. "They're one of the outrages that got our stress-free-party movement started. Libby Lu, with the makeovers, the princess excess, the starlet parties. These kids are placed in public view at the mall, with Madonna headsets, dancing to rock music. So you're paying for the sexualization of your little girl in the name of a birthday celebration. Oh, boy."
Council, who manages the Peoria Girly Girlz location, says her store is the antithesis of the trampy Club Libby Lu scene because the stock in trade of Girly Girlz is a wee tea party called The Glitzy Princess, where "being a girl" is emphasized.
"We don't encourage growing up too fast," says Council of Girly Girlz, where one can also have a "Glama Jama" pajama party or buy a $70 T-shirt or a $175 fur-trimmed vinyl purse. "We don't like the whole Bratz thing, where little girls want to look like 20-year-old rock stars. We encourage etiquette and proper table manners."
And maybe just a bit of rouge. And perhaps something to make Little Susie's lips all sexy-shiny to match the glitter in the big, enamel gumdrop earrings she'll need to offset the feather boa an accessory customarily worn by saloon girls and drag queens that she'll be sporting at her tea party, which is preceded by a makeover session and followed by a "glam walk" that looks very much like the runway nonsense over at Club Libby Lu, without the tube tops and rock-star headsets.
"Call it a tea party if you want," says "Sheila." "But you're robbing them of their childhood when you dress up little girls like adults. It's vile that they're putting makeup on and doing their hair and having them sashaying through the store like little tarts. I find these girly places nauseating, and so does my daughter."
But all this sexy excess isn't about birthday parties, according to Karen Barr, publisher of Raising Arizona Kids, which publishes an annual party guide of listings, articles, and ads (including one from Girly Girlz, but none from Club Libby Lu) about tossing the best big bash for your little ones. "We're pushing way too much of everything at our kids at too young an age," Barr says. "I know you want your kid to be special and popular, but there's a way to do that while also maintaining the child's dignity. Which I think some parents lose sight of, especially when it comes to party time."
What parents haven't lost sight of is what kind of parties their peers are throwing. Topping the neighbor's three-ring birthday circus is what appears to be motivating a lot of moms in their quest for the best bash.
"There's a certain category of parents who are competitive in every part of their parenting," says child psychologist and Phoenix mom Laura Fichman. "The school play, the spelling bee they're going to be checking out what the other moms are doing and trying to top that. I like to think they truly want to be good parents, and they're just not thinking what the long-term impact will be."
Laurie Prendergast is less charitable. "People want to be first in line," she says. "It happens a lot in a certain socioeconomic strata that a mom who's planned a really neat party will call me and say, 'I have to move Cassandra's party because one of the moms at our school is having a party on the same day, and hers is bigger!' So there's even a competition about getting your invitation out first."
Even attempts at philanthropy can be spoiled by whacked-out party moms. A new trend, Fichman says, is an invitation that asks for donations to charity in lieu of gifts. The trouble with that, she points out, is when the named charity is one that Mom and Dad don't necessarily support, a Christian-based charity, for example, or one affiliated with a political party.
"It politicizes the party," says Fichman, who's chosen in the past to make a donation to another, more neutral charity when her kids bring home such an invitation. She thinks it's great that parents want to teach their kids about giving but says that in this context, doing so also takes the kid out of the kid party.
"My son wants to be able to celebrate his friendship with the birthday boy by bringing him a gift," she says. "And having Mommy write a check to charity precludes that. I usually let him go ahead and pick out a small gift anyway, in addition to the check to charity."
Family social science expert Doherty says that, in the hands of a party-planning mom gone berserk, charity can be just another arena for competition. "You get the moms who call you the week after the party and say, 'How much did you raise? Oh, we raised more than that at Britney's party.' Or they say, 'You should have seen the look in Britney's eyes when she gave that check to those poor little children.' It's a trap."
Regarding the charity gift trend, Donna Kurtz rolls her eyes. "I want Daphne to have something to remember each of her friends by," she says. "And if I'm going to put this much time and money into a party for her, I need to at least break even."
In some corners of PV and Scottsdale, the tide appears to be turning against this kind of gimme-gimme attitude toward kid parties. Hoffman says she won't take her daughter, Paige, to any more supersize shindigs and, like Fichman, throws simple parties that she and her kids can work on together.
"I host the party myself, keep it simple, and ban the parents from staying," Fichman says. "I'm not inhospitable, but you can't really concentrate on making the party work for the kids if you're also hosting their parents. And that's what the day is about: the kids."
At a recent Girly Girlz soiree, Grandma Venita isn't so sure about that. She's been standing beside a display of tiny tee shirts emblazoned with the slogan "Don't you wish your mommy was hot like mine?" (price: $36), peeking through the window of the Girly Girlz play cottage at the tea party going on inside. It's her granddaughter Madeline's birthday, and she's kept quiet during Madeline's hair and makeup session; bit her lip through Madeline's manicure and all the chatter about which flavor of lip-gloss tastes best (Twizzlers and Reese's appear to be the front-runners) and which gifts from her registry Madeline was most looking forward to ("She really likes the feather brooch shaped like a purse," Council confides to one mom), because, of course, each little diva is asked to submit a list of items she covets from Girly Girlz's own in-store boutique she covets.
Venita can't take any more. She turns to the fellow on her left and confides, "It's all just a little too much." A visitor to the store chimes in. "Yeah. What are they going to give her when she's 8 a car?"
Barr agrees that monster parties can get out of hand but says the trend may die off. "More of the well-off moms are eschewing the whole big party thing because they don't want to raise kids who've had everything by the age of 10 and won't have anything to look forward to."
Nicol Eilers is among those party planners who'll be ready to fill the gap left if these super-duper parties fall out of favor. Eilers, a former television production assistant, owns Star of My Party, a Scottsdale-based company whose tagline is "Tired of the same old birthday routine?" She'll come to your home with a movie crew to film your star or starlet and up to 12 little friends in a spy thriller, a fairy tale, or a wizard-themed movie.
Movie packages start at $450, not including the "deluxe editing package," cast photos or extra copies of the DVD. If the company's sample reel is any indication, the finished film is something only a mother could love, full of mumbled line readings, audible offstage prompting, and the kind of self-conscious "acting" from kids who look like they'd rather be riding an inflatable slide.
"At least making a movie doesn't take two months to prepare and won't take away time spent with your kid," says Fichman, who's eager for this trend in big birthday parties to pass. It's a craze that's sprung up out of what social scientists are calling "the super-sizing" of everything in contemporary culture, a notion born of and kept aloft by a generation of parents who are determined that their kids feel special, regardless of their achievements.
"This is the first generation of parents in history to consider the psychology of parenting," says Doherty, who recently paired up with parents to launch a national campaign called Birthdays without Pressure (www.birthdayswithoutpressure.org), designed to stop overindulging brats and to give parents some peace. "Previous generations of parents were pre-psychological," Doherty says. "They didn't read about child psychology, didn't brood about their child's self-esteem, because they'd never heard of such a thing."
The result, Doherty believes, is a generation of parents who lack confident leadership and who obsess about whether their kid will like them, which leads to overindulgence, which leads to parties that cost $3,000 and require a professional photographer, a gift registry, and a coffee bar for the adults. Parents used to gift a princess-obsessed 5-year-old with a Sleeping Beauty doll. Today, they give her a princess-themed blowout replete with horse-driven carriage, a tuxedoed "consort," and a paste-jeweled tiara. The irony is that she'd probably just as soon have the doll.
"Throwing a giant party for your 2-year-old is the modern choice," Fichman says. "But I'm hoping the postmodern choice will be about something that includes your kid a little bit more, so that the party isn't about you showing off what a good parent you hope you are."
Prendergast wants to disagree but is not sure she can. "My son grew up seeing all these huge kid parties his mom builds for other people," she says, laughing. "But when it was his birthday, all he wanted to do was go to Bill Johnson's Big Apple with two friends for dinner. That's it. His big thing was they were going to a restaurant where they got to throw their peanut shells on the floor."
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Daphne Kurtz's party is winding down. They never did get the cotton candy machine to work, and too many moms left before Donna got around to cutting the giant, multicolored balloon cake, which has her pretty peeved. She stands at the door, waving goodbye to guests and their moms, while Daphne is out back having her fourth meltdown of the day. As they leave, each child is given a gift bag filled with candy and pencils and other birthday landfill, itty-bitty items that traveled all the way from China on a barge, just to wind up ignored or tossed out or left at the bottom of the Kurtz's driveway with a half-eaten caramel apple stuck to it.
As she's getting ready to leave, Donna's sister-in-law asks if there's anything she can do to help. "Yes!" Donna whispers. "Come back in an hour with a bottle of gin!"
Then she returns to her farewells, graciously accepting congratulations on a job well done. "Well," she tells one of the moms, "There's still a couple of glitches to iron out. But I'll get it right next year!"