At what point did kid birthday parties become bacchanals of sugary treats and synthetic pop music, requiring the rental of rubber-floored play spaces bedecked with a dayglo rainbow of streamers, peopled with every child the birthday boy or girl has ever known in his or her short life? For an introverted child, and especially an introverted parent, these events can be an exhausting, nerve-wracking few hours of noise, chaos, and small-talk.
In the eighth grade, my parents threw me the biggest birthday party I ever had. Four of my closest friends came. We played mini-golf, ate pizza and cake, then unrolled sleeping bags and slept on the living room floor. My wife reports something similar. To determine the number of kids she was allowed to invite, her parents would take her age and subtract one.
But times have changed, and so, when our son Felix turned 2, my wife and I cleaned our house, ordered food, and invited all of our neighbors and friends to wish him a happy birthday. We knew some of these folks from the local playground, and suddenly, the jungle gym was in our living room with toddlers climbing over everything, scrambling for toys, failing to share, and crying. In between breaking up 2-year-olds’ wrestling matches, the adults dished about developmental milestones, the stress of juggling work and family, and the soaring real estate prices.
It was exhausting. Felix careened around the house, hands sticky with chocolate cake, picking fights with his guests. My wife and I plastered smiles on our faces and did our best to carry on our half of the conversation. “Say that again?” I remember repeating, unable to focus on a single damn thing—there was just too much happening in a too-small apartment.
Afterward, we wanted to collapse, but Felix was hyped on sugar and wired from all the company. We needed to expend a lot of energy and attention to keep him from falling into the abyss of a tantrum. It took the family days to clean the house, to catch up on sleep, to shake our funky moods—to fully recover. It’s as if we all continued to thrum from the party like a bell echoing with reverberations post-clap.
And then the next year we did it all again! Only this time, it was worse. At 3, Felix remembered that his birthday meant a house full of people, excitement, and confections. He had more trouble than usual sleeping in the weeks leading to the event and required constant monitoring during the shindig itself. Just like in the previous year, the party itself was a blur, and the days after found us mired in a household-wide funk.
By the time Felix turned 4, we had learned our lesson. We invited a handful of kids to meet us at the park, all with grown-ups we felt comfortable hanging out with for an hour or two. The kids kicked balls and dug in the dirt, while the adults stretched out and soaked up the sun. We didn’t even pack a cake! We snacked and actually carried on conversations while our children played.
Last year, we went even lower-key. Felix had a pizza party with two friends and a birthday brunch with his grandparents. These were both lovely, relaxed celebrations, which we all look back on with fondness.
It’s not rocket science, right? Introverts do better in intimate settings and at smaller parties with a handful of friends as opposed to rooms crowded with acquaintances. And yet this flies against what we see on Pinterest or Facebook or read in lifestyle blogs or magazines. So we feel guilty.
We have to do not just what’s best for our kids—but for us too. It’s like using the oxygen mask on an airplane. You can’t help your child if you don’t help yourself first.
Navdeep Singh Dhillon, who blogs at The Storytelling Papa and Ishq In a Backpack and identifies as an introvert, learned this the hard way as well. “My daughter’s first birthday was the most fun,” he told me. “We took her for barbecue and let her splatter sauce and eat ribs—we had come armed with a change of clothes. Then she started school and made friends. This year, she turned 5 and wanted a capoeira-pirate themed birthday. We stupidly had no ground rules about who she could invite, so she invited over 20 kids! All of them came, with parents. Chaos ensued.”
Neal Call, who blogs at Raised By My Daughter, told me that while he’s an introvert, his daughter is not. She loves parties! “I always try to get my wife to take our daughter to parties, but when she can’t, I go. I lurk awkwardly on the sidelines and just hope people don’t peg me for a creep.” (This is my coping mechanism too.)
Call said that despite his daughter’s outgoing nature, he feels that any big production “turns a ‘celebration’ into an ordeal,” and so he insists on throwing her small birthday parties. As parents, we are not obligated to give our kids huge birthday parties, no matter what we might see other people doing. “However,” Call said, “I do feel the obligation to give her frequent opportunities to interact with others at school, at the park, and in extra activities of her choosing, whether dance class or soccer practice. I’m pretty sure there will always be a tension between our two opposing proclivities, but we still like each other.”
I think Call’s comment gets to the heart of it. We do owe our kids social experiences, but that doesn’t mean we have to conform to society’s expectations by throwing huge birthday parties for our children just like we don’t have to buy them a million presents at Christmas or Hanukkah. These deals are only as big as you make them, and as an introvert, you will likely want to make some of them quite small. Go right ahead and do so. A family is composed of individuals, and we all have a right to feel comfortable and happy together. Setting limits based on what feels good for you is actually an important behavior to model for your child. One day, I hope that my son will not succumb to peer pressure and that he’ll know himself and avoid situations that cause him distress. For me, that distress comes with big parties and, to a lesser extent, more than thirty minutes or so on the playground after school. So I insist that we avoid those things.
And kids adapt to their parents’ needs. My son is on the verge of turning 6, and this year he wants nothing more than a little brunch with his grandparents. He’s not pining because we’re not renting out Chuck E Cheese. After two years of small celebrations that emphasize close, minute, warm moments of connection with true friends, that’s what he wants too. Which is great, because it’s about all his introverted mom and dad can handle.