My parents recently found an old photograph from the late 1980s. It was my birthday party; I turned nine, maybe 10 that year. I spotted myself immediately — a side ponytail with a scrunchie, NKOTB sweatshirt, beaming with joy as my mom placed a cake in front of me at the dining room table. All around me sat friends, cousins, and neighbors. Parents’ arms and hands, maybe a face or two, can be seen in the background, but the focus was on us kids — at this very old school but very joyous child’s birthday party. I’m sure my mother did hours of work to prepare, but the simplicity made it great. It was just a bunch of giggling girls running around and playing to celebrate my turning another year older. I couldn’t have asked for more. That’s the beauty of the old-school birthday party — simple, pure joy.
It seems today’s birthday parties have jumped the shark, to be honest. I won’t judge another parent for making a big deal out of their kid’s birthday. There’s no better reason to party, and we love making our kids feel special and loved. But the pressure with each passing year to go bigger, reserve the coolest facility, rent the biggest bounce house, order the most elaborate cake, buy the most expensive toy or tech gadget your kid has to have — it’s too much for some parents. And so maybe it’s time for a shift back to an old-school birthday.
9 Ways to Bring Back the Old-School Birthday Party
Kids love retro stuff. Let’s host throwback birthday parties and dial back the budget and over-the-top galas — because all kids want is a bunch of friends to eat sugar and play with anyway. So, if you’re like me and think, yeah, this sounds good. Let’s rock a simple and super fun ’80s birthday party this year. Here are a few things you can do as a parent to bring down the birthday party craziness that’s taken over society today.
1. The Cake
Of course, we know you’ll have cake, but it doesn’t have to be a seven-layer gourmet Star Wars-themed cake that costs as much as your car payment. Cake is cake, and little kids will eat it no matter what, so make a simple boxed cake at home or buy an affordable sheet cake from the grocery store. Stick in a few candles, and boom. Done.
Another cute idea I’ve tried is to make or buy cupcakes instead of cake. You can put them all together on a plate with candles and still sing Happy Birthday, and then you don’t have to cut anything. Also, you can put out some toppings and let all the kids decorate themselves as one of the activities.
2. The Food
You do not need to hire a caterer for your child’s 10th birthday party or spend all day cooking. Throw a bunch of hotdogs on the grill, toss each kid a juice box, and that’s it. Or cook some frozen pizzas in the oven. Seriously, keep it simple, folks.
3. The Venue
The concept of having my birthday party anywhere other than my house growing up was unimaginable. Today’s kids often expect a go-cart party or a party at a trampoline park. And I get it — why let kids tear up your house when you can spend a little more and let them tear up another building? But the old-school birthday party was held at home. And we played outside. Don’t want a slew of extra kids at your house? How about a local park? If your child has a winter birthday, many indoor options are affordable — like a bowling alley or taking one or two friends to a movie matinee.
4. The Presents
I don’t know about you, but all the birthday parties my kids are invited to eat into our budget quite a bit. That’s why parents love the fiver birthday party idea — everyone gives the birthday kid $5 so they can pool their cash together and buy something they want. This saves parents money (yay!) and prevents the guest of honor from receiving a pile of toys they don’t need or may never play with. The fiver party idea is a great way to bring back a piece of the old-school birthday party because back then, you could find a sweet gift for five bucks!
Another trend I love is something my middle school kids have been doing lately — making gifts! My 12-year-old daughter loves to crochet, so she’s made purses, scarves, and many other treasures for her friends. She also paints and makes jewelry, so the handmade birthday gift options are endless and thoughtful.
5. The Cards
How on earth did cards suddenly become so expensive? I refuse to spend $6 on a card that some eight-year-old will never look at. My kids make homemade cards for their friends, and honestly, when they, in turn, receive homemade cards, it’s special. They’ve received so many kind and heartfelt cards over the years that we’ve kept because their little buddy put some time and effort into telling my child how important their friendship is.
6. The Decorations
Again, the dollar store. Or, if you don’t have a dollar store near you, grab a bag of balloons to blow up, hang some streamers, and you’re done. Also, a throw-away paper or plastic tablecloth is key. It brings another bit of festivity and makes cleanup a breeze. If you want to go all out with themed plates, napkins, and cups, too, have at it, but remember, those kids are only going to sit and eat on those plates for a hot minute before they all end up in the trash.
7. The Goodie Bags
I read once that a child went to a birthday party and received a goodie bag with a $10 iTunes gift card. Um, WHAT? Let’s dial that back and remember that we aren’t giving our guests gifts, and goodie bags are meant to be tiny “thank you for coming” treats. Here are a few pieces of candy and maybe a bouncy ball or a small bottle of bubbles.
Another idea is to have kids break open a piñata and hand each a small bag with their name. They fill their bag with as much candy as they can scramble and find. Boom. Goodie bags are done.
8. The Guests
The guest list is a hot topic for a good reason: We don’t want kids to feel left out or excluded. Unfortunately, that happens when almost 28 or 29 kids are invited from the class, so parents should ensure that doesn’t happen. One way we avoid this is to set a limit and tell our kids they can invite a small number of friends — 5 to 10 usually. Because honestly, having your 7-year-old invite 30 kids is a lot on them, as they likely only really play with a few of them anyway. And they won’t get a chance to spend time with each guest, which means you just spent a boatload of money on feeding and entertaining a whole group of kids your birthday child didn’t even speak to at their party.
Save that idea for their wedding when you feel obligated to invite Great Aunt Miriam, who you haven’t seen or talked to in 10 years. Your first-grader’s birthday party? Not necessary.
9. The Activities
I’m pretty sure the activities my mom planned for my childhood birthday parties included classics like “Go Outside and Play” and “Hide and Seek,” but if you do want to structure a few simple games to keep kids entertained, try some old-school ones like a water balloon fight or musical chairs or even a dance party. I remember one year when I was older — probably around 12 or so — and I had a few friends sleep over, and we watched movies until we fell asleep in our sleeping bags.
Other old-school options like scavenger hunts, Pin the Tail on the Donkey, and piñatas never go out of style. Or dump out a huge craft bin full of googly eyes, pompoms, ribbons, and glue (glitter if you dare!) and let everyone craft their hearts away. Have a bunch of energetic kids ready to run? You can’t go wrong with Sharks and Minnows or a good old Nerf war.
You don’t have to spend your month’s mortgage payment to ensure your child feels loved on their birthday. Far too often, these huge parties are overwhelming for kids and parents, and due to the money spent and excessive structuring of activities, everyone ends up overtired or in tears. Instead, try bringing the party down a few pegs. Offer a cake, snacks, and a few fun games, then send everyone home after a couple of hours. You just threw an old-school birthday party that was much simpler and kinder to your wallet, and, more than likely, your kid had an absolute blast.
The old-school birthday party: magical then, magical now.