Personal Story

In Defense of the Simple ’90s-Era Kids’ Birthday Party

written by KATHY SISSON
budget friendly birthday"
budget friendly birthday
Source: Steph Alleva-Cornell
Source: Steph Alleva-Cornell

Think back to your favorite birthday party memory from childhood. Was there an oversized bounce house, Pinterest-worthy decor, and overflowing goody bags? Probably not. From my early ‘90s childhood, my memories were from simple kids’ birthday parties. Like on my 9th birthday, my friends and I ate pizza off New Kids on the Block cups and plates, played Scattergories, and had a slumber party in my living room. A close runner-up? My 5th birthday was celebrated in the back party room at McDonald’s (why don’t they bring these back!?). Both remain core memories.

My kids, however, recently attended a unicorn-themed birthday party where they received a professional unicorn-themed makeover, went home with a bag full of party favors, and rode an actual unicorn (horse in a costume). They loved it, of course, and I applaud the birthday girl’s parents for giving their kid (and my kids) a dream come true. But, seriously, when did kids’ birthday parties get so over-the-top? Can we still make our kid’s birthday parties memorable without all the “extra” year after year?

Did Social Media Kill Simple Kids’ Birthday Parties?

Throwing elaborate kids’ birthday parties seems to have become popular in the same way gifting for every occasion has become (I’m looking at you, Christmas Eve boxes). Yes, it’s about bringing kids joy, but so much of the spectacle seems like it’s made for the cute social media content. I wonder whether we are setting our kids up for excessive consumerism and unrealistic expectations when it comes to holidays and birthdays. Are we making the party benchmarks too high—both for the kids and the other parents who feel like they have to keep up? 

I do want to acknowledge that if gift-giving or party-planning is your love language, then I certainly don’t want to say there’s anything wrong with doing what brings you joy. And I, too, have scrolled social media for kid’s birthday party inspiration, and I appreciate those sharing their creativity. But with two kids now in elementary school whose birthdays also happen to be in close proximity, I’ve become a big believer in less is more when it comes to birthdays.

I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. One TikToker mom, @Ciao AmberC, shared why she went simple with her 3-year-old son’s birthday, keeping it to cake, pizza, and close family and friends. She acknowledged she might not go this route every year, but it made sense this year for what was going on in their lives at that moment.

Leaning Into Less is More for Birthdays

So, if you’re too longing for the days when a simple celebration seemed to bring as much joy as a live unicorn, here are some simple birthday party ideas I’ve tried that still felt like a special celebration for my kids.

simple kids birthday parties
Source: @alainakaz

Create Little Birthday Surprises to Make Them Feel Special

We have a birthday tradition where we hang streamers from the birthday kid’s door so that when they wake up, they get to walk through like a movie star. It’s the simplest and cheapest tradition, but they love it year after year. 

I know some families fill the birthday kids’ bed with balloons or get donuts for breakfast. Whatever tradition you choose, centering the day on them in simple ways can still feel special.

Find a Party Event Space That Does it All

My biggest birthday party parenting hack is finding an event space that also takes some to-dos off my list. Our local gymnastics facility does the decor, table set up, goody bags(!), and has professional coaches to keep the kids entertained—and safely corralled. All we had to do was send out invites and bring snacks. While it might have been nominally more expensive than hosting at our house, the time/stress/clean-up it saved was worth every penny. We’ve done this two years in a row for my gymnastics-loving daughter—is three times too much? We’ll see.

Choose an Experience Over a Party

Once you get to know your little ones better, you can tailor their birthday in a meaningful way beyond choosing a Paw Patrol or Bluey birthday party theme. For example, I have an 11-year-old introvert with a small group of close friends. For her, a birthday experience shared with a few buddies is way better than a party. We’ve taken a few friends to the zoo one year and taken one friend to ride horses. This year, she just wanted a family dinner at a restaurant—done!

My other child is an extrovert who wants to invite the whole grade, so a small celebration experience would never be her style. Hence, the aforementioned gymnastics parties. But for some kids, experiences are a perfect way to celebrate.

Go Bigger on Milestone Birthdays (1, 5, 10, etc.)—Not Every Year

Having a blowout bash every year is another thing my parents did not do in the ‘80s and ‘90s. My brothers and I were offered a party every other year, at varying scales—from living room slumber party to bowling alley bash to backyard water balloon fight. If you can start now, consider going big for the milestone birthdays and keeping the yearly parties a little bit more simple.  

Final Thoughts on Simple Kids’ Birthday Parties

Birthdays are big moments for our kids, no doubt. But with so much of the magic-making falling on moms’ shoulders, I hope we all remember birthday parties don’t have to be over-the-top to send your kids over the moon. Simple celebrations can still be pretty special and maybe just a little bit nostalgic.