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Birthday party blowouts

Do you feel under pressure to host an expensive birthday party for your child? Have you held a bash that’s left your credit card groaning just because it’s ‘the done thing’? Joanna England asks if the mum-upmanship of birthday parties has finally gone one chicken nugget too far…

By Joanne England
1 Aug 2013 | 12:00 am
  • Birthday

    Source:Getty Images

Bring up the subject of birthday parties with any group of parents, and you’re guaranteed to get a colourful response. From tales of pink stretch Hummers and performing seals, to dance troupes, designer gift lists and golden party bags, the celebratory extravagance and lavish lengths that some parents are prepared to splurge on their little darlings’ big days can be quite extraordinary. More to the point, if your child’s party is on the horizon, such tales can raise your blood pressure as much as they do your eyebrows.

Let’s face it, kids’ parties are big business. While surveys in the UK reveal that the average amount spent on a child’s birthday bash is around £500 (Dh2,775), a quick sweep of your parent-friends will reveal that a large number of families in the UAE often spend far more than that.

Yes, those with big budgets regularly flex their financial muscles when the question of Junior’s birthday is raised – usually leaving those with an average budget feeling under pressure to do better.

It’s not just about the venue, the cake, the entertainers or the food. Extravagant party bags and favours, which can easily exceed the value of the gift brought for the birthday boy or girl, can leave parents feeling hopelessly outdone. “Live goldfish as party favours,” says one mother, when asked what the most memorable and extravagant gift was that her child has received at a birthday party in Dubai.

“iPads,” says another – who recalls feeling so uncomfortable about the whole thing that she refused to take the gift. “I just said ‘thank you very much – but this is too expensive,’ and left the bag behind. Unfortunately, some other parents didn’t have such scruples, and took two bags each instead!”

Meanwhile, the subject of the actual events themselves can provoke an even more contentious reaction. Kate Birch, a mum-of-three, says the most extravagant party she remembers consisted of Wild Wadi Water Park, hired out in its entirety for just 20 lucky children. “Each child received bags, slippers, dressing gowns and towels, all embroidered in gold thread with their names. I could go on... the whole thing turned me off kids’ parties for life!” she laments.

Generosity or showing off?

But is it really just about keeping up with the Joneses? Or, should those of us with average purse strings just accept the fact that the other half can afford to enjoy a great party? Ann Murray*, a Dubai-based mum, says, “Probably the most extravagant party we’ve been to was held over three ballrooms in The One and Only Royal Mirage. There was a buffet for 100 children, a dance troupe, a seven-tier cake, a foie gras station, a sashimi station, a Moët station and so on.”

She believes it’s the parents, rather than the kids who are the motivating factor behind the mega parties, but that far from wishing to outdo other parents, these moneyed mums and dads simply have bigger budgets and want to throw a generous party for their child.

“We’ve been to some hugely extravagant parties,” says Ann. “But my children are still only young [the eldest is seven] and they don’t seem to notice or care how much money is spent. As long as they have a great time with their friends and get cake and a party bag (small or large, it doesn’t matter) they consider it a top party.

“The parents who throw the extravagant parties are all lovely people too – and have always been perfectly happy sitting in our garden having beverages from the cool box and eating homemade food when our children have had parties.”

Budgets vs fun

Mum-of-three and party organiser Emma Riedel is founder of Me&Riley Contemporary Events. She agrees with Ann, and says parents don’t have to spend a fortune to ensure their event goes well – rather, “keeping it real and familiar” is the key to throwing a perfect party.

“It’s hard to put an average price on a party here in the UAE, especially as we work on smaller events as well as those with hundreds of guests with unlimited budgets,” she says. “But you can easily hold a great-looking, fun party in a public park or on the beach from as little as Dh2,500. You will need to make some effort and, of course, involve the birthday child in the planning, but that’s what the fun is all about.”

Emma is adamant that parents should not get sucked into the ‘my party’s bigger than yours’ mentality, and that lower key parties can actually be more relaxing. “There is no need to put added pressure on yourself by overspending just because everyone else has big parties,” she says. “Maybe their budget is bigger, but that doesn’t mean the highest-budget party will be any more fun than the rest!

“Use your resources wisely. For example, fire up a barbecue for lunch rather than having expensive catering. Hold your party in the local park. Bring a cool box of drinks and picnic blankets for the mums and dads rather than hiring additional furniture. You will be surprised how much everyone will love the comfortable atmosphere.”

When does it stop?

While class parties for 20 kids and more are the form for younger children, most parents agree that once they get to the age of seven or eight (year two/three), youngsters are far more discerning in terms of friendships, and would rather celebrate with a few ‘best mates’ than their entire class.

Sanaa Dee, mum to Maria, five, and Jasmine, seven, took a different approach altogether. She says, “Even small parties can cost a fortune – so last year we offered Jasmine a different option. She could either have a party and a much smaller birthday gift, or she could forgo the party altogether and have the iPad she’d been pestering us about. The cost would have been about the same. She chose the iPad.”

So will little Jasmine’s birthday parties be replaced by gifts from now on? “It makes much more sense to limit ‘special’ birthdays to certain years – like 16, 18 or 21,” says Sanaa. 
“If you blow all the best surprises early on in your child’s 
life, how are you going to have anything great left for those really important milestones?”

BUDGET BIRTHDAY BASH ALTERNATIVES

Got a celebration on the horizon and want to keep it cheap but cheerful? Here are some ways you can party in style but still keep costs down.

Book a mid-week event

Most party venues around town offer lower rates for birthday parties from Sunday to Thursday. While some parents may frown at celebrations on a school night, there’s nothing wrong with booking something from 3-5pm, especially on a Thursday afternoon.

Team up with another birthday child

Believe it or not, parents really do get fed up with carting their kids to parties every weekend, so doubling up means one less party they’ll have to attend, too. Automatically, your bill will be halved, which means you can either save the cash, or go for a more exciting venue which you wouldn’t be able to afford on your own.

Party in the park

Come October, the weather will be perfect for a birthday party in your local park. Not only does it mean the kids get lots of healthy fresh air and exercise, but you’ll also have space to invite the whole year group if you wish. Plus, dads are always keen to help with the barbecue – so let them get on with it.

Hold it at home

Some children really do prefer the security of having their party in their ownhome environment. If space is an issue, you will have to limit the number of children – which some schools and teachers do take exception to. A good way to go is to only invite either the girls, or the boys. If a party has a particularly boyish or girly theme, this also makes much more sense.

DIY favours

While it might be a bit more labour intensive, homemade favours are often a huge hit with parents and children alike – and they are much more eco-friendly than sending kids home with a lot of easily-broken plastic bits and bobs. Popcorn in little bags, homemade play dough, novelty cookies, flower pot and seed packs, craft kits and the like.

Treat the three best mates

If even a cheaper-style party is beyond your budget, invite the three best friends out for a special ‘celebration’ day. Activities could include giving each child Dhs200 on a charge card at an arcade, followed by a birthday tea at your child’s favourite restaurant. Alternatively, a picnic at the beach finished off with a cinema session

*names changed to protect identity

By Joanne England

By Joanne England