- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 21, 2001

When Potomac resident Diane Sapir began to plan her son Ethan's fourth birthday party this year, she knew she was heading toward a blockbuster celebration.

Her son's preschool class numbers 18 children. Like most of the mothers at the school, Ms. Sapir invited the entire class. Add family friends, several of last year's classmates and neighborhood playmates, and "this is how you get to 33 kids without blinking," she says.

For crowd control, the Sapirs elected to stage the party at the Bethesda Country Club, where they are members. A clown entertained the young guests, who were "cracking up laughing and screaming out answers," Ms. Sapir says.

"It was great. Ethan was just totally taken in by it. I knew he would like this, and I knew he loved this silly kind of magic. The kids had a wonderful time, and that's really the most important thing and point of the party."

Ms. Sapir estimates that she spent about $500 on the party not bad, she says, "considering what the entertainment cost and that I had 33 kids."

Parents today are willing to do nearly whatever it takes to make their birthday girl or boy happy, say parenting specialists and those who work in the party industry. They also say the best way to ensure an appropriate celebration is by considering carefully the temperament and desires of the child and matching those with the family's budget and personality.

"What's really nice today is choice," says Penny Warner, a college child-development instructor and author of "Birthday Parties for Kids: Creative Party Ideas Your Kids and Their Friends Will Love" and other books about children's parties. "Your opportunities for pleasing your child are wide open. If you can hold the big one, go ahead. It's just not for everyone. The at-home one you would think would pale in comparison really doesn't."

Home worked out just fine for Patrice and Tecoski Carthern of Upper Marlboro for the first-birthday celebration they held for their son, Stephen. Mrs. Carthern says she wanted to keep it simple, mostly because "there's only so much you can do for a 1-year-old."

On the big day, Mr. and Mrs. Carthern served hot dogs and chips as nine children and "countless" adults, including both sets of grandparents, reveled around the couple's town house. The adults joined the children in donning Winnie the Pooh party hats and blowing birthday horns.

Mrs. Carthern guesses her tally for the food, birthday cake and decorations was $50 to $100.

"Our finances are at the point where we would love to be able to get a clown or a pony, but right now, we don't have the money or the space to hold all that stuff," says Mrs. Carthern, who is expecting the couple's second child in March. "For us, we're giving our child love more than things. We have to be more frugal about what we do and how we do it. The best thing we can do is have friends and family around."

Actually, home-based or backyard parties used to be the rule, not the exception, Ms. Warner says. During the 1960s and 1970s, Americans began to branch out, sometimes hiring entertainment such as magicians and ponies, she says.

"Back then, this was not a lot of money," she says. "It would be $20 or so to hire your local magician."

Then, Ms. Warner says, "things went a little crazy. Later in the '70s, the '80s, and even into the '90s, you wanted to outdo the last birthday party. People got tired of going to the skating rink or pizza parlor, which were two top ones in the '80s. Every week, my kids would be going to one of these, and it got to be very generic. It turned into, 'What can I do that is memorable for my child and not have it be like the last one he attended?'"

The natural progression of this compulsion, Ms. Warner says, is: "Let's go to the pony farm and ride all the animals. Let's go to the laser place. We're looking for big events to take our children. One, it's my precious child's birthday; it's a special event, and I want to make it memorable, so I'm going to spend some of my money. Also, I have fewer children now, so I only have to give one or two parties like this a year. Plus, so much is available, and the promise is, 'We'll take the worry out of it.' The problem is it costs $300 to $1,000."

Parents don't seem to mind emptying their wallets to ensure that their child's party is a success, if Carol Bullock's revenues are any indication. Ms. Bullock owns Bingo and Buddies, a Kensington-based company that hires out entertainment such as clowns, magicians and live animals. Eighty percent of her business is derived from private birthday parties. She books five to 10 children's parties every weekend at an average charge of $175.

Her clientele, Ms. Bullock says, is "anybody with children. I've been to every neighborhood there is. Someone could be in a neighborhood that doesn't appear to be affluent at all, but they're having a party for their 2-year-old."

The perfect party

The best way to put together a birthday party is to remember who it is for.

"What the kids really want is a day about me, not about ponies or the bouncy thing," Ms. Warner says. Many parents are backing away from extravagant parties and moving them back into the back yard but with a twist.

"You might be able to combine a little of both by having your backyard party and having one addition, such as special decorations or one bouncing activity," she says. "So you have the glamour of the over-the-top party, but it's still personal because you've kept it at home."

However, many parents balk at the notion of herds of children tearing up the turf in their back yard or in the case of winter birthdays, grinding chocolate cake into the wall-to-wall carpeting in their home.

This is a problem easily remedied because parents frequently, overgenerously, pad the guest list in an attempt to include everyone in their children's lives, Ms. Warner says.

"Generally, you should only invite kids who like your child," she says. "Keep it small and manageable." She says her family has adopted the practice of having two parties per birthday: "One is a nice, quiet, simple dinner with relatives, cousins and neighbors whose kids aren't quite the same age, and the other is a separate party with my kid's close friends pick six; I'll go to eight."

Anyway, she says, children who are kindergarten, first- and second-grade ages generally haven't been to a lot of parties, so the simple events work very well.

"It's when you have the older kids, it's 'been there, done that,' so you have to spice it up a bit," she says.

When Kara Garcia turned 13 last month, she requested a little more of a "grown-up" party, says her mother, Randi Garcia. For their daughter's celebration, the Garcia family, which also includes father Rene and 11-year-old brother Joey, invited Kara's three best friends and several relatives to join them for dinner at a Sterling, Va., crab restaurant.

Kara got more than she bargained for, her mother says.

"We had something set up with the server to totally humiliate her at the request of her friends," Mrs. Garcia says. The server insisted that the new teen-ager dance the "birthday hula," complete with a grass skirt, a beret with dreadlocks sprouting from it and audience participation. Afterward, the party moved to an aunt's home, where people played pool and danced to CDs.

The price of the evening? Probably $250, Mrs. Garcia says.

"But they only turn 13 once," she says. "Kara loved it and had a blast."

Parties of the future

Birthday parties are a slice of life, a piece of Americana, something Mary Meehan knows well. Ms. Meehan, a principal at the Minneapolis trend-research firm Iconoculture, which serves clients such as Volvo and General Mills, says the tenor of America has been changing steadily.

"The simplicity idea is really gaining momentum," she says. "In general, we've seen the backlash called 'bratlash' where parents are saying, 'What happened? I have brats.' So there are lots of parents looking for help and support in doing a serious audit of 'What's important to us here?'"

Ms. Meehan says this self-examination has spilled over to the birthday-party phenomenon.

"Big birthday parties are on the upswing, but we're also seeing this other movement where people are saying this birthday party is this raised bar I am trying to meet," she says. "Certainly people who can afford it will continue to do more extravagant parties, but there are people who are going to say a treasure hunt in the back yard is going to be the party."

No doubt about it, parents will continue to spend money on their children, Ms. Meehan says, but the dot-com crash and the terrorist attacks on the United States will compel many parents to reassess their priorities in terms of how they spend their money and what they spend it on.

"People are going to be looking to live their lives in a way that reflects their values more accurately, and the birthday parties will begin to shift in a way that reflects their values," Ms. Meehan says. "Having a pony may not seem all that important when so many things are at risk now. There are many parents who are concerned about the overindulgence of the last decade and want to get control of it again. The party might still include a pony, but it will be because they've thought through it carefully."

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