- The Washington Times - Monday, January 22, 2007

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Having decided on a ballerina theme for her daughter’s 6th birthday party, Michelle West drove all over to find little dancers for the cake. Then she put 50 little beefeater guards around the edges.

And what happened? The children wouldn’t eat it.

It wasn’t long afterward that she joined a group of St. Paul parents determined to end the birthday party arms race.

Birthdays Without Pressure is taking aim at the one-upmanship that drives mothers and fathers to throw parties that will really, really impress the children, and the other parents.

“We feel there’s a kind of cultural runaway going on right now around the birthday parties of kids,” said William Doherty, a University of Minnesota professor of family social science who had a hand in organizing the group.

Among its suggestions for more modest, stress-free party planning: hold gift-free parties, with a note on the invitation that states presents will be donated to charity; eliminate theme parties and gift bags; instead of organizing elaborate activities, let kids play outside; and invite children only, not their parents.

The organization also has started collecting horror stories from other parents to argue its case. Among them:

• A birthday party for a 1-year-old featured a gift-opening that lasted two hours. The child slept through most of it.

• Seven-year-olds were picked up in stretch limousines to attend the birthday party of a classmate.

• A 6-year-old guest at a St. Paul birthday party didn’t like the contents of the gift bag and declared: “This is a rip-off.”

Mr. Doherty, who previously led a crusade against what he called overscheduled kids, got wind of frustration among parents after a colleague related how a mother at a parenting class had lashed out against party gift bags.

That mother was Linda Zwicky.

“I just found myself wondering, you know, does he need another pencil?” Mrs. Zwicky said.

But when Mrs. Zwicky began planning son Wyatt’s third birthday party, she found herself engaging in the same kind of one-upmanship. That party was a turning point for her. She helped found Birthdays Without Pressure.

What the members want, they say, is a general agreement that not every party has to be more memorable than the last.

“Why are we feeling the pressure to do all this?” said Julie Printz, another parent in the group. “Let’s come up with ways to do this that’s in your comfort zone and have a broader spectrum of what’s acceptable in terms of kids’ parties.”

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