Let Kids Be Kids

June 28th, 2011

By Dr. Jim Taylor

Children's Birthday PartiesI had three experiences recently that were real eye openers for me when it comes to raising children. I have to admit that I don’t have too many epiphanies these days, considering that I’ve worked with children for years, I’m the author of three parenting books (working on my fourth), and I have two kids of my own (not that I don’t have a whole lot to learn as they get older). But these really got me thinking. The bottom line to these experiences was that I am getting the strong sense that many parents are really out of touch with what their kids need and want, what constitutes fun for children, and what makes kids happy.

The first two experiences revolved around the birthday parties of children with whom our girls are friends. Like most parents of young children (ages 3 to, say, 8), we are knee deep in kids’ birthday parties these days. And, I’ll tell you, we see all kinds. In our area north of San Francisco, jumpy houses are de rigueur. For the uninitiated among you, these are the big, colorful, usually themed (think cars, pirates, and fairies) inflatable structures in which children seem to get endless joy (and usually bumps, bruises, and tears) bouncing in. Clowns, magicians, and farm animals are also common.

And don’t get me started on the over-the-top birthday parties in which parents hire companies that put on full-blown themed productions (think Disney princesses), complete with costumed characters, jumpy houses, games, balloons, and cake. I went to one of these latter birthday parties not long ago and was both fascinated and appalled. It was almost eerie how the kids, for all the grandiose efforts of the parents, didn’t really seem to have a very good time. The children were mostly just sitting and watching the “show” rather than, well, having a party. I got the sense that the party was more for the parents to show off their wealth than to give the kids a fun time (which, knowing the parents, seemed likely).

Of course, all invitees are expected to bring presents for the birthday boy or girl. Though I realize that this practice is indelibly etched into the Holy Book of Birthdays, in this day and age, I just don’t get it. In our demographic (i.e., educated, reasonably affluent, supposedly socially conscious), don’t children get enough presents for their birthday? And I’d love to know the typical “use expectancy” of toys received from friends. I’m guessing very short. And do you know how many birthday parties our girls attend every year? Now multiply that times the cost of a present. Let me tell you that it adds up.

We spell out on our girls’ birthday invitations NOT to bring gifts, but some people still do which really get my knickers in an uproar. In my view, it’s just plain disrespectful of our wishes and makes those who follow the rules feel ungenerous. We also avoid the “give to our favorite charity” approach because it seems presumptuous to tell people how to spend their money.

And, of course, there are those obligatory parting gifts ostensibly as an expression of thanks for attending and buying the birthday child a present. These “goody bags” are almost always filled with truly worthless tchotchkes made of plastic that hold kids’ attention for about five minutes and end up, at best, in the recycling bin or, at worst, the local landfill. When we’re leaving a party, I try to shepherd our girls by them without their noticing (which, I must admit, my wife thinks is a bit scrooge-like).

But I digress.

The second birthday party we attended recently was the antithesis of the first “jump the shark” party in so many ways. It didn’t have a lot of stuff; no jumpy house, no clown, no magician, no ponies, no elaborate activities. Just a backyard filled with kids (okay, there was a crafts table). And you know what, the kids had a ball. They were just running around the house and backyard in little packs, playing make-believe games and entertaining themselves. The really great thing was that all of the parents just got out of the way. Result: kids being kids, kids having fun, party a great success. And no parting gifts either. A few days later, I asked my girls (admittedly not necessarily a representative sample) which party they liked best. The vote was unanimous and enthusiastic: the second party in a landslide.

The third (actually two very similar) experiences occurred the last two Saturday mornings. My wife was out on nearby Mt. Tam with her running group, so I was watching our girls. The funny thing was I barely saw them. Yes, of course, I was around, but they were just doing their own thing and only checked in periodically to see if I was okay. Now, I don’t know what exactly they were doing for those hours (we have few toys, most of which are collecting dust, and a lot of dress-up clothes), but they certainly didn’t need me to entertain them. If what they were doing was typical of how they play, they were creating elaborate characters, stories, plays, and games, without any need for their parents to be involved.

Look, I’m neither the grand poobah of all things related to children and birthday parties nor am I ever going to be anointed the title of World’s Best Dad (and I know that I probably come across as judgmental and perhaps holier than thou). And, this being a free country, parents can do whatever they want for their kids’ birthdays and buy them whatever they want. But, come on, young boys and girls just don’t need fancy birthday parties and a lot of toys and stuff.

Gosh, when I was young (I say that with complete recognition of the cliche), we entertained ourselves with a cardboard box and a bunch of sticks (we also walked to school ten miles in the snow uphill…in both directions). My point is that children at their core haven’t changed in the last few decades (or centuries for that matter). What has changed is the environment in which they are growing up and that environment may be causing them to change and, I believe, lose their core “childlikeness” (these days, children seem to be more childish and less childlike).

What’s the point of my post? I guess it’s to remind parents who have gotten caught up in the “parenting-industrial complex” to step back, take a deep breath, and think about what their children want and need, not what they the parents want and need. Just leave children to do what they do best, that is, be kids, play, and have fun, and just get out of the way.

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

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One Response to “Let Kids Be Kids”

  1. Tom Carter |

    All this fits right into the modern trend of over-protecting, over-supervising, and over-planning children’s lives. As you note regarding the lavish birthday parties, this is all probably more about the parents’ wants and needs than it is the children’s. And how’s that all working out? Looking at young adults recently, one has to wonder.

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