Battle of the children's birthdays: how to hold your head high as a Hong Kong party pauper
Children's birthdays can easily turn into a game of one-upmanship among parents
It was a lavish birthday party. The only daughter of corporate lawyers was turning five, and the venue - a luxury beachside home in Stanley - had been transformed into a wonderland with fairy lights, lanterns and princess-shaped ice carvings dotted around the lush garden. On a corner table sat a giant cake custom made for the event.
"The birthday girl is a fan of Elsa," says Jo McClaren, referring to the heroine in the popular Disney animation, Frozen. McClaren (not her real name) attended the party with her six-year-old daughter; and she found the whole affair "amazing - everything was princess themed. There was even pink lemonade."
But when her thoughts turned to putting on parties for her own child, McClaren says she felt "as deflated as the end-of-party balloons".
"The kids' party circuit can be stressful, which is kind of ironic when they are supposed to be about fun," she says. "There's a lot of pressure to make parties perfect and original.
"My husband and I are both teachers, and we don't make a lot of money like the parents of some children our daughter socialises with. We attend a lot of kids' parties - feels like three a month - and there is growing pressure to host equally lavish parties, not to mention getting an equally lavish gift. You want to give your kids the best, but, at the same time, you want them to learn about the value of money, to understand that bigger is not better and not to become too materialistic. It's difficult to strike a balance."
Lavish children's parties are nothing new for wealthy celebrities. Jay-Z and Beyonce made headlines in 2013 when they spent a cool US$200,000 on the first birthday party of their daughter, Blue Ivy. David and Victoria Beckham spent US$187,000 on a custom-built playhouse for their son Brooklyn's sixth birthday.
But over-the-top children's birthday parties are easy to find in Hong Kong, too.
Another mother, who prefers to remain anonymous, recalls attending celebrations where the hosts paid for 50 youngsters to visit Disneyland, hired a yacht for a 10-year-old's bash, and an event planner was brought in for a 13th birthday party.
"And these are not considered out of the ordinary. It's crazy!" she says.
So when it came to planning the first birthday of her own child, "I was in a panic about where to have the party and who to invite; miss someone off the invitation list and it could end a friendship. I know people who have fallen out over this."
There are underlying reasons for staging elaborate parties.
For some parents, it's not so much a reflection of their wealth, but a way to assuage working parents' sense of guilt, says child psychologist Lora Lee.
"This plays a big role, especially if both parents have corporate jobs that sap face time with their children," she says. "Parents see lavish parties as a way to compensate for a lack of parenting time."
Expatriate families often feel guiltier because they are raising the children away from extended family. Others want to give their children the sort of party they wish they had had as a child. "There's also the 'keeping up with the Joneses' aspect," says Lee.
Family psychologist Laurene Man advises parents instead to connect with their children and find out what makes them happy.
"Parents host these big parties because they think it makes their children happy but often this is not the case ... Often lavishness has no direct bearing on the children's happiness.
"If parents are in touch with their children, they can easily tell what makes them happy: what food, what activity, what game. But if a parent spends little time with their children, who might spend more time in the care of helpers or grandparents, they might not know what the children like or dislike. In these situations it's easy for parents to believe that the more expensive the gifts they give and the more money they spend on a party, the happier their child will be."
That mistake, Man says, is a sign of being out of touch.
"Children can pick up the least expensive objects and activities and enjoy them for hours," she says. "Parents want to give their children the best, but some have developed the habit of spending money to take care of tangible and intangible needs. They hire event organisers, clowns, magicians, to do what was once done by the parents. And then ... it may become a competition of wealth among the parents.
"Most kids don't want big parties. They can't relate to so many children at one time, not to mention so many adults. Kids enjoy small simple parties - playing with a few children on one or two simple games. Big parties can be overwhelming and distracting and are not synchronised with children's natural play patterns."
So in that sense, big parties are often more about satisfying the parents, not the children.
As founder of Little Stars, a face-painting and nail art service, Sharon Western is a regular on the children's party circuit, and she, too, has seen events rise in extravagance.
Five-star hotels such as the Four Seasons and Peninsula as well as country clubs are becoming increasingly popular as party venues, Western says.
"One client even hired the beauty salon/spa of a five-star hotel so her 10-year-old daughter and a group of her girlfriends could have massages, facials and mani and pedis … I've also seen Tiffany party favour bags and a 3D Barbie princess cake worth HK$5,000."
Hester Aba, a co-founder of the Sassy Mama Hong Kong website, has a different view. Although parents are splashing out in certain areas - entertainers, for example - they are saving in others, she says.
"A lot of parties I've been to lately are forgoing lavish buffets for individually packed lunch/snack boxes, which [reduce] a huge amount of waste and are healthier. A lot of parents are also ditching party bags and spending more on professionally made cakes and gorgeous decor."
Parenting blogger Ann Krembs says her family set party boundaries early on. "My husband and I both work, so we value weekend family time," she says. "Since my children were toddlers, we'd say 'no' if a party was on a weekend.
"Over time - my kids are now 11 and 12 - birthday parties haven't been that big a draw to them. For really good friends, they have always gone, but on average, a child has one or two really good friends. Those parties they couldn't wait for! And the gift giving was thoughtful as it was their really good friend.
"The same has been for my own kids' birthday parties; generally they invite two to four good friends."
Parents should set their own rules on parties - attend all, none, or some. Krembs adds: "You decide the parameters and your children will follow."
So when the time comes to plan your child's next birthday party, Man suggests putting yourself in the child's shoes.
"Imagine what your child will remember about the party and think about your own birthday years ago: what do you remember?" she says. "You may get some insight into the simple pleasures of a children's party."