Planning the birthday party: Big business or parental paradise?

Children’s parties can be competitive, extravagant affairs – which some parents embrace

The birthday entertainment industry is growing faster than the marks on our children’s height chart. It wasn’t so long ago that a birthday bash involved homemade cake decorated with Smarties and a round of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey in the back garden. Or that’s what it looked like to us children. What it felt like for the parents was two or three days of shopping, food preparation and planning party games.

Like many other things to do with children, birthdays seem to have evolved to become much more sophisticated affairs. But does this mean a higher cost to the children’s freedom, and to parents’ pockets? The rise of the bought-in entertainer has been as much about parents handing over the workload as growing expectations of the children themselves it seems, according to Liza Crotty, founder of ClapHandies and owner of a birthday party business.

“I think parents want their child to enjoy their birthday party, and they want to build memories. Having someone else running the entertainment allows the parent to focus on their child rather than being too frazzled doing everything.”

I have three young children aged six to 11 and it seems like every year, not only do they get bigger but their parties – and the cost of them – rise too. But is that the price to pay for off-loading the work for parents who put a value on their time?


“The period before and after the party is as important as the party itself,” explains Crotty. “It’s much more fun for parents and children to have time together to look forward to guests arriving, to build the excitement, rather than it all being about the preparation.”

Menagerie of animals

But it comes at a cost. Recent research in the UK found that parents easily spend more than €200 on average on a party. In the last few years alone, I’ve had magicians, fairies, disco domes, bouncy castles, and one friend even hired a man with a menagerie of wild animals including a crocodile.

For me personally, any entertainer that will also provide the goody bag is a bonus. They are the scourge of parties. Gone are the days of getting a piece of squashed cake wrapped in a napkin. Now shopping for goody bag booty is more stressful than the main presents.

While my repertoire of party games doesn’t extend much beyond musical statues, having an entertainer means the kids get to try out fun and exciting new ideas. When you can bring someone in who can turn a balloon into a baboon, it’s time to step aside. Pressure comes from the children too; a viscous circle of going to great parties meaning you have to give a great party feeds the fun frenzy. US influence through TV channels such as Disney and Nickelodeon means expectations are high and the good old-fashioned “throw them into the garden” approach no longer cuts the mustard.

But when there is much talk of too much structure in our children’s lives, and not enough free play, does a planned, entertainment-driven party help or hinder a child?

“I think we always had structured parties,” explains Liza Crotty. “Parents ran party games such pass the parcel and, without some structure, kids are going to run riot in your house and get bored. Twenty children in your house without structured entertainment is going to get messy.”

Crotty set up her party business last year, when she saw a clear gap in the market. “Parties should have a good mix of structured games and free play. But beware with little children, as 10 minutes alone in a playroom and you’re going to have hours cleaning and tidying to do!”

Planned fun

Paul Shorte began his party business Artzone because he saw a need for parents to be able to offer something fun and creative for parties, and believes the structure of planned fun actually gives the children the freedom to be creative.

“Children’s lives are very structured, with perhaps not as much freedom to be creative. We offer them the chance to do something different. They’re allowed to make a mess, and do art to their own standard,” he says. “Of course they’re being guided, but they get to take something home and be proud of their own piece.”

Parents no longer feel able, or are willing, to just invite 15 children round to the house and leave it to chance. Unfortunately it has become a competitive business, but the goal should always still be to make the most of the birthday child’s experience.

For parents, the advantage of having the stress of entertainment off their hands is often worth the cost.

Crotty explains: “Children come is all flavours some are overwhelmed and need extra help, others haven’t quite figured out how to level out their enthusiasm out and sometimes need some help to come down.

“I see one of our jobs is to navigate the group’s personalities to ensure the birthday child has the most fun possible.” And at the end of the day, perhaps that’s the whole point.