How much? The crazy cost of children's parties

By Katie Hope
Business reporter, BBC News

  • Published
Kids celebrating birthday partyImage source, Thinkstock

Installing a temporary ice rink in your home and inviting replicas of the Disney on Ice team to perform, may seem a bit over-the-top for a child's fifth birthday party.

But this is exactly what one client asked luxury events firm Quintessentially Events & Weddings to organise.

For another child's winter birthday, the firm created "a bringing the outside in" themed party, which involved installing an indoor lawn complete with trees, flowers, swings and slides.

The price tag for events like this can stretch to a dizzying £100,000, says event manger Chloe Astin.

After all, cocktails and canapés for the adults, and party bags including tiny Tiffany necklaces for the kids, don't come cheap.

Party inflation

But I can't be alone among parents feeling that this pressure to throw ever-more-fancy parties for our kids and their increasingly hard-to-impress friends is getting out of control.

My son is just five but has already been to actress-led drama parties; a pizza making session in a restaurant kitchen; a T-shirt printing workshop; and even a theme park hotel sleepover.

Will there be no end to this party inflation?

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
One parent tried to get the Disney on Ice team to perform for their child's fifth birthday

Quintessentially says it has seen an undoubted increase in extravagant requests.

"What kids are watching and digesting is giving them higher expectations," says Ms Astin.

Alice in Wonderland

Often the children involved are too young to have any expectations at all.

Steven Duggan, founder of his eponymous events firm, which counts pop stars Sir Elton John and Leona Lewis as clients, says he has seen increased demand for parties aimed at children aged three and under.

He recently organised a £70,000 event with a joint Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland theme, including fairground rides and entertainers.

Image source, Steven Duggan Events
Image caption,
Guests were invited to "walk the plank" at a party with Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland themes
Image source, Steven Duggan Events
Image caption,
The joint-themed party to celebrate the birthday of one-year-old twins cost £70,000
Image source, Steven Duggan Events
Image caption,
The price included props such as these colourful giant mushrooms

All this was to celebrate the first birthday of twins - an occasion which he concedes was more a celebration of the children than for them.

Using his services to arrange a child's special day usually costs between £15,000 and £20,000. But he says he can organise something "a level up from what you would do yourself" from £5,000.

Ostentatious kids' parties such as these are relatively rare. Quintessentially organises a maximum of two a year, while Mr Duggan says he organises between five and eight.

Hollywood howlers

Yet even at the more normal end of the scale, many parents are spending more on their child's special day.

The Young Film Academy, whose main business is running film making courses for young people, organised 150 children's film parties last year, up from 120 in 2013.

While prices start at £540, almost half of the bookings were for its most expensive MoviePartie starting at £1,950, which stars the birthday child and their friends in a Hollywood-style epic

Image source, Young Film Academy
Image caption,
At Young Film Academy children can star in their own Hollywood-style film

"There's a real sense from parents that they want to do something different from the usual parties," says director James Walker.

The fragmented nature of the party market - which includes cake, hall hire and entertainment - makes costs difficult to monitor.

But insurer LV's latest annual survey of the cost of raising a child from birth until 21 put the total at £229,951, with its "other" category - which includes birthday and Christmas presents, as well as driving lessons - increasing by 60.2% between 2003 and 2015.

On average, parents spend £135 on their child's party, with one-in-six parents admitting to splashing out over £300, according to parenting website Netmums.

Given that there are nearly eight million families with dependent kids in the UK, the party market could be worth nearly £1.1bn.


Of course, having a few friends over for cake does not cost that much, but then that's rarely on the agenda these days.

While a mother billing a five-year-old £15.95 for failing to attend her child's birthday party made the headlines earlier this year, the fact the party was at a dry ski slope went largely unremarked.

Yet it's a good example of how children's parties have become less simple affairs.

Image source, Thinkstock
Image caption,
The days of jelly and ice-cream in the back garden appear to be over

The trend seems to be part of what author Oliver James termed "affluenza" - an epidemic of obsessive, envious, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses.

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, mother-of-four and founder of the Gentle Parenting website, says the media circus surrounding celebrities has helped to push the party bar higher.

But ultimately, the motivation to make a big deal out of relatively minor milestones all stems from the parents, she believes.

As she points out, a young child can often find all the fuss and attention overwhelming, resulting in tears of exasperation rather than tears of joy.

Her advice to parents is to "think about who you're doing it for and what will make your child happy."

Image source, Thinkstock
Image caption,
Young children often don't react to a big event in the way their parents expect

Present-free birthdays?

Bill Doherty, professor of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota, founded US group, Birthdays Without Pressure, for precisely these reasons.

He says the group stemmed from local parents' dissatisfaction with the escalation of children's birthday parties, and a sense that parents were creating the problem themselves.

He credits the group with having "some influence" in the growth of "present free" birthdays in the US - the invitation makes it clear there are to be no gifts, or that a donation to charity should be made instead.

But he cautions that the idea only works if all the parents agree collectively not to have party bags or presents.

Image source, Thinkstock
Image caption,
Not all children will appreciate a present-free birthday

Not making this crystal clear can have unfortunate consequences.

One member of his group hosted a party where one invitee who didn't receive a goody bag declared the party "a rip off", prompting the birthday girl to burst into tears.

He says it's also important to be honest with a child about the reasons for not having presents,.

Other group members suffered the humiliation of having neighbours fundraise to pay for a party they thought the parents couldn't afford.

"It's about giving parents permission to simplify their plans to fit with their family values," says Prof Doherty. "There isn't just one way to do this.

"If you don't do a big party you're not a bad parent."

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