February 6, 2023

Ep. 83a – Maggie Dent – Are Birthday Parties Needed For A Child’s Social Success?

A Mom’s wondering if she can bypass hosting a birthday party for her soon to be 7 year old, without alienating her daughter’s friendships at school. Her daughter attends at least one birthday party a month and she loves going, but the parties are expensive and expansive.
This Mom doesn’t want to try to keep up and feels a small family party would be preferable. Maggie responds with warmth, wisdom and some entertaining birthday stories of her own. Join us!

Episode Guest

Maggie Dent

Maggie Dent is a passionate voice for children of all ages and genders, specializing in resilience training during the early years.

She’s a bestselling author of multiple books on parenting, including two on raising boys, and her newest book called girlhood. Maggie’s a syndicated host of ABC’s ‘Parental As Anything’ podcast (which was recently awarded best parenting podcast in Australia), and she’s internationally known as the Queen of Common Sense.

Alongside her degrees and years of study and practice, her work’s been rooted in the realities of raising her own four boys. Now, she has a wonderful flock of ‘grandies’ including 4 granddaughters who helped to inspire her newest book.

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Ep. 83a – Maggie Dent – Are Birthday Parties Needed For A Child’s Social Success?

RC – Maggie, you are our first specialist to guinea pig, this Q&A format with us. So thank you.

MD – Rachel. I think it’s a lovely idea to respond. there’s some real questions because, you know, in podcasts you can listen to it, but you often think about it and then afterwards you want to know something else. So I think this is a really excellent idea and I’m really happy to be a part of it.

RC – Well, we had such incredible feedback from your episode, and I love the questions that came in. And I just want to say for listeners too, I was actually one of my schools the other day and one of the moms there said to me, “I’m so scared to send in a question because the questions you’ve had so far were so good, and I don’t think I can write them like that.”

So I just want to say to listeners, just send in whatever you’re wondering about and if we need to flesh it out, I will email you back. In fact, one of these questions with Maggie, I did email the person back to ask if they could give a few examples. I loved the question but I knew examples would help Maggie in responding. So we can do this together family360 team!

MD – And Rach, you know that comment from that mom, that’s linked to the compared-dispare we do from childhood for girls. I’ve compared myself and I don’t think I’m up for the grade so I’m not going to deliver. And I just want to show how subtle the conditioning is around us as girls and women again, you know. So yeah, let’s dive in.

MD – Okay. That was a great teachable moment. You just used that one right there. So compare-despair. Don’t worry about that. There’s no bad questions. All right. Well, here is this
question for this episode. And I’m just going to read you what our parent wrote in. And then, Maggie, I’d love to hear what you have to say.

She says, “I have a question for Maggie about birthday parties. My soon-to-be seven-year-old attends at least one friend’s birthday party a month. She’s been to a petting zoo, movies, pony rides, and parties where princesses or magicians put on shows. She loves going.

I feel a degree of what I know is self-inflicted pressure to keep up and kind of want to pass on throwing birthday parties. It’s so much stress and sadness for kids and parents when a child is not invited. And recently, when I was volunteering in my daughter’s class, I heard the line, “I’m not going to invite you to my birthday party,” several times.

(That is such a line.)

I strongly suspect my daughter also uses this to get what she wants with her friends. My daughter turns seven next month. I’d like to skip the party and instead do something special to celebrate her at home.

(Here comes the question, Maggie.)

Before I take this leap, is there a perspective about parties I’m missing? Could this affect her socially at school? Is it acceptable to let my daughter attend parties and not host back? I’d love to know your thoughts.


Maggie, first of all, before you jump in, can I just ask you, were you a birthday party parent? Did you host fabulous events for your boys? I feel like you would have.

MD – No, no, no, no, no. Because I had a house full of boys already, so we already had an instant party. Cause I came from a large family. So, you know, we had a built in party. And also I lived on a farm a long way from town.

I really believe that birthday parties, it’s a new form of Olympic sport and parenting. Yeah. So I had a cycle with my boys, which was, you could have up to ten. The next year you would have family. And that often included grandparents and cousins. And the following year you could pick a restaurant, and they usually just pick the same pizza restaurant and you could go out with one or two friends.They were happy with that because every year I was still having a big, what I call a big party.

RC – Okay. So each boy was in that cycle. And what age did you start this? You said the first one, they could invite ten kids to that party.

MD – Yeah. And what’s shifted is we’re having giant parties for children at two, which means then you have to have all the grownups there and you have to feed them.

RC – Well it gets very expensive too.

MD – Right? And it’s too much for two year olds, they just want to eat whatever frosting is on the cake. So they’re not even really capable of being into organized games and things.

So I have three points on this. We expect our children to all be able to enjoy a large social event with a large number of children to celebrate a birthday. And grown-ups actually aren’t very good at places where they have people they don’t know very well or people they’re not very fond of. So my first challenge is that 5 to 10 children that the child likes is a much better option to create a party that is going to be a happy one. I think our expectations have gone beyond what children can often deal with. But high emotions around birthdays, especially for girls, is enormous. And I have seen and witnessed just so many of these times where a beautifully planned party, even with a pretend unicorn, with the thing stuck on its head, going round in the backyard, there were more tantrums at that party because everyone wanted to touch the unicorn. The unicorn got scared. It pooed on someone’s foot. There was just so much else going on. It was just too many big feelings in a space. And I have seen the most spectacular meltdowns at parties where there are too many children, too many organized activities, and like too much, too much noise, too many, and it just overloads children’s nervous systems. And we end up with a whole bunch of unhappy children who are going to express that through meltdowns.

So I think our expectations are exceeding our children’s capacity and I love this mum’s question. I love it to bits, because there’s a few layers to it. And one of the first ones is, she doesn’t want to be part of the sheep. She doesn’t want to turn everything into an Olympic performance and be the perfect party giver. Because ‘insta’ keeps showing these parties, you do feel like you’re the lousy parent. And I want to send a great love to explain to her how they can be a/ very expensive and b/ encouraged children to invite children they don’t really like. Like whole classrooms of children. I would hate it if some of the children I went to school with came to my party, right? No, I’m sorry. But the idea of a party is to gather those who you like, to celebrate your day.

We know from in the book, what is your number of people that you can be friends with? And children, like we said, the dance card can be full. So if we create the 5 to 10 children they like the best, you might have the happiest birthday party without necessarily having all those other things. Or you could have them, but they’d still be happier than having 20. So that’s my first one.

The second one, you’re always going to have, “You’re not going to be my best friend. You’re not coming to my party.” So we just let it go. It’s just a way of expressing our angst and our unhappiness about certain social situations. And girls have a PhD in that particular art form. So I would let that one go too, because, it’s not a deliberate bullying tactic. It’s just, “I’m telling you, you’re not coming to my party because at the moment, I’m not happy with you.”

RC – Ok, so you’re equating this with the ‘eye rolling analogy you gave in your keynote episode. This is part of being childish rather than a slight against your child.

MD – Don’t even buy into it. That’s okay. You know, we all move on. Sometimes people say things like that when they’re a little bit angry at us or unhappy with us. But tomorrow may be a different day. In other words, don’t make a big drama because then it can become one.

RC – Okay, So you’re saying if someone says that to your child, don’t make it a big drama. But what if you hear your child saying that to somebody else?

MD – Yeah, same thing. Please don’t say that. That’s unkind. I would really prefer if you didn’t say things like that. You’re not my friend, and I don’t want to play with you. All those sorts of things.

I would prefer you not to be able to say them if you can help it.

RC – But don’t make a big drama of it.

MD – They’re children. You know, look what happens online with grown ups, Rachel

RC – Ok. Fair enough.

MD – And then the third one for this beautiful mum is I want you to sit within your family values and be the leader of your family, making decisions with your family. So you may sit with your daughter and say what sort of a birthday would you like? It doesn’t have to be like anybody else’s. Who are the special people you’d like to have? What sort of a theme? What sort of a cake? And, you know, sometimes the simpler parties are less emotionally charged.


RC – Now this mom is asking, “Can she skip the party altogether?

MD – Absolutely.

RC – And so you’re saying if that’s your family’s value, or if that’s your leadership value, it’s okay to just do a home party?

MD – Yeah, it is absolutely okay. And I think what we want to do is celebrate it with those we love the most. So it’s our family and our non-biological family, you know, the tribe, the group of people who’ve been with you since you had the child or who were very special. You have those people there. I can tell you now it makes such a difference.

We just had a seven year old granddaughter’s birthday and it was two of the families together with just the four little cousins. And there were times in the day that she ran to have time in her own bedroom. And what we worked out later, she doesn’t like too much attention on herself. And I was like that. And so is her mom. So making too much of a day may flood a child who would prefer you to do it more discreetly. But you may have the child who says, “Bring on the dancing orchestras and it’s not big enough.” Right?

So every child is different. And meeting that unique child’s kind of celebration, I think, is exactly what this mom is trying to work out.

RC – Now she’s wondering, “Could this affect her socially at school?”

So I’m thinking she’s probably, and this is me extrapolating it, but wondering, “If we don’t invite kids to my daughter’s birthday party because she’s not having one.”

I guess a/ she might be wondering, “Will she stop getting invites to other people’s birthday parties?” Because she’s saying at the beginning that she goes to one at least one a month and loves going. So she might be worried about that. And also, I guess she might be worried that if she’s not hosting parties, she will not have the same kind of friends. What do you think about that?

MD – She’s seven and the dynamics are going to be changing like week by week in this cycle. Just don’t mention to anyone it’s your birthday coming. Like because what about the children whose birthdays are on holidays? They’re not going to send an invitation to everyone because everyone’s not around. It’s the ones during school term that are obviously more noticeable. But she can throw her mom under the bus. And I say this with great love. “Mummy, mummy just isn’t able to do that this year.”

So, “Mummy’s made a decision we’re doing this. Yeah, I know. Just, you know,”

And really the girls will move on. It’s not the girl saying, “I don’t want you at my house,” it’s my parents.

And often that just lets the dust settle. If it’s the little girl saying, “I don’t want any of you at my party,” that’s a different way of expressing it. And I think having conversations with your daughter that says, “We just going to tell everyone it’s just a family birthday this year.” Kids, get that.

And in amongst the chaos, I’m sure most families will be relieved that they don’t have a third birthday party some weekends. Seriously.

RC – I totally agree. I know with my kids sometimes I know their friends are turning a next age. They have a party coming up. And I feel like that. I feel like whoo? There was no invite.

One of my daughter-in-laws, she had four birthdays for one of her children. And she just said, “I can’t do that. It’s going to be too much.”

So they came down to us and basically blamed me and said, “Oh, no, we’re going away for that weekend, thanks to the invitation. How lovely.”

Because she said, “I just know that would have ended up badly by the fourth one on the sugar overload alone.”

RC – Exactly.

MD – And we were juggling everything for the rest of the family to fit these four parties. And I thought, “When we focus on what’s best for our child, we make slightly different decisions in that space.”

RC – Um hmm. I think your answer is pretty clear on the last part of our question, but I’ll just let you articulate it. She says, “Is it acceptable to let my daughter attend parties and not host back?”

MD – Absolutely. Yes.

RC – Yeah, I know with my three oldest kids, I did throw parties for them. And my three youngest, I gave them the option for either having a party or spending the money that I would have spent on a party, which is sizable, on a special time just with them. And all of them, with a little coersion from me, have always taken that latter option. And they haven’t had birthday parties and they’ve been very well accepted at school.

MD – And that’s a brilliant idea.

Just recently I’m talking to another one of my daughter-in-laws because they’ve got another birthday coming up in a couple of weeks and she’s really keen on gymnastics and doing things like that. A gymnastics party in Sydney at the moment, minimum, hour and a half with no food is $750. So, can you see it’s become a consumer driven thing when in actual fact it’s supposed to be about the human heart.

RC – Well, you started off by saying it’s like the Olympics. And I think often when we’re young parents, you can feel like you want your child to have gold. Of course you do. What parent doesn’t
want their child to have gold. You don’t want to go, “Hey, we’re going to go for bronze today.”

But I think you can get tricked into thinking that the route to them being comfortable at school and happy is by performances like this. And it’s really, really not.

MD – I’m going to tell you, one of the funniest birthday experiences for my third son, who’s quite a character. And he had his eight best friends. And they’d already eating a whole table of food within the first 20 minutes. And they were shooting outside to play with some balls. And I’d said to him, “Do you want me to do any of the games?”

He said, “Oh, no, they suck.”

Anyway, about 15 minutes I went outside and I had eight naked boys and a hose and a sprinkler. I couldn’t get them back in until the cake time. And then they had lollies and went home. And he said to me that night, “That is the best birthday party I’ve ever been to.”

RC – There you go. That probably wasn’t one of the games that you planned. Run naked with the hose.

MD – Trying to get the clothes back on to eight boys who had no idea what was theres. Oh my god.

RC – What will the neighbours say?

MD – They were in hysterics. They could see these naked boys just absolutely squealing with delight for a solid hour and a half. And then they’re starving so they ate everything, including the cake, not just the icing. And next thing I know, they were picked up. And I’d spent whole time inside thinking, “Should I get them in? No I won’t.”

So I sat and had a cup of tea and watch this. It was the best party ever.

RC – Oh, Maggie, that’s fantastic. Thank you so much. And for the parent who sent this great question in, I hope you feel freedom to do what’s best for your family. You don’t have to enter the olympic party sport unless you want too. And if you do want to enter

MD – Go for it.

RC – Yes. Throw that party! Go team!!

Our next release is our second question for Maggie based on her episode #83, Raising Mighty Girls And Women, and we’re talking about people pleasing. The parent who sent in this question asks, “What could a parent be doing that is unintensionally promoting people-pleasing?

So join us for Maggie’s wise answer. And thanks for listening to family 360.

Episode 66