Birthday party needs no hidden agendas

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LAVISH SPENDING on children's birthday and coming-out parties is still rampant.

In a poll for Parenting magazine, nearly a quarter of parents said they spent more than $200 on their child's last birthday celebration. This month's issue tries to tame the beast, offering tips on how much to spend on gifts for the host ($5 to $15), how many kids to invite (your child's age plus one), whether goodie bags are still expected (they are) and how to keep up with competitive spending on entertainment (don't even try).

All that common sense loses some luster when the heat is on and your daughter wants a party at the American Girl Place. And what about the even bigger sum you just dropped on that catered affair for the wife's 40th?

Fancy parties thrown because you love a child or spouse is one thing, but Sarah Smith, an editor at Parenting, sees a darker side to the decadence.

"Kids' birthday parties have become advertisements for the family," she said. They're a way for parents to present an upscale image of deep pockets but solid priorities, she said, sending the message that "Yes, we're loaded, and yes, we do the most for our kids."

Forget for a minute the entitlement mentality that kind of behavior gives kids. What I want to know is, do families really need a marketing budget?

One Chicago attorney and father of two young boys I spoke with said the phenomenon is oddly common.

"It's a never-ending stream" of one over-the-top birthday bash after another, he said, asking that his name not be used lest he offend his peers. He marvels, too, at families who mingle their images with philanthropic causes in a strange co-branding arrangement. On the cover of a brochure for his sons' school charity auction this year, he said, was a beaming family portrait of one of the biggest donors.

"That was absolutely an advertisement for the family, which makes you wonder what the purpose is," he said. "Are they looking for social contacts for themselves or the kids?"

It isn't hard to figure out where the hyper-networking comes from. We've all had it drilled into our heads that job stability is an oxymoron and that constant career networking is a must.

The Chicago attorney described some motivational sessions at his firm, where marketing specialists preached the always-on mentality. "It's 24/7," he said. "You're marketing at church, at the grocery store, everywhere."

Just look at the online world, with so-called social networking communities like, which now boasts about 4 million members.

Contractors routinely offer a kickback to clients who refer their friends to them. I now give a flat denial to those proposals, telling them I'll be their best advocate if the job goes well but I won't take money for the referral. Beauty salons make the same offers, to the point that I'm dubious when mere acquaintances rave about a shop.

"It's the six degrees of separation theory," said Anna Marie Buchmann, a senior consultant with RHR International, a management psychology firm that works with corporate executives on organizational and people skills.

We're blending work lives and personal lives so seamlessly that in many cases we don't even realize we're overstepping boundaries and creating one big schmooze fest.

She recalled an encounter in a previous job as a college professor when a graduate came back to the school to teach. The alumna, also a travel agent, quickly began hitting up students for sales leads on travel packages, Buchmann said.

"It wasn't even done in a subtle way and was very off-putting," she said, suggesting the woman might not have even realized she was doing something wrong. "Networking is a great way of building relationships in your circles of influence, but you have to draw the line at unethical behavior."

So drawn. Now let me tell you all about my daughter's bash at American Girl Place.

E-mail Janet Kidd Stewart at

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