What happened to pass the parcel - 22/07/06 Lorna Edwards

THE AGE Newspaper article of Monday July 22nd 2006.

What happened to pass the parcel? Boring. We've got a zoo, a magician and a Ferris wheel instead.

Children's parties are soaring to extravagant new standards, reports Lorna Edwards.

THE parcel has been surpassed, the donkey's tail has been pinned and the chocolate crackles replaced by gourmet offerings on the modern children's party circuit.

The backyard birthday bash is becoming a thing of the past as the trend towards outsourcing children's parties feeds a growing industry of professionals ready to stage a glitzy extravaganza rivalling the Logies. A recent poll by parenting magazine Melbourne's Child found that 47 per cent of parents intend to bring in the professionals for their child's next birthday.

An army of princesses, fairies, wizards, pirates, superheroes, DJs, face-painters and clowns are doing the rounds of suburbia each weekend for about $200 an appearance. More lavish affairs costing up to $60,000 are arranged by children's event managers.

Education consultant Kathy Walker sympathises with parents' desires to do the best for their offspring. But she finds the booming children's party industry exploitative and immoral. "Young children don't even know what a party is and they would rather play than be entertained," she says. "Society is getting super-sophisticated and super-competitive and parents are in an enormous hurry to have their children exposed to and have everything by the time they get to school." A staggering array of new venues cater to children's fantasies. Wannabe pop stars can hold a party for 10 at the Arts Centre, starting from $200, and cut a CD with backing vocals as a memento. Girls' celebrations have turned to glamour, with modelling parties offered by a city studio featuring hair and face makeovers, culminating in a catwalk parade.

Cooking, art classes and science themes are popular. Ponies, fire engines and mobile petting zoos are touring the city's backyards, along with scorpions, snakes and crocodiles.

"A lot of parents say, 'My child is not a girly girl and if she hears of another fairy party, she won't even turn up'," says Roaming Reptiles' Tracey Sandstrom, a primary school teacher who hit the party circuit with her scaly menagerie four years ago.

The plethora of play centres and pool venues are favourites with parents who do not want mess or stress in their homes.

Jonathan Levin operates the The Learning by Doing Woodwork Room, where children hammer out boats, spaceships and flowers to celebrate their milestones. "They drill, they saw, they hammer, they love it, and what we've found is the younger the children, the bigger the party," he says.

Millie Melisse Children's Celebrations arranges upmarket bashes for the under-10s. They cost from $1000 up to $60,000 for a birthday spectacular with Ferris wheels ana acrobats.

Founder Melissa Nixon says the average spend is $1000 to $5000, though "you do get a lot between $10,000 and $15,000". Themes range from pirates and construction for boys to the traditional for girls. "Fairy is obviously never going to die." Ms Nixon's 15 staff arrange invitations, decorating and styling, the cake, catering, waiting staff, entertainers, party bags, photography and cleaning. "Not everyone wants over the top, but we can do over the top," she says.

Children's party photographer Tricia Nakos charges $480 to take pictures at kids' parties. "I've photographed threeyear-olds playing in the backyard for parties, as well as parties that have cost in excess of $50,000 with ... things beyond belief," she says.

The trend towards such extravaganzas horrifies Ms Walker, author of What's The Hurry, a book about the importance of giving children a childhood. "To me, $50,000 parties are nauseating and they are about an adult perception of a designer party that is completely inappropriate for that age," she says. "Parents are feeling driven to do this stuff that they wish they didn't have to do." Some parents who have succumbed to the pressure to stage an outsourced birthday bash vow never to do it again.

Lindy Anderson, of Camberwell, says she overdid her daughter Rebecca's fourth birthday. She spent $650 on a puppet show venue, family lunch and restaurant dinner. Next year, a movie with three friends will suffice, she says. "By the time we got to the family celebration and she was looking at me saying, 'Not another present, Mum', I decided I had gone too far, and I won't be doing that again," she says. I think it comes down to guilt. I got so wrapped up in wanting her to have the best party in the world, to a stage where she didn't appreciate what she was getting because it was too much."

Michelle Atkinson, another Camberwell parent, is still reeling from her daughter Amy's fifth birthday last weekend. The star attraction was a wizard who produced rabbits and doves in a room filled with helium balloons and a pony pinata. "I think we built it up a lot more in our minds than what it was for her," she says. "When we asked her what was her favourite part of the party, she said the footy franks."

Ivanhoe dad David Jaffe feels he is in the minority. He arranged the parties of his daughter Rebecca, 9, and son Patrick, 8, without outside entertainment. "I think some people are outsourcing parenthood these days," he says.
He has advised other parents about setting up orienteering parties in their local park and has hosted events for his children around the themes of Star Wars, soccer and "Harry Potter goes to the disco". He also thinks he has the best party planners: "My kids love planning their parties and my daughter starts planning hers 11 months out," he says.