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Tears of a clown: Economy shrinking children's parties

Sunday, February 14, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 8:19 a.m. CST, Monday, February 15, 2010

DAVIE, Fla. — Ooopsy the Clown threw in a bubble machine for the monkey-themed party marking Nicholas Castillo's first birthday. She usually charges extra, but what's a clown to do in a recession that has some parents throwing less extravagant celebrations for their kids?

Ooopsy, aka Amy Tinoco, estimates the entertainment company she co-owns took in about $80,000 before taxes and expenses last year. That's about $46,000 less than in 2008. She used to do an average of 12 parties per weekend. Now it's down to three.

"I didn't realize how good it was," said Tinoco, who wore a red wig, multicolored skirt and blue clown shoes for Nicholas' bash. "It's a huge difference. I have a lot of people telling me they are having a party, they are just not having entertainment and catering."

Party planners and parents around the country have seen a pullback, though they agreed some will always take children's birthdays over the top. David Tutera, a New York-based event planner, said his clients still want to have parties, but they're not making them quite so lavish.

"I think they are not getting the $5,000 birthday cake for their 5-year-old," he said. "They are still going to have the fun theme party. ... It's not going to be so opulent."

Chandra Turner, executive editor of Parents magazine, said many children's birthday parties were so huge they were more like mini-weddings.

"I think that parents, for a while there, were doing everything they could to make the birthday parties as amazing and extravagant as possible," she said.

The magazine recently did an informal study of the subject, asking 2,264 readers how much they expected to spend on their children's next birthday. Twenty-six percent said less than $75; 49 percent said $75 to $200; 19 percent said $200 or more; and 6 percent said they didn't know.

Extravagance in children's birthday parties, as in life, clearly means different things to different moms.

Lisa Castillo, Nicholas' mom, went well beyond any of the magazine's dollar figures, but she did cut back her initial plans. She estimates she probably spent under $1,000, switching to pizza over a full Italian buffet to help trim expenses. There were personalized, laminated placemats for younger guests, custom-made crayon holders in the goodie bags and a monogrammed bib for Nicholas.

"It's my kid's first birthday," she said. "I kept saying to my husband, 'This party's for me.'"

The birthday boy squirmed on his mother's lap as Tinoco led the excited young audience in a round of "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes," and wowed them with a bear puppet. Later, Nicholas entertained himself by licking frosting off his fingers from his high chair. The bubbles were a huge hit all around.

"That's what I love about kids, they are happy with the simplest things," Tinoco said as she twisted a balloon into a sword for a little boy.

Children's parties were so out-of-control that some parents in St. Paul, Minn., formed a citizen action group to urge restraint and created the Web site birthdayswithoutpressure.com.

"I think generally, it seems to me people are trying to tone it down a little bit," said Julie Printz, one of the founders of the Web site.

She remembers the stress of trying to plan the perfect party for her oldest daughter's sixth birthday six years ago. Printz, a mother of two daughters, was up at 2 a.m. cutting out foam frames.

"I kind of went crazy," she said. "We are a very child-centered culture. ... Is that really the right way to show your love? I don't know if we have lost the ability to connect with our kids so we buy them things."

These days, Printz allows them to celebrate with one or two friends. They get to pick something to do. She pushes for slumber parties.

Karen Sternheimer, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California, said people are having fewer children and they're having them later in life, which seems to have some parents reliving their own childhoods through their kids.

"I think we have this idea of what childhood means and it's usually very commercialized," she said. "I think part of that is for the parents themselves. A lot of parents today, their primary social network, if not through work, is through their kids."

 


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