London bridge

March 25, 2015 § 8 Comments

“London bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down…” It’s a refrain that has echoed across schoolyards since the 17th century, if Wikipedia is to be believed. I love looking up the history of childhood chants and games – so much so that I once began (but didn’t complete) a Master’s degree in sociolinguistics about the clapping games little girls play.

But that’s a topic for another day. As I read through the Wikipedia entry, and saw that London Bridge is accompanied by an arch game – like Oranges and Lemons – it got me thinking about children’s birthday parties and how they’ve changed since I was young enough to attend one as a guest.

When I was a kid, birthday parties were a simple affair. You came home from school clutching an invitation, your name carefully filled in on a pre-printed sheet you could buy by the pad at the stationery shop. On the appointed day, you sat on the back seat of the car carefully balancing the present on your lap, and your mum dropped you off at the gate.

Inside, a predictable set of activities awaited you, all organised by the birthday girl or boy’s mother: Pass the Parcel, Oranges and Lemons, I Wrote a Letter to My Love, and perhaps a game of Red Rover or Pin the Tail on the Donkey. There was one prize per game, if the game had a winner. You ate some crisps and some fudge and sometimes (shudder) there were lamingtons too. You drank some fizzy pop – a treat, at the time, for special occasions only – and the boys had a burping competition. And then candles were blown out, there was singing, and you were given a square of birthday cake, carefully wrapped in a paper serviette, to take home and eat after dinner.

And then we come to the parties of today. We, like the shopaholic sheep we are, have gone astray. Because there are clowns, magicians, funfairs, craft parties, dance parties, cooking parties – an endless list of options, making a whole new industry. I know because I’ve paid a fair amount of money over to those people on behalf of my own children.

Party tables groan with what passes for food – most of it is junk, and there’s always far too much of it. Children plant themselves next to bowls of sweets and shovel the stuff in, making Roald Dahl’s August Gloop seem positively restrained.

And it horrifies me.

Children today go to parties with an expectation. They want to be entertained for the entire length of the party – and the entertainment had better be up to scratch. They want co-ordinating decor. They will discuss among themselves which parties are cool, and which aren’t, and contrast and compare their various experiences. They will demand a ‘party pack’ when they go home, and look extremely confused and disappointed if one is not forthcoming.

In addition, don’t think you’ll get away with doing parties for 10 to 12 years – oh no. Thirteen requires a special party, as does Sweet 16. And then when they’re 18, and simultaneously able to drink and drive legally, there’s an all-fall-down-drink-yourself-silly party, naturally, because we South Africans are sensible like that… And don’t forget that a lavish affair for their 21st is almost certainly required.

I feel like a Mother Grundy just typing that. I’ve heard all the arguments, and they can be persuasive: it’s a different era! Kids just want to have fun! Isn’t it lovely that some parents are able to afford to do that for their kids?

But no. In the long-term I think we’re short-changing our children, who should be able to arrive at a friend’s house with a bunch of others and get stuck in to just being children. They should run around and play their own games, and be rowdy and get dirty and maybe stop for a drink or a snack before they carry on with being children.

Children who expect to be entertained and plied with food, drink and gifts at someone else’s birthday, and who demand a prize just for participating in a game, are not the kind of children I want to be around: they’re good, old-fashioned spoilt brats. And we, as parents, are responsible for making them so.

* Dave Luis and I are posting a series of tandem blogs. We write about the same topic at the same time, and publish our posts without seeing what the other has written. You can see what Dave wrote about this topic at


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