We’ve all done it: thrown an overcompensating birthday party for our kids. Maybe it was the party we wanted as a kid, maybe we were trying to impress other parents and, sure, part of it was our desire to make our kids happier than a sugar rush. In my novel Playdate, the stay-at-home-dad (SAHD) Lance often speaks from my hard-won experience raising my own kids. In some ways, he’s the Zen parent I wanted to be, with an added dose of my husband’s common sense stirred in.
One of the key plot points is that Lance’s wife, Darlene, hooks the opening of her new diner on the special event of their daughter’s eleventh birthday, She throws her daughter Belle a big overcompensating party with a guest list larded with strangers, when all her daughter wanted in her heart-of-hearts was some chill time with her parents. And it comes as a surprise to Darlene that Belle is sulky about the event. Lance sets his wife straight. He tells her:
“Today’s party oozes with Disneyland syndrome. It’s like this: if you take Belle to Disneyland, and scream louder than she does on the Matterhorn and buy her every pizza-popcorn-pretzel she requests, every souvenir that will fall forgotten under the car seat by the time we reach home, she’ll remember that as her childhood.”
I think I made up the idea of Disneyland syndrome, but it’s a common mistake. I look back and laugh at my son’s fourth or fifth birthday. We were living in a Brooklyn limestone within a mile of Kensington Stables. It was darkest January. I hired a stable worker to come over on a Saturday afternoon with a pony for the kids to ride up and down East Fourth Street.
I remember the magic sound of the unexpected pony clip-clopping down Caton Avenue, its caretaker a bearded, sullen leprechaun. It was freezing that day, bleak. The kids were having a great time indoors in the warmth, eating candy and cake, and running wild. The parents were lubricated (my secret weapon at Brooklyn kids’ parties where everybody walked home or took the subway).
The kids didn’t want to be stuffed back into their jackets and gloves to go outside but I insisted. My son did his obligatory ride up and down the street in the red jacket that’s gathering dust in my basement, heartbreaking in its smallness. The truth is the kids were having more fun chasing our two cats under the beds than any thing I organized, even if it was a pony.
It was Disneyland syndrome without the E-tickets and the wandering princesses. I think I remember that birthday better than my son does, as a cautionary tale. On special occasions, love means giving kids what they want, not what you wanted when you were their age. And it took my fictional father Lance to articulate it – without the pony.