I Want it Now!! Parental Wimpiness in the Face of Meltdowns

Posted February 25, 2008 by

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Has your child ever made you feel like one of the indulgent parents from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory? You know the scene—the kid is screaming “I want it now!” and the parent hurries to get whatever their child wants—to avoid a tantrum, to avoid embarrassment, or in my case, to avoid having their child go ballistic at an ice skating rink.

It all happened at my son’s 5th birthday party a few weeks ago. We invited about 20 kids and their parents to Family Ice, decorated the party room (in a dragon theme, his favorite) had a piñata, and of course, served the prerequisite cake & ice cream. My son’s haul was huge: present after present, and he couldn’t open them fast enough. I have to admit I was starting to feel a little panicked at this point, trying to keep everything and everyone straight (I’d taken Ibuprofen as a preventative measure, my typical antidote to a kid’s birthday party.) I felt like a handler for one of the Rolling Stones (just trade some of the vocabulary) as I whispered into my son’s ear, “Say thank you. Don’t grab the presents out of the kids’ hands. Wait so that we can write down who they’re from. Open the card first.” But still, so far so good. The kids skated, everyone enjoyed themselves.

Then it came time to hand out the goody bags, and my son went into full meltdown mode. Even though I’d explained what the bags were for—to say thank you to the kids who had come and brought him presents, and that it was important to make sure there were enough for everyone—my newly-minted five year old insisted that he should get one, too.

It was the classic “I want it now!” moment. By this time the sugar and sheer giddiness of his party had kicked in full force, and there was no stopping him from grabbing one of those goody bags—he shook me off like the Tasmanian Devil. It was then that I tried all the classic parenting techniques: I began by reasoning with him, then tried giving him consequences, and when that didn’t seem to have an effect, I went for the secret weapon, the time-tested fallback: I called my husband over to deal with the situation. At this point my son was already diving headfirst into my tote bag and sorting through the goody bags to see which one had the best prizes inside. And I have to admit, in the face of his sheer determination and sugar-crazed eyes, I caved.

You’d think I’d know better, but the truth is, there are times when I take shortcuts or give in when I shouldn’t, all the while chastising myself for my inconsistency as a parent. I was sure that everyone was convinced we were raising the most spoiled kid on the planet. I couldn’t get rid of the nagging feeling that caving in to greed might set my family up for something bigger and harder to deal with somewhere down the road. I also felt bad—after all, it was his party, he’s five, and he was whacked out on rainbow frosting and all the attention—the more he got of each, the more he wanted.

To tell the truth, I didn’t blame him at all. I think it was my parental wimpiness that was the real culprit. I knew there was a better way of handling the situation, I just for the life of me couldn’t think of what that was.

At the end of the party, my friend Paul made me feel a little better when he said, “Hey, it’s the classic birthday party meltdown. In my family, it’s a running joke that I cried at every one of my parties until I was about 12.”

I’ve got a whole year to recover. In the mean time, I’m going to try to come up with a better game plan for the next time my son screams “I want it now!”

(And if any of you have advice about how to avoid parental wimpiness in the face of kid greed, please leave comments below!)


Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.

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  1. Momof7 (Edit) Report

    Birthday celebrations are a challenge at times, aren’t they? Because we have 7, it seems to have worked out that each child has had just a few parties with friends. Parties have varied from a small group to match their age, to a somewhat large same sex group of peers because they really were all close, nice friends and it fit the son’s crowd, to one friend doing an activity or spending the night. A houseful taught us early on that every party and every situation couldn’t be equal given the variety of child personality/needs, seasons in our life, etc. It evens out in the end. I caved once to a trend and did a boy girl party for 13 yr olds…boys all brought bikes (yuk) and I spent the entire time mad as I had to corral boys and girls as they tried to slip out the back or down the street to kiss. It was ridiculous but very in vogue at our public school. Our son was new and wanted the same kind of party as his friends… Another trend here is kids spend the night and parents drive the kids out for pranks like TP, ding dong ditching, etc. All new turf for us and something we don’t feel comfortable with/won’t do. For gifts, money is big in our area by around 9yrs. We give $$ to match the age of the birthday child/teen. Also a trend in our area is to bring a gift/toy the guest liked as a child and all gifts are donated. Our public school is urban, lots of homeless and our kids are very tuned into that situation. They know it’s their duty to give and the toy then goes to one of the many shelters in town. Lots of good options…it varies with the kid…and, all of us melt down over something like a gift bag or larger issue, some more often than not. I like the general advice of TT. Pick the battles carefully with the goal and child in mind. Who would have thought a birthday party could be so much emotional work.
    Hugs to all the heroic moms out there!

  2. Elisabeth Wilkins Report

    lovinmamma: Thanks for these great suggestions. I’m with you on the goody bag thing, and I love the idea of making mini-pizzas. Since that party, I’ve gone very low-key for our son’s birthday, and it’s worked out really well. I think sometimes kids get overwhelmed at their parties and don’t really have a good time — simple gatherings are much more meaningful and more fun at this age! Thanks again for weighing in. 🙂

  3. lovinmamma (Edit) Report

    I say, “Down with goodie bags!” I mean really, is it so horrible for only the birthday kid to get presents. I don’t think so. I do try to send kids home with a helium balloon from the party. Those goodies end up in the trash anyway, it is just over-consumptive. My favorite birthday party activity was everybody makes their own mini-pizza. It is very easy, just prepare a little dough (water oil salt.) For that party, all the kids got one of those mini-rolling pins, which they and their parents used to roll the dough. It was really fun. Everyone got fed. Also, go for whipped cream instead of frosting. Tastes great, not much sugar, stiffens with a little corn-starch. As for meltdowns, I believe they are entitled to freak out now and then, how else will they learn do deal with their emotions. I just say, that is not how to get what you want. Though unfortunately, it works for many children and adults.

  4. Just a Mom (Edit) Report

    We had a great time this year allowing each of our kids to
    bring one friend with us to an amusement park on their birthday to celebrate instead of a kid party.

  5. Joanna (Edit) Report

    I find when my child starts to have a meltdown I remove them completely from the situation by sending them to their room or someplace where their tantrum isn’t in full view. Not because I am embarassed but because I know that children feed off the attention whether bad or good from other grown-ups. Then we talk

  6. Wendy (Edit) Report

    Liz brings up an excellent example of how birthdays are evolving. How do we keep up with these trends and etiquette?

    I have personally given my own children gifts in the form of charitable contributions in their names, like a goat or school tuition for a young girl for a year, and they loved it. I also gave them tangible gifts as well. My heart always felt better with the charitable gifts, but I understood that they appreciate a tangible gift just as much.

    When other children throw parties and ask for ‘no gifts’ or ‘please donate to…’ I think it’s wonderful, though usually the parent’s preference rather than the child’s. It can also be confusing as Liz says for how to handle your own child’s birthday gift giving when confronted with parties where presents are taboo.

    When it comes time for your child to invite these charitable friends to their own birthday party, and want gifts rather than donations to a cause, I offer these ideas:

    Be specific. Rather than keeping up with the Jones’s, do what is right for your own child and don’t worry what those other parents are thinking. If your child wants gifts for their birthday, then it’s gifts they shall have. I know it may seem rude or arrogant but usually none of us know what the birthday child wants. How great when we get a hint or clue! It makes gift buying so much easier. Register at your child’s favorite stores (make sure items have affordable price ranges) and include that information in the invitation. Parents will understand what is expected and thank you for the help.

    Better yet, find a store that will donate in your child’s name, or simply donate at all, based on purchases from a registry. For every gifts parents buy, the store donates a portion to their (or your) chosen charity. Perhaps a local toy store or clothing shop that your child likes would be willing to set up a program like that. As it would benefit them to have all the parents buy from their store, it could work out very well for everyone. Some larger stores may already offer something similar, so call around. This brings in the gifts while still being socially responsible.

    Do both. You could work with your child to find a charity or cause that he/she feels good about and agree that for every gift they receive, they will donate X dollar amount from their own savings or piggy bank to that charity. This commitment could be included in the invitations as well, so parents know that gifts are expected and that your child also wants to share those gifts with others through donating his own money. The dollar amount per gift should be proportionate to how old your child is and how many guests or gifts you anticipate. A rule of thumb would be between $.50-$1 for every year the birthday child will be. A five year old might donate between $2.50-$5 per gift. With 6 guests (using the one guest for every year plus one guideline), that amounts to a donation from your child of $15-$30. To most 5 year olds, that’s big money. What matters is that the dollar amount should be enough to impact your child, they should miss that money so that they understand the sacrifice of giving. I think this teaches children much more about giving than when others donate in their name. The true spirit of giving is when we give up something of our own, when we make a sacrifice and can feel good about it. It’s hard to connect that feeling when someone else gives on their behalf, when they are removed from that process and that sacrifice. Pulling out their own money or breaking open that piggy bank that they’ve worked a lifetime to fill will help them appreciate each and every single gift they received so much more.

  7. Liz (Edit) Report

    When my kids were about 5 or so, they started clicking in to the “goody bag” thing and said they wanted their own one too. At first, I was “shocked and appalled” as this never happened when I was growing up at my own parties. But they made a really big stink about it (before the party) and I just decided this wasn’t one of those things I wanted to fight about. So I always have a goody bag for them. My daughter is 14 and she doesn’t always have a party every year, but when she does and has a little goody bag for friends (I still insist the goody bags are not “over the top”), we make one for her too. Now it’s become a little joke between us “Mom, I know it’s stupid but you did make me a little bag too right?” she says nicely…So that’s that.

    As for opening gifts after the party…I have mixed feelings about that. I think you are all correct to do that when the child is younger. But as they get older, I think it’s important for them to open the gift in front of the giver and thank them and write down what they got etc. We have found that the kids attending really look forward to this part. Also, I find that now that my daughter is older and doesn’t usually have a party, friends give her gifts separately at school and things. She has learned to open the gift with her friends and to say thank you and give them a hug etc. and write a note after. It’s not the exact situation one would want (i.e. always potential for a friend to get hurt or feel awkward watching this as she might not have gotten something for my child or she might feel her gift didn’t match up), but the truth is we are supposed to be preparing them for real life as adults and the “gift giving” situation happens all the time. So for me, my goal is to make sure my children understand the standard for gift giving courtesy in our family etc. We also discuss what our standard is for gifts. For example, if one girl gives you a Tiffany necklace for your birthday (happened to my daughter last week), do you have to give a similar level of gift back to her when it is her birthday? Even if you can afford it, should you do it?

    The other gift giving issue I am dealing with is at my son’s level – almost 12. He has friends who now are having huge parties with tons of kids and then saying “No Gifts” or “I have donated money to xyz charity in lieu of your giving me a gift.” on the invitation. Very commendable, except my child wants gifts. He wants to receive them from his friends and he looks forward to it. So this new trend has put an awkward twist on the birthday party situation….any advice? Turning 12 in May.

  8. Suzanne Julicher (Edit) Report

    My son is 5 and this is the first year he hasn’t cried at one of his birthday parties – we had it at Junglemania which is a soft-play area and he had a great time. I always ensure that there is a goody bag for him as well as the other kids and I always let him hand them out (after I’ve given him his) so that he feels important which he really likes. We NEVER open any presents at the venue, we always take them home and open them afterwards in private. Having said that, despite the fact that the party went well this year., I still found it exhausting and poured myself a large glass of red wine as soon as the kids were in bed. Does it get easier each year? Who knows……but we’ve all caved in at one point or another and anyone who says they haven’t must be from another planet!

  9. Margaret Nitolo (Edit) Report

    I completely agree that it is very tempting to “cave in” to whatever our children are screaming for, however I have found that the best way to avoid those situations is to prepare your child in advance of an outing. Just before entering the store you could say, “Now when we’re here I am only getting things for dinner and I am not going to buy anything else.” This way when the inevitable question comes, you will be able to remind your child that you are not going to buy anything else on this trip. You may still get your tantrum on accasion but preparation over time will stave off many episodes of bad behavior.

  10. janet (Edit) Report

    We use a bit of a tweak on the “sitting the children around the birthday child”. Yes, the party is limited to 8 kids max(my son is 11) – my son has control of the goody bags and after each child (in turn) gives him their present and he opens it (others going ohh ahh) he then hands that child a goodie bag and says “thank you for the present, thank you for being my friend, and thank you for sharing my birthday with me”. It teaches giving, getting, and gratitude all at once. It also certainly diminishes the chaos and need for thank you notes (although that’s a social lesson in and of itself).

  11. Leigh (Edit) Report

    I’ll echo the mother who said they open gifts after the guests have gone home. This seems to be a trend with my son’s group of friends, and it works beautifully. The kids have more time to play, the adults don’t have to entertain the kids who are supposed to ‘watch’ the gift opening, there’s no chaos around who gave what, and duplicates don’t embarrass anyone. My son (4 years old) took about 3 days to open all his gifts from friends and family. This one little thing has de-stressed the party.

  12. Brooke (Edit) Report

    We have all been there. I appreciate all the good suggestions which I am reading carefully to give me more tools to deal better the next time I face my own greedy, sugar monsters.

  13. Elisabeth Wilkins (Edit) Report

    Wow, I wish I would have talked to all of you before I held the party! What excellent ideas. I love what Lyn said about bringing a goody bag for my son and letting him hand out the others to his friends. The small party idea is definitely where we’re headed next time, believe me, so thanks to all of you for that advice…it’s good to hear so many people agreeing on that one. Also opening presents later/after the kids have all gone, as Maureen and Beth suggested. Finally, yes, admitting my mistake, as Beth Cecil said–I did manage to do that the next day. I think that’s a really important thing for parents to be able to do with their kids–it shows them that we’re human, too, and sometimes we can be wrong.

  14. Joan Munson (Edit) Report

    All 3 of my kids have had those birthday moments. It seems that the more they get, the more they want. When it gets to the point where they are completely unreasonable, my husband and I go into “calm mode” and quietly tell them, “You have a choice: You can stay here and hand out your treat bags or if you can’t stop screaming right now, you will have to go to the car with Daddy (or Mommy)and your party is officially over. I’d hate to see that happen to you”. Then, the all important part, we follow through on the consequence. Let me tell you, this happened once and whenever the bad behavior started again, i.e. at the mall, grocery store, etc., we bring up what happened last time and the tantrum stops or we leave, just as before. Of course, if your child makes the choice to stop the tantrum, praise them once in the moment, and then again later when things have calmed down. We usually say something like, “I really loved how you made the choice to stop screaming at your party. You are really getting big now!”. Works every time, and if it doesn’t, there’s always the car waiting to take them home.

  15. Lyn Murajda (Edit) Report

    My son is 11, and like the other commenters, I’ve found smaller groups are definitely better. Also, I stay away from the Chuck E. Cheese and Gattiland-type venues – way too much noise, too many things to do and the children don’t play with each other, they play the games. Total sensory overload- they just can’t handle it. Bowling has been great (I started that at 6 years old – and let parents bowl too – they all had a blast and the parents help the children stay calmer.) I also have my son open family presents at a separate family party, not during his friends party. For the goody bags, bring one for him too! And give him his bag first, and then let him hand out the others to his friends, if he is able to at that point – it makes him feel important and in control of a small part of his party, as well as teaching about sharing. Another birthday party tip that worked in my family growing up (3 girls) was that until we were all about 8 or 9, at our family party, the birthday girl got presents from everyone, and the two other sisters also each got one small gift to open from my parents, so each child had something to open.

  16. Kim (Edit) Report

    I have five children and a very limited budget and so I have had a rule that they can only have a birthday party with invited friends on certain years. For us it is 6, 10 and 16. The rest of the years it is family only invited with a dinner at home, presents and a movie of their choice. It has worked for me.

  17. Beth Cecil (Edit) Report

    I would have caved in too! Wow, you are amazing to have survived the party let alone all the stimulation for yourself. After the party maybe the next day when things have calmed down I would go to the child and explain what happened, that you caved in and let him have the bag when you shouldn’t have. And in the future you won’t give in to his tantrums. At 5 he should be able to understand that. My kids seem to get it when I explain what I did right and what I did wrong and it seems to help the next time boundaries get tested.

  18. Beth Tanzer (Edit) Report

    when it comes to implementing consequences at parties, it’s tough. A few rules with my children, now 8 and 11. 8 or 9 guest max.(their b-days are on the same day, so @20 kids). Also, at gift time, I instruct all children to get the gift they brought with them and they all sit around my child and one child presents a gift at a time. With only 8 gifts it keeps their interest, and it’s not a free for all. My children never open family gifts at their party. Family gifts are openned after the party or on their exact birthdate. Seems to be working for me!

  19. Beth Tanzer (Edit) Report

    when it comes to implementing consequences at parties, it’s tough. a few rules with my children, now 8 and 11. 8 or 9 guest max.(their b-days are on the same day, so @20 kids). Also, at gift time, I instruct all students to get the gift they brought and they all sit around my child and one child presents a gift at a time. With only 8 gifts it keeps their interest, and it’s not a free for all. My children never open family gifts at their party. Family gifts are openned after the party or on their exact birthdate. Seems to be working for me!

  20. Maureen Staley (Edit) Report

    For starters, I think that certain situations are just asking for a meltdown, and a party with 20 kids is one of them. For all four of my kids, I enforced the rule that a child’s birthday party should have no more children invited than the child’s age plus one. For your son, that would mean six kids at most. A five-year old simply can’t handle that kind of stimulation, and as parents, you shouldn’t have to manage a party that big. The other party rule I followed (because I learned the hard way!) is to open presents after the guests have left, usually at home. Otherwise there is an insane rush to rip open each package and the child barely sees what the gift is.

  21. Callie Rogers (Edit) Report

    I remember when my daughter pitched a fit at teh supermarket when she was 6. I gave in to what she wanted, and the next time we went it was even worse! So I decided to let her have the tantrum on the floor, kicking and screaming in the middle of the frozen food aisle. I’m sure everyone thought I was a “bad mom” but I didn’t care. After she was done, I said just because you scream and cry doesn’t mean you’ll get what you want. In fact, it makes it harder to get what you want becuase I’m not going to give you things when you do that any more. That was the last time had to tell her.



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