Americans may be having fewer children, but we make a fetish of the ones we have. This is obvious to anyone unlucky enough to have attended a child’s birthday party in recent years.
The great Alexis de Tocqueville did not broach this subject in Democracy in America, but were he to happen upon one of these affairs, I am certain he would say, “Americans have abandoned the mysteries of God-worship for a religion of man, staking their salvation on satisfying the mercurial whims of short, moody offspring who one day want a three-tiered basketball cake with LeBron James leaping from the frosting and the next insist on a Skylanders-themed party instead.”
When I was a kid, my parents threw birthday parties for me and my brothers by taping a single balloon to the wall, making a tray of cupcakes, and inviting friends over to play hide-and-seek—outside. We were barely allowed in the house. When my kids have birthday parties, not only is our routine disrupted but our house is transformed into a set for their fantasies of life as a princess or a pirate or, not so long ago, a ninja.
I am of two minds on this. First, I vehemently disapprove. Second, because no one cares if I disapprove, which leaves me feeling isolated, I end up helping out.
For several days leading up to our most recent feast of the child-god, my wife Cynthia was cutting out decorations and making props. Copying the eyes of the Lego ninja, she created clever little fabric medallions that she hung around the house. She bought chopsticks for the food and devised ways of turning American staples like chicken nuggets and spaghetti into Japanese ninja fuel. Foam pool noodles were purchased and cut into non-lethal swords.
I did nothing. Nothing except go to work as usual and come home to complete my household chores (which, if you read the social science, is actually a very big deal)—but nothing special, nothing for the big event. The morning of the party, I appeared in the kitchen, legal pad in hand, jotting notes.
“I’ve got it.”
“What’s that?” Cynthia asked.
“My character. I am going to be the Insult Ninja. I’m writing down my lines.”
“Now you’re going to help?”
I had no line for that.
When my daughter Maddy had a princess tea party for her birthday, I donned a suit and played the butler, while the girls, wearing fancy dresses, sat in our dining room eating finger sandwiches and drinking punch out of disposable teacups. They realized that when they called for the butler, the butler came, bowing, nodding, and talking in a phony English accent. They couldn’t get enough of him. Neighbors around the block later asked me about the squealing laughter and little-girl screams. They couldn’t make out what the girls were saying.
Over and over it was, “BUTLER!” And I would come running. Once I appeared, however, the girls would say, “Oh, nothing.”
The 7-year-old ninjas at my son Ben’s party would be in the backyard fighting, so I planned to make my mark there with silly witticisms that would challenge the boys to fight harder. “You use that sword like a wet noodle!” I planned to say. Or, after a good defensive move on my part, “Your flying kick is grounded!” As the boys arrived, Cynthia dressed each one in a headband with fake Japanese writing, and I planned to say, “Let me read your headband. Ah, yes, it says, ‘Silly Little Poodle Ninja.’ ”
When the time came, however, I delivered only a few lines before being swarmed by little boys all hitting me with their swords. Through the flying foam, I saw my assistant—10-year-old Maddy, eyes red and teary—running inside to escape.
Fortunately, Cynthia had other activities planned, including a ninja obstacle course built of backyard toys. I was the last obstacle, and I stood there looking villainous, vowing to cut little ninjas in half, top them with wasabi, and eat them over rice with chopsticks.
But, somehow, though I raised my foam sword very high and made very mean faces, fully intending to chop off their heads as I swung down as hard as I could, every single ninja escaped my wrath. As they got in line to do the obstacle course again and again, they looked back at me and spat, “You are the stupidest ninja ever!” or, “You are so lame! You couldn’t kill a fly with that sword!”
They were learning to talk like the Insult Ninja, which I knew to be a good sign. Neighbors later asked about the screams. Parents told Cynthia that their boys had loved the party. And no one went around saying that I hadn’t done my part.