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Jewish World Review Feb. 26, 2002 / 14 Adar, 5762

Diana West

Diana West
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Consumer Reports

Destiny's prefabricated child -- I t ' s a pretty new place in town -- let's call it Colette's -- one more birthday-party factory where scores of children assemble for some hasty pizza and sheet cake, romp, and leave, balloon in one hand, party favors in the other. Across the country, this annual drill of the middle class, the birthday ritual, has relocated from the home and been reduced to its pre-packaged parts in a spirit of egalitarianism (the whole class comes) and convenience (Mom and Dad have no responsibility beyond hauling home presents).

Once upon a time, in the not-too distant past, Junior presided over a select group of friends (the number determined by adding his age plus one) that gathered around the dining-room table in a house dressed up and battened-down for the occasion. While Junior may wear the same kind of party hat today, his place at the table has changed: Still the birthday-king, he is no longer the child-host, who, year by year, would be seen assuming a greater role within the family, within the home, where his parents, not "fun-staffers," officiated.

Colette's actually makes me nostalgic for the birthday-party factories that once, as recently as the last paragraph, made me nostalgic for birthdays at home. After all, birthday-party factories produce a dependable product -- paper hats, Crisco frosting and noise -- while Colette's, it turns out, is in another business entirely.

My first clue came in an invitation in which my daughter, then 6 years old, was cordially invited to attend a pajama party -- "please wear your favorite jammies" -- at Colette's, "the place to jump, jam & party, additional parking in rear." That sent my eyebrows up -- not the additional parking in rear, but the jumping, jamming & partying. I needed to know more.

So, in my eternal quest to stamp out all the fun in my daughter's life, I called the place to find out what a pajama party for a bunch of little kids would entail. The children would arrive wearing bathrobes and slippers, I was told, and file into a giant bedroom -- "with a phone and everything" -- that was outfitted with a stereo system stocked with CDs by Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. After a sufficiently fabulous "jump, jam & party" session, they would all sit down for cake and ice cream.

But by then it would be too late. What Colette was describing was a teen training session, a parentally guided intro to adolescence accompanied by the continuously looping soundtrack of pop angst (interrupted only by phone calls from other adolescents). I actually shivered when I saw that behind the birthday-candle smoke and mirrors, Colette's was in the nefarious business of turning 6-year-olds into 17-year-olds.

Not that she is alone in this industry. It's becoming increasingly difficult to ward off the social and cultural pressures forcing children, and particularly girls, into the rigid pose of the teenager who is more closely bonded to peer group than to family, who is more Destiny's Child than Daddy's Girl. The pressures come from all over, from department stores, where retailers push high-cut and low-cut styles onto the 6X set (known as "tweens"), to concert venues, where Nickelodeon, for example, has sponsored national "Kiddiepalooza" rock 'n' roll tours. In an excellent book, "Ready or Not: Why Treating Children as Small Adults Endangers Their Future and Ours," author Kay S. Hymowitz analyzes this phenomenon, noting the complicity of parents who have ceded their influence to pop cultural dictates of what is hip and what is nerdy. Where the home was once seen as a haven from the marketplace (not to mention the setting for birthday parties), it is now, thanks to television and the Internet, a 24-hour bazaar of bad attitude sanctioned and financially supported by all too many parents.

Such as the ones who chose Colette's for their daughter's sixth birthday celebration, starring Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. This music of adolescent yearning and oh-so-fragile feelings is beyond wrong for youngsters; it is indecent. Why introduce "the reason I breathe is you" to little ones who still relish a good round of "Frere Jacques"?

Children need to be molded and guided, introduced to what is good and protected from what is bad. Whatever you do, they'll still become teenagers. My daughter, poor thing, didn't get off to an early start. Dear, old mom telephoned her regrets.

JWR contributor Diana West is a columnist and editorial writer for the Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, Diana West