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How Over-The-Top Birthday Parties Affect Kids, According To Experts & Renata Klein

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Episode 4 of Season 2 of Big Little Lies finds Renata Klein throwing an all-out bash for daughter Amabella in the midst of the Klein family's financial demise. Knowing that it will likely be the last of these blow-out parties she will be able to give her child, Renata spares no expense. While the adults may be the focus of this particular party for television's sake, because this was meant to be a child's party it is worth asking the question ⁠— how do over-the-top parties affect kids?

At the party, Renata and Amabella are seen sporting matching gold lamé fabric dresses, but that's not the worst (best?) of it. The main issue here ⁠— it wasn't even her actual birthday. But in Monterey, I guess anything goes. The party shows live entertainment, professional lighting, a chocolate fountain, and ornate costumes to boot. Amabella seems to know all of the words to the song Disco Inferno, but I don't know many 8-year-olds IRL that do. Maybe that's a Monterey thing, but maybe it's that the party wasn't actually meant to be for the kids.

I spoke with Dr. Kathryn Smerling, a family psychologist practicing in New York, about the impact over-the-top birthday parties, like the one Renata threw for Amabella's non-birthday, can have on kids. Despite Renata's good intentions (she wants the party to be perfect and happy for Amabella), are they worth it?

"First of all, it’s very overwhelming for most kids to be the center of attention at a birthday party which is really not about them, but about the mother or the parent trying to impress other parents," Smerling says. "It becomes very hard to have to perform, and that’s what kids have to do at a birthday party ⁠— they have to perform. And when it’s about the parents, it really negates the feelings that a child has. To have a child that is very shy and is being given all of this attention is very unnerving. If a child is very gregarious and outgoing it may be another thing, but any child that suffers from anxiety, this will be anxiety provoking."

In the case of Amabella, Dr. Smerling says that this type of party was not at all centered around meeting the child's needs, but rather catering to the adults in her life. "She’s having panic attacks and she’s an anxious child anyway, so this was not really meeting her needs — it was meeting the parents wants. And obviously the need to show off because of what’s going on in their lives and the fact that they have lost a lot of their money and this was her [Renata’s] fond farewell or her coup de gras."

In Season 1, viewers saw a similar party (although Frozen-themed) thrown by Renata where the adults were the stars of the show. After the Season 2 shindig, gift bags were handed to the adults exiting the party as Renata exclaimed that "Amabella is so happy you came!" which might seem like a nice gesture on Renata's part, but the thinly-veiled attention grab sees a focus shift from Amabella to Renata as she presents her friends, not her child's friends, with extravagant goodie bags.

Jennifer Clasen/HBO

If you thought these types of parties were just part of the glitz and glamour of the elite households created for television and featured on shows like Big Little Lies, think again. Andrea Fowler, entertainment editor at party planning site The Bash, tells Romper that parties like the one Renata threw are "definitely not typical but it's becoming more frequent." She adds that, "Most kids' parties do have just as many adults in attendance (especially if, say, both parents accompany their child to the party), so parents have started thinking, why not make this fun for grown-ups too?"

But, how does a party go from cupcakes and balloons to Saturday Night Fever so quickly? Fowler has plenty of insight into how parents wind up going over-the-top. "Many people who are planning parties don't go into it thinking the end result will be over-the-top. But little decisions along the way, opting for the splurge on those centerpieces, or adding a few more appetizers to the menu, add up to a more extravagant event," she says. "Once the train leaves the station, so to speak, it's easy to continuously choose the options that are a little more grand, especially when planning a party on behalf of a loved one whom you really want to feel special."

Or, as in the case of Renata Klein, planning a party to impress a group of adults who are about to find out that you've lost your entire fortune. Either way, it all adds up, and plenty of parents are heading in the same direction as Renata, according to Fowler. "We are starting to see a lot more sophisticated kid-friendly themes, like Mad Scientist with very elaborate menus. Or a boho backyard bash with floor pillows and dreamcatcher decor. The overall level of decor looks like it could double as a party for grown-ups," she says.

While these parties could certainly be fun for the right kid and their attendees, Dr. Smerling explains that this type of blow out party could not only have unintended impacts for the child at the center of the party, but the attendees as well when it comes to children making comparisons between an over-the-top party of their classmate and their own birthday parties. "Certainly the comparison will ring true, especially if the parents react negatively with 'Oh, we could never have a party like that,'" she says. "It can be very difficult for kids when they’re in a school with very wealthy kids and may have some who are scholarship students. That can be very, very difficult in the social aspects. But it also depends on how inclusive the kids and the parents are. If they’re inclusive and they don’t make a comparison and they love the particular kid who isn’t wealthy for who he is rather than what he has, then that’s fine."

Overall, focusing on your child's needs seems to be the common thread here. If you child is an extrovert who wants an over-the-top birthday party and you have the means to hire a petting zoo, a juggler, and rent a ferris wheel, definitely go for it. But knowing your child and finding the right balance for them, instead of focusing on how other adults will view the party you throw, is key.