How children’s parties have changed. When I was little, you put on your best frock, took a small gift (something eminently sensible like a book or an educational toy) and played musical chairs and pass the parcel in the birthday girl’s front room.
There wouldn’t be more than six other children there, you just knew that Susie (with the long shiny hair and the swimming costume with the white pleated skirt) would win all the games and that, for reasons which escaped you at the time, the parents always made you play several rounds of dead lions.
They are a far cry from today’s ‘themed’ parties, with their matching plates and beakers and stretch limos.
Nowadays, an entire school class of children get taken to bowling alleys, beauty parlours, laser battles and roller discos – and that’s before they’ve left kindergarten.
In my day, you might be lucky and get invited to a fancy dress party, where boys came as cowboys and girls as princesses, and even more occasionally, you were treated to a magic show by an elderly gent with an Italian name, a London accent and a tailcoat.
Generally though, you just ate fistfuls of Twiglets, several bowls of jelly and ice-cream, and went away at the end perfectly happy with a balloon and a slice of birthday cake.
It was my youngest daughter’s 11th birthday party last Saturday and as I agonised over what to give each guest for their going-home presents (as we used to call them), it really struck me how much today’s parties tell us about today’s kids.
It’s not just the entertainment that you lay on – after a decade of giving birthday parties for my three daughters, I am convinced that children prefer old-fashioned games to anything else – it’s what they take home in their hot little hands that reveals so much about modern children’s expectations.
Forget the bag of sweeties that we got at home time; today it’s almost compulsory for young guests to leave a party with a gift that cost more than the birthday present they arrived with.
Well, not in our house, it isn’t. My tried and tested theory on the subject is that being the ungrateful wretches they are, children will abandon their pressie in the well of the car before they reach home, however expensive it is, so what you give them is immaterial.
The goody bags children take home with them should just be the icing on the cake (sometimes literally) of what has been an absorbing afternoon.
So, if I’ve got them to decorate fairy cakes with luminous green icing, or make treasure boxes out of old cereal packets as part of their ‘party fun’, then that’s what they’ll take home with them.
Not everyone shares my approach of course. Over the years, I’ve become inured to the look of contempt (bordering on pity for what must be my dire financial circumstances) on other parents’ faces when they collect their offspring and see their modest ‘party packs’.
What a challenge it will be for them to have to explain to their over-indulged children that ‘it’s not the money that matters darling, it’s the thought that’s gone into it’, when they don’t believe a word of it themselves and are secretly thinking that I’m a tight-fisted old meanie.
My daughters think this of me too, of course.
At 13, my twins still remind me of the shame and mortification they endured at their seventh birthday party when they overheard one little girl turn to her friend and whisper conspiratorially ‘You don’t get good party packs here’.
I was in the audience recently for a fascinating TV recording of an interview with award-winning British photojournalist Hazel Thompson, who was being interviewed by J John, founder of the Chorleywood-based Philo Trust.
Still only 35, Hazel has captured some of the most disturbing examples of human cruelty imaginable, in more than 40 countries.
Her latest project, ‘Taken’, which is published as an e-book, took Hazel more than a decade to complete.
It documents the existence of the 1,000s of women in Mumbai’s (formerly Bombay) Kamathipura sex district, where girls are born, or captured, into lifelong prostitution.
It is not unknown for girls as young as seven to be lured away from their home village with promises of an education and a better life, often by a neighbour they have known all their lives.
Once caught and sold, they are brutally initiated into their grisly trade, a process known as ‘rape until they break’ and then locked up in cages, their young bodies ruptured and their spirit crushed.
The alleyways are ruthlessly policed by vicious minders and pimps, who will stop at nothing to get rid of snooping journalists.
Hazel risked her own life many times going undercover to collect her footage and, when she could, rescue girls and get them to a safe house. Meanwhile, the real police are happy to accept bribes to look the other way.
Hazel says she is often asked why she puts herself in danger in her efforts to stamp out the oldest profession in the world. It has always gone on and always will, people tell her.
What many don’t know (and I certainly didn’t) is that Mumbai’s sex trade was positively encouraged by the British during the Raj, when soldiers and civil servants were encouraged to take up posts in India by discreet advertisements promising the sensual delights of exotic Eastern women.
Almost overnight, a handful of brothels developed into a thriving business.
Hazel spoke movingly about hugging one sobbing girl prostitute and feeling her heart pounding against hers – the very same words that two English women missionaries used when they tried to expose the horrors of the Bombay sex trade in the late 1800s.
How shocking that more than a century later, nothing has changed.