Birthday blues in primary schools

ST ILLUSTRATION : MIEL

Some parents insist on gifts and sweet treats but schools prefer no-frills events

No goodie bags, no sweet treats and no gifts. Instead, a simple birthday song sung in class should suffice.

Some primary schools are laying down the law on birthday festivities in schools, saying they should be kept to "no frills" celebrations.

This, they say, will curb concerns about food allergies and the consumption of junk food. Just as important, it prevents pupils from making comparisons between the haves and the have-nots.

The Straits Times found that at least six schools have issued such guidelines in recent years. They are: Dazhong Primary School, Pei Chun Public School, Geylang Methodist School (Primary), Oasis Primary School, Springdale Primary School and Riverside Primary School.

The Ministry of Education has no policy on the matter and allows individual schools to decide.

But some parents are unhappy about it, arguing that they celebrated their children's birthdays in pre-school and that they should be allowed to continue the custom in primary school.

SIMPLICITY IS BEST

Children already start making comparisons at a young age and it makes things difficult for parents who come from different family backgrounds.

CIVIL SERVANT NUR AZLINA, whose son in Primary 1 had asked if he could give out customised pencil cases for his birthday because his kindergarten classmate did.

NO HARM IN HAVING PARTIES

A birthday rolls around only once a year, and he used to have celebrations in kindergarten so I don't see why he is not allowed to do so now.

HOUSEWIFE BETHA BHANU VALLI KALYANI, who has a son in Primary 2 in Springdale Primary.

Many reasons for saying 'no' to parties

Housewife Betha Bhanu Valli Kalyani, 36, who has a son in Primary 2 in Springdale Primary, used to mark birthdays with him in pre-school by distributing goodie bags containing toys and tidbits to his classmates, in addition to ordering balloons and a cake.

"A birthday rolls around only once a year, and he used to have celebrations in kindergarten, so I don't see why he is not allowed to do so now," she said.

Ms Geraldine Tan, 41, who has a son in Primary 2 at Holy Innocents' Primary School, said his school does not discourage such celebrations. Making comparisons "is part and parcel of life, and shielding children from that is a little excessive", said Ms Tan, who is self-employed.

But the schools say that they have their reasons for saying no.

In a circular sent to parents in January, Oasis Primary in Punggol told parents not to organise birthday celebrations within the school.

As these celebrations "invariably involve food", there are concerns that this may trigger food allergies, principal, Mrs Ong-Chew Lu See, wrote in the circular.

  • $400

    Cost of a pre-school birthday celebration for 20 children as quoted in online advertisements. It includes decorations such as bunting and personalised party
    favours.

"There is also a concern that the pupils will start to compare between the haves and the have-nots. While we want our students to build quality relationships within the class, we do not want to encourage comparison among them," she added.

That same month, Springdale Primary in Sengkang also told parents to avoid giving birthday goodie bags or gifts to other pupils in school, after receiving feedback from parents.

Such guidelines have been in place at Riverside Primary in Woodlands since it opened in 2013. Instead of celebrating through cakes, gift packs or other items which are brought to school, pupils' birthdays will be marked through "simple and meaningful" practices like singing a birthday song in class, the school said.

Birthday celebrations do not come cheap.

Advertisements for pre-school birthday celebrations quote prices of around $400 for a party for 20 children, including decorations like bunting and personalised party favours. In addition to stationery sets and cupcakes that feature popular cartoon characters, some services even offer customised story books with characters named after each child that will receive the book.

Riverside Primary's principal Sharon Siew said parents have largely approved of the guideline on simple birthday celebrations, which promotes a healthy lifestyle by reducing the junk food that pupils consume, and cultivates a "culture of simplicity and appreciation", she said.

"Some parents show their love by wanting to celebrate their birthdays in a bigger way, but others love their children in simpler ways... Parents have said that this avoids comparison (of material wealth) among pupils," she told The Straits Times.

Civil servant Nur Azlina, 36, who has a daughter in Primary 2 and son in Primary 1 in Riverside Primary, likes the school's "no frills" stance.

She recounted how her son's classmate had given out customised pencil cases inscribed with the name of each child during a birthday party in kindergarten, and he had asked her if they could do something similar for his birthday.

"Children already start making comparisons at a young age and it makes things difficult for parents who come from different family backgrounds," said Madam Azlina.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2017, with the headline 'Birthday blues in primary schools'. Print Edition | Subscribe