Lavish Bar Mitzvahs and Sweet 16s: How Much Is Too Much?

Rachel Bertsche
·Writer
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The Kemper Bar Mitzvah blowout. Photo by Sight To See/Instagram

Remember the days of intimate birthday parties, bar mitzvahs, sweet 16s, and quinceañeras? When the guest list consisted of family and the focus was on the milestone, not the budget? Barely, most likely. 

Whether a baby is turning 1 or a 13-year-old is becoming a man, celebrations are increasingly about creating a spectacle. In June, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West threw daughter North a “Kidchella”-themed affair, inspired by the music festival Coachella, complete with a Ferris wheel and a bouncy house — all to mark her first birthday. Over the weekend, Julian Kemper, the grandson of businessman and former MGM mogul Kirk Kerkorian, celebrated his bar mitzvah with a $450,000 “007”-themed party at the Beverly Hills Hilton, according to TMZ. Superstars Iggy Azalea and Nick Jonas performed at the event.

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Photo by Alan Mruvka/Instagram

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While it’s great that these parents can afford to throw such grand celebrations, says Jennifer Kolari, child and family therapist and author of You’re Ruining My Life! Surviving the Teenage Years With Connected Parenting,these kinds of over-the-top affairs aren’t doing kids any good — no matter how wealthy the family is. “When children are indulged or given too much, you’re setting them up to have such wild expectations for the next year that it creates unhappiness,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. “They’ll be disappointed because you can’t top it next year, or it will always take more and more extreme things to make your child happy.”

Plus lavish affairs undermine the meaning of the celebration, Kolari says. “With a bar mitzvah, it’s a religious event. You are moving into adulthood,” she says. “If it turns into a wild party with go-go dancers and pop stars, you’re missing the point.”

Before planning a sweet 16 or quinceañera or any big party, sit down with your child and talk about the event — what you are celebrating, the meaning behind it, how lucky he or she is to mark the occasion with a party. Then, try to balance what your child gets with what he gives, Kolari says. “Even if it’s a big splashy event, you have to find a way to create some meaning and some giveback — donations or volunteerism — and, at the very least, gratitude,” Kolari explains. “Have a discussion about how this isn’t real life. It’s a privilege to get to celebrate this way. They should enjoy it and have fun and don’t need to feel guilty, but they need to know it’s not how most people live.”

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Kolari says this type of overindulgence isn’t specific to wealthy parents. “I see it in low-income families as well,” she says. “Parents will do without so their kids can have Ugg boots.” This type of “over-the-top parenting,” as Kolari calls it, is a result of parents wanting to shield their children from disappointment. But while grand celebrations or a pair of trendy boots may make your children happy in the moment, it won’t help in the long term, she cautions.

"Things don’t make kids happy," Kolari says. "As a therapist, the kids I see who are the most indulged are the most miserable and sullen. It’s ‘I didn’t get the car I wanted,’ ‘This is a boring resort.’ Happiness comes from earning things and waiting for things, and those behaviors have to be modeled. And as a parent, you have to allow your kids to experience disappointment — it’s critical for mental and social health."

If you absolutely cannot wait to throw your daughter a bat mitzvah for the ages, ask yourself one question: “Am I doing this for myself or my child?” Because, as Kolari says, “There’s an element of parenting that’s about living through your child and competing with other parents. Think about this before you book your next party: Is this something that my child needs — or that I want?” If it’s the latter, maybe you should opt for something more low-key.