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Dubai Diaries: A virtual birthday party pooper

Today a great deal of effort goes into distracting children from their digital devices.


Kirstin Bernabe

Published: Wed 16 Feb 2022, 9:44 AM

When I was 7, balloons, a flowery cake, hats and parlour games were all it took to call a gathering a ‘birthday party’. As soon as the candle-blowing ceremony was done, all of us kids would be running around like there was no tomorrow, living the best day of our lives. The naughty ones would try their best to get as close as possible to the cake, just to swipe a finger across the thick layer of icing on the side

Today, however, all children do at ‘parties’ are tap, type and swipe — not on a cake, but on their screens. With all the kiddie parties I had attended lately, it felt like a great deal of effort was involved to compete with the smartphone and win the youngsters’ attention.

I love birthdays, and I’m lucky to be part of my mum and dad’s big circle of friends here in Dubai. I’m happy to be the eldest sister — borderline auntie — of their amigos’ and amigas’ youngsters. I watched them grow year after year, party after party, from toddlerhood until now that they have turned nine.

Our Dubai circle is seven families big, with each household having one to two kids. So, almost every month, there’s a birthday party on the calendar. Believe me, we had done it all — a picnic at the park, a party with clowns at a hotel ballroom, a private event at a fast-food eatery, a fun gathering at home. We had celebrated with every theme possible, from Hawaiian to jungle safari, rockstar, retro, under-the-sea, unicorns and superheroes.

In 2020, though, we had to skip all parties. But as we ease our way out of the Covid woods, the gatherings are slowly coming back — and that’s when I realise that the kids are no longer interested in candies and balloons.

With their parents thinking of new ways to wean them off tablets and smartphones, adventures and more physical activities have been thrown into the celebrations. The message was clear, ‘hey, the real world is a lot more fun than that virtual city made of blocks and pixels’.

The past three birthdays I had been to were ‘extreme’ for my kiddie heart. In December, the children channelled their inner Spider-Man as they climbed walls, crossed hanging bridges, and zoomed on an indoor zipline at a mall. A month later, they were shooting hoops while jumping on trampolines at another indoor adventure zone.

Then just this February, all of us were treated to a one-night stay at a family-friendly hotel on a man-made island off Deira — allowing the kids to jump into the pool, enjoy the beach and have fun coasting around in the lazy river. If only I could drag the seven-year-old me out of 1998 and transport her to this day, I would. Did the children enjoy it all? Definitely! But as soon as the adventure time was up, a chorus prevailed: ‘Can I have the tablet?’

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