ST. PAUL, Minn. - Having decided on a ballerina theme for her daughter's sixth birthday party, Michelle West drove all over to find little dancers for the cake. Then she put 50 little Beefeater guards around the edges. And she gave it beautiful white icing with peppermint trim.

And what happened? The children wouldn't eat it.

It wasn't long afterward that she joined a group of St. Paul parents determined to end the birthday-party arms race.

Birthdays Without Pressure is taking aim at the one-upmanship that drives parents to throw parties that will really, really impress the children and the other parents, too.

"We feel there's a kind of cultural runaway going on right now around the birthday parties of kids," said William Doherty, a University of Minnesota professor of family social science who had a hand in organizing the group, launched publicly this month.

Birthdays Without Pressure has started a Web site and launched a media campaign.

Among its suggestions for more modest, stress-free party planning: Hold gift-free parties, with a note on the invitation that says any presents will be donated to charity; eliminate theme parties and gift bags for the guests; instead of organizing elaborate activities, hold a treasure hunt or let kids play outside; and invite children only, not their parents.

The organization has also started collecting horror stories from other parents to argue its case. Among them:

A party for a 1-year-old featured a gift-opening that lasted two hours. The child slept through most of it.

Seven-year-olds were picked up in stretch limos to attend a classmate's party.

A 6-year-old guest at a St. Paul party didn't like the contents of the gift bag and declared: "This is a rip-off."

The race to provide a unique experience at children's parties can even get dangerous. In December, a 4-year-old girl was mauled by a cougar that had been brought in as part of the entertainment for a 7-year-old in Coral Gables, Fla.

Doherty, who previously led a crusade against what he called overscheduled children, got wind of frustration among parents after a colleague related how a mother at a parenting class had lashed out against the gift bags that have become a staple of children's parties.

That mother was Linda Zwicky.

"I just found myself wondering, you know, does he need another pencil? Does he need another rubber ball?" Zwicky said.

But when she began planning son Wyatt's third birthday party, she found herself engaging in the same kind of one-upmanship.

"I was going to do gift bags, but I was going to do them right," Zwicky recalled. The party had a train theme, so she got sticks and bandannas and made "hobo packs" that included animal crackers and bubble solution.

Zwicky said that party was a turning point for her. She helped found Birthdays Without Pressure.

What the members want, they say, is a general agreement that not every party has to be more memorable than the last.

"Why are we feeling the pressure to do all this?" asked Julie Printz, another parent in the group. "Let's come up with ways to do this that's in your comfort zone, and have a broader spectrum of what's acceptable in terms of kids' parties."

When Wyatt turned 4, Zwicky put on a much more modest affair: No theme. No gift bags. Simple party games involving milk bottles and pennies. "The kids had a great time," she said.

Go to Birthdays Without Pressure's Web site via http://go.philly.com/birthdaysEndText