Birthday parties – a little bit of sanity please

“Happy Birthday, dear Billy…” oh no…the candles are burning and everyone is singing, but Billy is definitely not a happy birthday boy.  In fact, tears are rolling down his cheeks and the wish he’s making as he blows out the candles is for everyone to just go away and let him play with that cool truck in the pile of presents.

How could it be that this perfectly planned event was not a wonderful experience for the honoree?  It was held at a special location, which specializes in kids’ parties.  All fifteen children from Billy’s preschool class plus his 10 cousins were invited and there were lots of exciting things for kids to run around and do.   There was a magician to entertain them, pizza, a special cake, and a piñata to whack away at.  What more could a child possibly want?  Well, yes, maybe a pony for everyone to ride—but that’s for next year.

WHY IS THIS HAPPENING? In our modern, competitive world, many birthday parties for young children have become occasions for keeping up with—or even outdoing—other parents. “Ashley’s party was so lovely; the girls and their mothers went to a fancy hotel for a fashion show—whatever can we do to compare with that?”

Children’s parties can also become social events for the adults, either as a way to entertain friends or to gather the extended family for a reunion.  In both of these instances, the focus is on the adults and the children may get lost in the shuffle, either to run amok unsupervised or to have too much attention showered upon them when they are unsure of what they are expected to do.

Perhaps parents want to feel that they have done everything to make their children’s lives as perfect as possible.  In our fast-paced world, parents may feel guilty that they are not giving their children the time and attention they should and so try to make it up to them by throwing a grand and glorious birthday party.

Similarly, in the hurried world of two working parents, Mom may think, “why should I have all these kids running through my house making a big mess to clean up?  If we have the party at Chuck E. Cheese, I can have the rest of the weekend to get other chores done.”

All these are possible explanations for the overdone, inappropriate, chaotic birthday parties we see.  If only parents would examine their motives as they plan for this important milestone in their child’s life, perhaps the scenario would be a different one.

WHAT TO DO? First of all, think of everything from your child’s perspective.  How old is she?  One easy rule of thumb is to invite the same number of children as the age of the child, so three guests are perfect for your three year old’s party.  Send cupcakes to the pre-school to celebrate with all the classmates; let the actual party be a private one which will be a pleasure for your child only if it is kept at a size which she can manage.  Similarly, plan on a manageable length of time, two hours is plenty.   Be sure to state the hours on the invitation so everyone knows just what to expect.

Second, remember that the simplest things are new and wonderful to young children.  Think of what your child loves to do.  If he is a nature lover, go to the nearby park and have a simple scavenger hunt for acorns, bird feathers, and yes, even a piece of litter (can’t start too early with cleaning up the environment—and, of course, you brought hand-wipes to clean them up afterwards).  If it’s a nice day, spread a cloth on a picnic table and ice some cupcakes, have some lemonade, play a few games, and go home.  Oh yes, the goody bag: a little ladybug toy and a few pieces of your child’s favorite candy are a nice souvenir of the day.

If she would love to have a tea party, invite the guests to bring their dolls and provide all the makings of a pretend tea party at home.  The children could make the sandwiches and, of course, pour the pretend tea (lemonade with a touch of tea for color) for themselves and their dolls.  A fun craft activity, such as a picture frame, for the photo you take of each girl with her doll, would be a nice favor for guests to take home.

What to do with those boys when it’s bad weather?  How about the scavenger hunt indoors?  Hide items, which go along with your party theme, around the house.  Play a beanbag toss game or rig up a balance beam for the junior Olympians to walk across.  Get some scraps of wood for them to glue together and paint or show the DVD of some old (short) cartoons that you loved as a child.  Let the boys make their own pizzas or string cubes of fruit on bamboo sticks for kabobs.

When there are fewer children and the activities are based on reality rather than overly stimulating fantasy, there is less random running around and everyone is calmly involved. When you think of themes for the party for children who might become over-excited, choose the real vs. fantasy, for example:  astronauts, the circus  (without the wild lion), the Olympics, or explorers digging for hidden treasure but nothing about ferocious, scary things. When parents don’t take on too much and the party is planned with the child’s best interests in mind, it will be just as pleasant for them as it is for the child.  Not to mention the easier cleanup when there are not hordes of kids running rampant through the house.

The planning and preparation are as much fun for the birthday child as the party itself, so involve her as much as possible.  Picking out the invitations and decorations at the dollar store or making them yourselves, making the cake, setting the table and filling the goody bags are all major ingredients of a memorable occasion for a child.

Some kids can take being a party host in stride, but others may need you to go over the entire scenario before the event so they know exactly what will happen when and pretty much what they will be expected to do and say.  When you plan the Birthday Party taking into account your child his age and interests you will find its economically sane and results in less clean up and a happy child.  Save the elaborate party for the wedding reception.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net