Somewhere behind my back, children's birthday parties have been going the way of weddings -- that is, going from nice, family affairs to small-scale coronations. In some places, a children's birthday is not complete without spending at least $1000 on a big, multigenerational shindig with hired professional entertainment (one act for the adults, one for the kids), carnival rides, a petting zoo, mountains of gifts, limo service, and a mammoth, professionally baked cake in some elaborate shape as a Grande Finale. Parents are beginning to feel pressured between keeping up with the Joneses, and sending the message to their kids that happiness has a price tag. Since it's my job to be The Lady in Everything, and in the spirit of my Bad Wedding Ideas, I tender the following Good Rules for Birthdays:
Remember what you're trying to do.
The quintessential Birthday Party menu is based on the pattern of the Gilded Era Afternoon Reception, which is still followed in academic/diplomatic circles: that is, coffee/tea/punch, sandwiches/cake/ices, a chance to mingle, an activity, and so, good-bye, all in about two or three hours or so. With a children's party, you heighten the effect by adding on a luncheon/supper menu, singing/play-party/dancing, games, and give-aways. (The lunch, by the way, is to provide ballast for the dessert, and to curb excess.) The children are somewhere between three and twelve, with mixed boys and girls towards the young end, and all-girl or all-boy parties starting around six.
Notice how simple this all is! My mentor in many things domestic, the late great Peg Bracken, reported that one of her most successful kid's party menus was scrambled eggs and green peas, with potato chips, along with the ice cream and cake. Her general idea was to partner ordinary festive food (hamburgers, hot dogs, fried chicken, sammiches, etc.) with a wee salutary side (like orange/carrot Jello salad, a fruit cup, cherry tomatoes, etc.) Her suggestions were heavy on peanut butter, which is not always an option these days, but it's not difficult to find crudite platters already made up, with ranch dressing, or various cut-up fruits in the produce section. (She also plumped for individual tuna casseroles, as well.) I love the idea of Welsh Rabbit(with near beer, milk, or water), if only because it goes down so well with numerous toppings (with which you can customize for each wee diner), with a teeny Waldorf Salad. (Hamburgers and Sammiches lend very well to this kind of treatment, also...) Cake, Ice Cream and Singing!
The other parts of the party pretty much run themselves: Presents, with the Birthday Kid unwrapping each one, and thanking them in person. Pin the Tail on the Donkey, Chinese Whispers, <insert game>, and at least one game where everyone runs around for no reason whatsoever. After eight: girls will like dressing up, karaoke, and getting photographed (card games, like Pinochle, Hearts or Cribbage are just naturals for the Princess theme, and will grant your daughter a window into actual adult "ladylike" behavior, Poker isn't... but just wait a few years!). Vampire lovers will probably like Rook, if suitably presented. Boys will have their seasonal outdoor games, or their nonseasonal indoor ones, like Settlers of Catan, Chess, or whatever carnage is hip in the gaming world. If you can give the feeling of being everyone's dream Mom (to the younger set) or catered unfettered recess (to the older ones) you've pretty much made the afternoon. Goodie bags: a pencil, some stickers, a few little green army men/glitter lip gloss, scented eraser/soap, cookie, candy, plus one (and only one) Cool Thing: a flashlight, kaleidoscope, deck of cards/change purse, etc. You shouldn't spend more than $10 apiece, though $5 is quite enough.
Theme parties are good, but you don't need to have one. A good thought is to make it part of the nearest holiday or season: Snowball/Penguin Parties in winter, Finding Nemo/Mermaid/Seaside Parties in Summer (even if you live inland and don't have snow). Boys might like a Hobo Party, with lunch outdoors in a little bindle, and some kind of Survival game, Fashion Parties are enhanced by having lunch-in-a-decorated-box (like they do at fashion shows), and almost anything Asian or Pacific (Ninja parties, Anime parties, Luaus, even Pirate Parties) is enhanced by sitting on the floor with the coffee table (or little trays or boxes) to eat from. But you needn't go all out. Just a few balloons and a few bright touches will make things partylike. Really!
Don't involve parents. Be wary of outside help. Keep it age-appropriate.
OK, it's probably a good idea to get a local teen to help lifeguard when you have a Pool Party, and if you're of the Coffee-and-Cake set, you can certainly have a sort of baby-shower-after-the-fact for a one to three year old, when the kids are going to need Mama most (and make sure Junior gets his best pal, not yours). Going to Children's Theater or the zoo or to the movies might need an extra car, if there are nine participants and your car only seats four. In my day, Maymie, my grandmom, had an additional party just for my female relatives, which gives me gentle Proustian memories even now, listening to how conversation drifted while they drank coffee and smoked cigarettes...and it might be fun to have a kind of mother-daughter mixer (again, with coffee and cake and cards) for an older girl (who might be surprised to know that this kind of thing is what princesses actually do, for a living).
However, the contemporary fiction that you can turn the whole shebang over to a professional childrens' party planner/child wrangler and have everyone happy and amused while you and your cronies stand off to the side and drink Margaritas is a recipe for disaster. Children and adults have differing timetables when it comes to partying, as I will elaborate below, it's difficult to really unwind and feel in control when every one of the moppets' mamas is casting a critical eye on your housekeeping and childraising skills, while you're trying to act like a charming hostess to two radically different parties. (I shudder to think of what would happen if there were a Glamour Makeover/Starlet party going on at the same time some Humbert Humbert is getting plastered on the "adult" side. Hel-lo, Uncle Bucky!) Plus, instead of paying for just one party, you end up paying for two-and-a-half, when the adults are going to need party food, booze, and of course, some kind of entertainment, themselves. Excluding grown-ups helps kids to feel that it's much more "their day", and makes the place much more like Breughel's painting than some dull generic "celebration" that's not even really about them.
Outside entertainment: well, most of the time, even a low-keyed balladeer singing kids' songs is just going to register as a stranger to a three-to-six year old, no matter how friendly. Unless you've taught your child to respond readily to people outside the family, this might be a problem. Then, too, for most kids, music comes from magic boxes or their own throats, and other people are only incidental. Some people like the idea of a (suitably disguised) budding actor or relative to play a fairy godmother, Easter Bunny, or Barbie, while the kid's still young enough to be a bit gullible, but this is pretty much a judgment call...some kids love make-believe, others are such determined rationalists that they question even department-store Santas. Six to ten is about the right age for a pony, magician or clown, if you're determined that your child is going to feel deprived growing up without one, but don't depend on them babysitting, and realize that you're going to be spending at least a hundred bucks an hour of your kid's future college fund. Then, too, some kids just aren't into it -- they'd rather do than watch, and waiting your turn while Bozo makes his umpteenth balloon beast is kind of dull, no matter how great he is. And above all, don't think that more than one of these attractions makes it better. The more attractions, the less kids will actually mingle.
A two-year old shouldn't go to Chuck E. Cheese's, and a twelve-year-old boy shouldn't have to endure his six-year-old sister's Little Mermaid party. Kids should be at least six before having a party in a public place, and at least eight if they're going to be allowed to roam (say, at a skating rink). Don't mix older and younger kids in, thinking you're going to find activities that will suit them both (You won't be able to.), and unless you've got a fairly tightly-knit, really motivated group, don't mix boys and girls between six and fourteen (and then, don't fret if they split along gender lines while they cook or look at bugs, or whatever).
- Think small. Prune the guest list. Don't have too many activities, and don't let the party go on too long. Don't overbuy on doodads.
As many as the child's age, plus one, is the old formula, and it rings true, even now. As much as you cherish the idea of having your backyard transformed into a benign version of Neverland Ranch, filled with delighted small faces, while your kid reposes on a tiny throne, the gifts of vassals lying opened at his/her feet, and you (surrounded by friends, family, and everyone from work) rejoice in The Fruit of Thy Womb, remember that most three-year-olds aren't really ready to deal with more than a few people in their environment at a time. Naturally, this calls for some diplomacy, if you're so unfortunate as to have moved into the large-party set with said toddler.
In that case, you can exclude:
- Anyone more than five, and less than two. ("Really, they'd only be bored.")
- Children he/she might not know otherwise (this means children of business associates, kids from outside the neighborhood, etc.) ("Shirley is just a little skittish around strangers.")
- Any kid they don't like playing with (ask them). ("Oh, it's really just the family...")
- Any relative from more than fifty miles away. ("Don't bother, it's just going to be a few close friends from playgroup.")
- Siblings outside the age limit. ("I'm sorry, but we really don't have space or food for them. Please try to understand.")
When they're in school, they get to pick same-sex guests from their classes, and the neighborhood, and/or a few cousins their approximate (that is, within two years either way) age. (It is not unknown, in a big-party neighborhood, for a small-party giver to become mysteriously popular among their peers...) The only bit of stickiness comes when girls get a little older -- they might be in a class with fourteen girls and only ten slots to fill. There are three ways out of this -- scale back on the party, and include the other four girls, hand out R.S.V.P.'s to all the girls, and pray that four will drop out, or cut the guest list back to four, hold the party on the weekend, and pray that the other girls don't find out.
Pruning the guest list means that you can spend less, enjoy the day more, and you won't have the "mountain of gifts" problem that bedevils large parties. Seven kindergarten girls are easier to deal with than twenty kids of mixed sexes and ages, and you can more easily tall-talk the mommas from sticking around, since they can rest assured that whatever might befall their offspring will be taken care of.
Feed everyone first (I know, to some this is heresy, but children will want to get to the goodies, and you're teasing them quite enough by insisting they eat lunch), that will get them from being too antsy. (Since the cake is going to look like a battlefield after the first half-hour of partying, you can ditch Wilton for box mix, and no one will be the wiser.) Try to vary and alternate active and quiet activities, and don't count on more than three or four, at home, or one or two if you're taking them somewhere (as in lunch and movie, skating and hot supper). If you're going to have a couple of kids who'll be left out on one or two, have something alternate for them to do, but generally, choose things that everyone can do at least a little of (if the kid can't dance, make them DJ, for instance). Most kids are good for about two or three hours of partying, some less (about an hour and a half) and some more, depending on age and general social stamina, but don't count on any of them being able to hang around for more than half the duration of an adult party. When the kids start looking cranky and tired, clap your hands merrily, cry "Party's Over!" and start getting people into coats and your car.
Remember that everything you buy, you'll have to either use up, throw out or repurpose later. Buying forty dollars worth of sateen to make a door hanging is OK if you think you might use it for a dress (and I can think of no better memento of the day), but iffy if all it's going to do is sit in the closet until next year, when young Vanessa has decided to go goth punk. And the same goes for the goodie bags, as well: if you can, include things that will either get treasured (I dug teeny purses and Fortune Teller Fish) or used up. (Other moms will thank you.) Ebay is filled with abandoned party supplies...
Enforce good manners, and gracious behavior but don't expect adult behavior from children. Try not to be too much of a child, yourself.
You should brief your child on party behavior: as a budding host/ess, they should at least try to see that everyone's happy, not just them. Fretting over getting or not getting whatever gift they wish is not allowed, for either one of you, and neither is comparing you to other families. As soon as they can understand money, make it crystal-clear that they must make choices, not simply dump a list of "needs", "wants", and "have to haves", and expect other people to fulfill them. If they complain that their birthday "just wasn't magical enough", smile mysteriously and say "Some day it will be."
Some people dislike present-opening in front of the other guests, since it means only one person is getting something, and the other kids might figure that this is a cue to start shredding every package in sight. If you've exercised strict guest-list control, you should be able to handle the situation very neatly. If one kid starts acting up, you can very easily pull them to the side and explain that "we just don't do that, here", before the inevitable chain reaction/escalation ensues.
Remember, this is a party for your child, not you. If all you can think of is impressing other parents, concocting elaborate menus and decor, and having "dreams come true", perhaps you ought to try holding a theme party for yourself, or better yet, join some kind of local charity or club to do this for other peoples' children. On the other hand, just because some other mother claimed her son did this, don't believe that you can smile sweetly at Seymour and announce that his presents are going to take the form of donations to the homeless shelter, and he's going to have an eco-friendly birthday, picking up garbage, while his cake is going to be a piece of reusable cardboard, because it would be such a darling idea to eat a subsistence diet and give the money to Darfur. Maybe your kid is going to be Gandhi, and ask for something like this, but don't get your hopes too high. If you feel like trimming further, declare a moratorium on non-holiday, non-birthday toys, and those he'll get will seem all the sweeter.
Oh, and don't forget handwritten thank-you notes (from your child, not you)! The other mothers will be so impressed...
- Enjoy yourself.
It's so rare these days to be in the company of children...Enjoy these days, and treasure them while they last...