by Lisa Marshall
I have such fond memories of my childhood birthday parties: my mom knew how to make our birthdays really special. Now I love to throw parties for my own three children. I’d love to share some of the tips I’ve learned for a successful party. The key is to really evaluate what is appropriate for your child’s age and temperament. One wants to make the party special but not to go overboard (or at least not too far).
When my children were very little, I realized that the party was more for us than for them. I would invite several other families, good friends of ours and we would have a champagne brunch (winter birthday) or a cookout (summer birthday). The adults would enjoy these gatherings and the children would interact as they would at any other gathering of friends. There was not a big to-do made over the child except for singing Happy Birthday and of course some sort of cake.
As my girls got older, say from 4-7, we had lovely small gatherings (a nice rule of thumb is that the number of children should be the child’s age plus one). I did most of the planning for these parties with very little input from the child although I did my best to do something I thought they would enjoy. Whenever possible, I had parties outdoors or at least partly outdoors which made them feel less stressful. The parties would last no more than 2 and a half hours and there was a rhythm to them something like this:
30 minutes free play
Snack served (little sandwiches, carrot sticks, juice box)
Light the birthday ring, sing happy birthday and serve cake
You’ll notice I didn’t include opening presents. For young children, both the birthday child and the other children, this can be very stressful. For many years I didn’t do present opening during the parties. Until age 7 I had at least some of the other mothers stay for the party.
I love to do circle time at parties. For toddlers, I would do a very simple circle, a few hand rhymes and Ring-Around-the-Rosy. For older children I would lead them in old fashioned play-party games and then dance the Hokey-Pokey. I always tried to include something for the season.
Where I presently live, I am lucky to have a mother who is a story-teller. When she is around, I ask her to prepare a story or two for the party. The children always love hearing her stories and this is a great way to calm everyone down towards the end of the party. She is so good at choosing the right story for the age of the children.
My children each have a sort of signature for their party. My oldest is born very close to Christmas so her special thing is gingerbread men. Depending on the age and number of children, they may roll out the dough, cut the cookies and I bake them and later they decorate. When they were smaller, I made the cookies in advance and they decorated them at the party. Usually this also served as their gift to take home. Sometimes they also get an ornament or a candy cane. One year we made little aprons with gingerbread people on them for each child but that year I had my mother and step-mother both helping me. My oldest is somewhat melancholic and finds large parties unpleasant. One year we invited some other girls and their mothers to a Christmas concert and then had dinner at our house afterwards. She loved this “party”.
My middle one is a May birthday so we usually have warm weather. We get out the old hand-crank ice cream churn and all the children help us make the ice cream for her party. In place of the traditional goody bags, one year I gave out sand buckets and shovels, bubbles and sidewalk chalk, another year it was beach towels, and one year I made bean bag frogs for all the children in her class (I definitely over did it that year. I was up at 3 a.m. sewing eyes on frogs!). One year we had a tea party with 2 other families’ girls and decorated straw hats with tulle, ribbons and silk flowers.
My son has had very low key parties, usually just the family – until recently he was shy around other people. Last year, when he turned 5, his birthday was on Thanksgiving. We had a very small party for him at the park with two other families and their children. It was a beautiful warm day (we live in Florida) and so we made felted balls in fall colors in a big vat of warm soapy water. I told his birthday story for the first time. It was lovely and very simple. The kids were of mixed ages so there was someone for everyone to play with and the park and playground provided plenty of entertainment so I didn’t have to do much. We also had our new puppy along for added fun (and chaos).
Whatever you do, consider carefully the age and temperament of your child. Also be true to yourself, if you don’t like it, don’t do it! Don’t hesitate to ask for help from friends and family. And remember that often, less really is more.