Simplicity - The more kids I have and the more complicated life gets, this one is a biggie. It's the "bird in the hand" idea: In general, a simple party that gets done is much better than an elaborately planned one that gets postponed indefinitely or that causes the party child's mother undue stress. Neal (13) has never forgotten that we never got around to his 11th birthday party (he is not impressed with the December-birthday excuse). Bummer.
I know there are a few of you Martha Stewarts out there. More power to you if you like making intricate petit fours, complicated crafts, and fancy finger foods. But I will tell you that most kids feel uncomfortable eating cucumber sandwiches on china, as was featured at a tea party Ruthie-4 was invited to recently. PB&J would have been just fine, the mom could have saved hours in prep time, and maybe the kids would have actually eaten the lunch.
Remember: The three main elements of a children’s party are (1) Cake, (2) Presents, and (3) Singing "Happy Birthday." Anything else is just fluff.
Age - In general, we do not do preschool "friend" parties. Why? (A) They won't remember it; and (B) their friends won't remember it. Oh, and (C) preschool parties require both parent and child to attend.
If you have some close family members who are very enthusiastic about your preschooler (i.e., Grandma and Grandpa), invite them over for cake, and take lots of pictures. Or, if you have more than one child, make it a big deal with siblings. Around age four or five, kids can sit and do a craft, play cooperatively, and enjoy a party (whether theirs or someone else's), so the party is fun, and not simply an exercise in chaos control.
Be sure to make activities and food age-appropriate. I have been to many a party where a bunch of two-year-olds were supposed to sit and do an "activity." What a disaster, especially if you have an active boy like my Neal-13 was. He was under the table eating the crayons while the little girls (and the other, better, moms) looked on disapprovingly. Head-Shoulders-Knees-and-Toes is a much better option, much less stressful for you and the party goers, and makes for some very cute video ops.
Frequency - Our kids get a "family" party every year, but we do not feel compelled to do a "friend" party every year. As it's turned out, they usually get their first friend party when they turn five, then it's about every other year during the "party years," which peak in elementary school. We like to do a big[ger] party when they turn 10, and then Dennis takes them out for a special evening when they turn 13 (see here and here). I suppose the next biggie will be 16.
We want the child to feel celebrated without creating an atmosphere where we are constantly trying to “outdo” last year (or worse, outdo our neighbor Johnny’s party!). Keeping them every other year helps the budget, and also gives the child something to really look forward to and to appreciate.
Themes - These can be helpful for creating a memorable party. There are lots of books out there with ideas on making a pirate party, princess party, etc. However, it is easy to go overboard on the theme idea.
At the aforementioned tea party for a four year old, the mother did a beautiful job on making the whole party a formal affair. All of us moms were duly impressed at the attention to detail, but unfortunately, the smaller partygoers had little appreciation for the lemon curd, tomato and cucumber sandwiches, and real tea. Let’s not even discuss the fact that every item on the table was breakable. Go for effect without stressing on perfection, all for the sake of the "theme."
Parties at Party Places - I am not against these, although I think they are a serious racket. We have done these occasionally, and it is fun to have a group go bowling or play laser tag together. These places annoy me, however, because, not only are they outrageously expensive, they also usually require a minimum of 10 attendees. How many of us have 10 close friends? This forces us to invite, say, the whole class (which is usually more than 10, so you have to pay the exorbitant amount for extra kids, or selectively exclude some. That’s always fun.). Or, you have to dig for friends in several different social circles. But if I invite Johnny, then Suzy will feel bad if I don’t invite her! Because we inevitably invite siblings, we have never been able to invite “just 10,” which is what they count on, and before you know it, you have paid them way too much.
Lately we’ve been piecemealing these things. Last weekend, Libby-10 invited four friends to go rock climbing. We had pizza before they left, packed our own bottled water, then they came back home for cake and ice cream. It was very relaxed. They were not forced to "hurry up and have fun because the next group needs this party room." Total cost was a quarter of what we would have if we had done the “party plan,” and, with fewer friends, Libby got to have quality time with each of them. A win-win party.
Party Favors - I know it is annoying that this generation's kids have been groomed to expect a "party bag," but it is what it is. For elementary ages (and even older for girls), I like to do a party craft that the kids can take home. We've made bird feeders out of clay pots, treasure boxes, rockets out of a paper towel roll, and this year, pillow cases. It reminds the birthday kids that it's not all about them, and it's a nice way to say "thank you" for coming to the party.
What is your best piece of party advice?