Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Party on!

Since I'm sure I've bored you enough with move updates, I thought I'd share some random thoughts about throwing children's parties. We've done our share of them around here, some with greater success than others. Just some ideas to get your brains going:

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?


Deidre said...

What a neat post, Katherine. I love the part about having parties somewhere besides home. It is a racket that I've fallen into many times. I've put my foot down with my youngest (2).

Etta said...

Since I have "only" two kids, this isn't quite as big a struggle for me, but here's what we do:

My in-laws tend to go overboard in the birthday present department, but half that stuff never gets played with, breaks after the first use, etc. So this year, we cam up with a brilliant (if I do say so myself) idea. We asked them, instead of buying tons of gifts, to make the party their present. This way, the kid can have the party at the location of his current dreams, which we as parents would not spend the money on, and the grandparents have the chance to have the kids adore them for having such a great party. Jamie (almost 5) is having his party at one of those jump-zone type places. I was NOT going to pay for that, but he really wanted it. He knows that he is getting that from Mimi and Granpa for his birthday, and he is FINE with that, in fact he loves it. And this way it creates memories that will last a lifetime (with the help of a scrapbook) instead of a pile of toys that he will forget about in six months.

In addition, my kids b-days are only a day apart, so I can't do two theme parties two days in row without going crazy. So one of them gets an at-home theme party and one gets a no-frills but lots of fun location party.

As for favors--I'm all for the one great item instead of a goodie bag of junk. At Jaden's (almost 2)party, which will consist of about 4-5 children, (all whose parents are my close friends)the favor is a beach ball because he is having a splash/fish themed party.

Sorry for the long comment. Guess I should have done my own post, huh? Great post, though. Love your ideas.

Anonymous said...

Unless it's a milestone party (like you said... double digits, 13, 16)we like to keep it low key. Our kids really enjoy sleepovers so they get to have one or two of their closest friends and we usually go out for ice cream and get movies.
One year (our 8 year old loved this) we just had two of his friends spend the night, but before that we went into town to have ice cream at a place called The Chocolate Bar (yes it is what you think!) and then next door to an awesome candy store called Candylicious. Their 'gift' was $5 to spend in Candylicious. They loved it!

Laura said...

We basically do parties the same way. The only difference is I usually don't do a goodie bag. Sometimes I will, but it is not a given.

I think we started down this path because we have so many birthdays to celebrate! I would be throwing a party every other month with throwing Christmas in there. Whew! I decided early on, no way!

I agree - keep it simple!

Lori - Queen of Dirty Laundry said...

We don't have a hard-and-fast rule about parties, but what we've done most recently is "Queen For A Day." On the Birthday Girl's big day, she's in charge.

Within Reason.

Last week for Tinkerbell's birthday, she and Daddy went out for donuts, then we all went to Build-A-Bear, where she got to choose one animal and one outfit. Then we went to a movie and finally out to dinner with Grammy and Granddaddy.

For past birthdays, we've had cookouts with close friends, gone to the Mall Carousel, and done sleepovers with cousins. I'm resisting traditional birthday parties for as long as I can!

Beck said...

One thing in favour of parties at party places is that they allow parents with small houses to throw big parties.
My advice? Try not to accidentally crack any of the kids in the head while hitting the pinata. YIKES.

Anonymous said...

I am a mom of 4 and we have very similar "rules" about birthday parties at our house. We say "no gifts" on the years when friends can come. My pet peeve is also the goody bag idea. The best party we had was when my son turned 10 and we hadn't planned a party so after supper I sent him around the neighborhood inviting his friends for cupcakes and ice cream. Holly

Anonymous said...

I love this post! My girls are almost 2 and 4. We have done low key family (with a few close friends) parties. For my two year old's party this month we are having a pancake breakfast bar. She loves to eating pancakes and then we will open gifts and eat cake. My 4 year old loved her park party last year. It was easy, fun , and cheap.

My friend did the best party gift I have seen. She burned each child a mix CD with fun kids songs. My girls listen to it all the time!

Debbie said...

I have always kept the birthday parties low-key. Sometimes felt a little guilty about it, but w/ 5 kids, hey, enough is enough. Even the relatives can only take so many parties. I do different stuff every year w/ every kid.

Loved this post. Thanks for all the neat ideas.

Enid said...

Thank You for this post Katherine...I have aclose friend that is just like you..and I actually can hear her talking while I read your! It is funny to me then her name is very similar to yours. Ohh by the way welcome to Texas....!

Unknown said...

I'm going to post about this. We do preschool parties--have lots of fun starting at 4.

We just had my son's bday party--at the park. It was so simple, he could invite his whole class, and they had a great time.

I think I'm going to repeat it next year.

Mommahen said...

Too ironic that I read this after my son's b-day party this weekend. He turned 6 and this was his first "friend" b-day party.

The older two both got Chuck E. Cheese parties at age 5. The reason being, as Beck said, our home was just too small to invite a bunch of kids and their parents over to celebrate. But we were blessed with a bigger home last year so we gave Noah a Nemo birthday. And while I am not big on the idea of giving a child a gift to attend MY child's birthday celebration, I was very impressed with my goody bags.

Each child got a small sand pail and shovel with a water ball, water gun, squirter, and a package of Nemo gummy snacks. Then they got to make sun visors to take home. Total cost for each child--$3.23! And everyone loved it.

Great Post! Thanks for reminding us that the day is truly about celebration.

Lizz @ Yes, and So is My Heart said...

This was a very helpful post. My oldest (3) is already talking about what kind of party she wants to have for her next birthday in six months. What!?

I loved the part about the 3 important things for a kid's birthday party. You are so right that all the rest is fluff.

My best idea is to go visit the grandparents on your child's birthday. Then the grandparents can host the party. :)

Thanks for the pointers.

Lisa said...

Good food for thought. I am definately not into doing the out-do-last-year thing.

It's always good to hear from "those who have gone before us".

I just stumbled on you, it will be fun to watch your house come together. My husband and I have done a and stressful.

Anonymous said...

Great post! We alternate with our girls whose birthdays are two months apart. One year they get a friends party, the next they get to go do something fun (like Build A Bear or a movie) with one friend.

For our friends party, we try to keep it simple: cake, ice-cream, presents and a craft. Then they can amuse themselves as they like. Really, they don't need my help to have fun.

Unknown said...

Lots of good ideas! Another simple thing is to have the party at a playground - a friend of mine had her dd's party at a park - it was easy to throw a plastic tablecloth down on a picnic table, and the kids had all sorts of space to run around.

I did do a fancy tea party for my dd's recent 5-year-old party, but the china was from garage sales, and I let it be known that it was okay if it broke. We ate PB&J, and the "pink tea" was really lemonade.

Thus far, I've liked having a theme, because part of the party has been dressing up. For my ds's 2nd birthday, it was a pajama party (the theme was monsters jumping on the bed); and the kids all dressed up for the tea party (either in disney finery or something else fun). It's an easy way to decorate!

Andi said...

We've done the same party the past 2 years for my son & I'm sure we'll do the same thing again this year. Our backyard, lots of water guns (it's in July), a kiddie pool, balls, bubbles, finger food & homemade cake w/ ice cream. Immediate family & close friends with kids come over for the afternoon. The kids just run around & get wet.

Last year for goodie bags I burnt a mix of my son's favorite dance & sleep songs. It was a big hit.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree! My husband I have half-jokingly/half-seriously talked about "setting low expectations" for our kids in these areas.

When I was growing up, I probably had 3 friend parties. The birthday person got to pick the cake and ice cream flavors and what mom would make for dinner. We opened a few presents, and that was it. We were always happy.

I've talked to some of my other close friends who have children close in age to ours, and we've actually agreed to keep birthdays simple so that our kids aren't always comparing themselves to each other and we aren't comparing ourselves as moms.

Now if we can only keep that going when weddings roll around...

Nicole said...

My son's 4th birthday is this Friday, with a party at the park on Saturday. I'm just using the park's pavilion and playground, and we'll have cake and ice cream. We did it last year and he loved it--when I asked him what he wanted for his party this year, he described his party last year! Easy peasy, I can do that!

Faerylandmom said...

I'm pretty much the same. We keep it to "just us" unless the kiddos ask for their friends - and since my oldest is only just 5, he only asked for two who happen to be brothers. Handy. :-)

I don't do goodie bags at all. And I probably never will. I think I want to have my kids write thank-you notes to all who came, and mail them out.

I guess I do feel like that day, it IS all about the birthday boy or girl - a day to celebrate them coming into our lives.

But...that's totally personal...and I don't want you to think that I think I'm better or anything. Cuz I don't. :-)

PhotoChick said...

I can't get over how wonderful this post is! My daughter just had her 1st Birthday party, and we 'themed' it Polka Dots. Though I may have gone just a bit overboard on all my many ideas, I definitely didn't go overboard on price or invites (only family and a couple of my dearest friends)

Your awesome post got me to thinking: how easy would it be to have other such themes like stripes, shapes, numbers, letters (or the first letter of the child's name)... And your idea of rock-climbing gave me a multitude of ideas for 'field trip' type parties that would cost nearly nothing! (Farms, high school sporting events, museums...)

Maybe you should start an entire blog dedicated to different types of parties!!! Moms could offer up their suggestions of inexpensive fun and decor to share with others. Let's turn our world of party-planning up on its head!!!

Ok, maybe I'm being overly ambitious here, but I do think it's a wonderful idea to share our party ideas with each other. Oh, let's let our creativity and imaginations (but not our budgets or stress levels) runneth over!

~Shelia said...

We live in a rather affluent area (although we have a very modest income). And around here parties are out of control.

We choose to have familiy parties for our 3 children until they are 5. For their 5th birthday our children may invite 5 friends to their party. And this party may be at a special location. (Those kind of birthdays only happen on the 5th, 13th, 16th and 18th birthdays.)

We have done a location birthday, and luckily didn't have to reserve the space in order for the birthday child to enjoy the location. AND they didn't care about the party perks. The perk was being there!

Favors... We are still working through this. And I am sure, like you, we will incorporate take home crafts into our repetoire. This year our Party bags were hand decorated by the birthday boy, and stuffed with a couple snack packs, a bendy straw, a pencil, and a couple small toys. Nothing extravagant, to be sure.

Thank you for writing on such a much debated topic. It is nice to know that other people share the same point of view in light of the pressures of our materialistic society.

Costa Rica Baby! said...

I have a son with an early January birthday. It seems silly to get more toys right after Christmas. One year we had a book party where everyone brought their favorite children's book. We also had them sign the inside cover with a personal note. My son still has all these gifts 4 years later.
The funny thing is, when you have a regular, simple, birthday party the kids love it. They are bored of the big bounce houses, Chuck E Cheeses and other party places. Haven't you noticed the same thing???

Nicole said...

2 Things That Work for Us:

1. Instead of party favor bags, I love to give an inexpensive book (i.e. small pirate I-Spy book from Big Lots or on clearance at Amazon).

2. My daughter has a Christmas birthday, so we do the party the first weekend of December every year. We're never scrambling to find a time in the busy season and her close friends know to set aside a day for her special party!

Jackie said...

Love, love, love your ideas. Wow. I only have one little one, but it's nice to get some advice/feedback from someone who has gone through many birthday parties. Will definitely be keeping this in mind for the years to come! Thanks!

Jodi said...

Great post and something great to think about...our little guy is only 20 months, so we haven't really been thrust into parties yet. The one thing that has hit me already is not trying to keep up - I have a friend who throws super elaborate parties...themed wtih everything from outfits to favors to cake to activities matching 100% perfectly. She pulls it off beautifully, but I know it's not for me to do. There's no telling how much she spends (read LOTS) and I just don't need the stress. There was a little part of me who wanted to throw a killer "friend" party (like she did) when our little guy hit 1, but thankfully my husband is there to help buffer any rising thoughts of craziness! It was great to read your affirmation of some of what we've talked/thought about. Thanks!