Over the past twenty-one years, my husband and I have thrown dozens of parties for our three children. While a few of these celebrations were just okay, the majority were memorable. Some were even magical. Here are the important lessons we’ve learned along the way:
It’s all about involvement
I can totally understand the desire to throw a big bash and invite every adult friend in our address book to celebrate a child’s first birthday. The accomplishments of the first year of parenting are certainly worth celebrating! Generally, however, I appreciate parties geared toward creating a meaningful experience for the child. I’ve found the surest way to do that is to let children take the reins as much as possible by inviting their active participation in every aspect of the event, beginning in the planning stages. Who knows our child better than she does?
This let-the-kids-do-it-whenever-possible approach is reflective of child specialist Magda Gerber’s approach to children’s play, and creative projects (and just about anything else children are involved in). Gerber suggested we trust children to be the writers, directors and lead actors of their play in order to maximize these opportunities for self-motivated learning, problem solving and creative expression. So the party hats we wear are those of a support staff: assistant producer, set designer, go-fer. We let our children do the rest (to the extent of their abilities and interests).
Naturally, the younger the child, the more she’ll need us to do, but we can keep the festivities child-centered by considering her interests and planning around them. For example, the theme for our son’s second birthday (with his stamp of approval) was one of his favorite songs, “Eensy, Weensy Spider”. He posed for the invitation, which was co-designed by his six-year old sister, and then picked out a few inexpensive spider-themed party favors from a catalogue. We invited family and a couple of his buddies, ate cake, and a spidery good time was had by all.
On the practical side, kids seem to innately understand that less is more, so trusting their instincts has saved us time and loads of money. We’ve noticed that our kids seem to know who to invite and how to keep plans age-appropriate and far simpler than we might have. A case in point:
Parents can get carried away and take over at the drop of a (party) hat
Even though my husband and I always intended to keep plans simple and child-centered, our enthusiasm occasionally got the better of us. My most vivid memory of this was our son’s 7th birthday party. He wanted it to be at the beach near our home, and so we decided on a pirate theme. Our son loved pirates. Well, mostly he loved swords.
My husband and I dug right in, creating an elaborate beach treasure hunt with a map to the pirate’s buried treasure. Neither of us are particularly crafty, but get us started imagining stories and surprises, and we’re off. Some of our brilliant ideas had us rolling on the floor. We were quite pleased with ourselves.
So, as the young pirates set off down the beach in search of the buried treasure chest filled with candy and toys, they had to follow the map, guess clues and solve puzzles. There were twists, turns, dead-ends, and hilarious (we thought) highlights, like one involving the grave of the legendary pirate Ol’ Gasbard and a hidden remote controlled fart machine. (Really.) My husband and I were amused, the children not so much.
As an afterthought, we’d also followed our son’s suggestion to bring a football and a rope for tug-of-war.
Guess which activities the kids enjoyed most?
What do you suppose our son said the next year when he requested another beach party?
“Let’s not do the treasure hunt pirate stuff this time.” Um, okay… We didn’t argue. It was actually a relief not to have go to all that trouble again, and I’m (almost) certain we would have eventually come to the same conclusion ourselves.
For the next five years our son had the most fabulously rich and shockingly simple beach birthday parties that his buddies raved about and looked forward to every year.
Preparation — at least half the fun
For children, the preparations are as exciting and enriching as the party itself. Child-centered planning and preparation also help toddlers and preschoolers feel on top of the situation, fully informed rather than overwhelmed, so birthday child meltdowns are far less likely.
The more open we’ve been to our children’s “less is enough” (and, often, more) approach, the more magical surprises there have been, like the personalized invitation drawings our daughter M made for her fourth birthday. Her eight year old sister did the writing.
Her Winnie the Pooh party, which she chose based on her love of the stories, reminds me of the book I adored and used for three hugely successful affairs: The Disney Party Handbook by Alison Boteler. I checked out the same slightly worn copy from the library each year for our Winnie the Pooh, Beauty and Beast and Peter Pan parties.
The book contains delightful decoration, food and game ideas that the children can choose from and help prepare. Memorable highlights for us were the Fifi the feather duster party favors made with paint stirrers, the Beast’s chocolate ice cream cake castle which looked darkly magical as it started to melt, and the dapper and durable green felt Peter Pan party hats for my oldest daughter’s sixth birthday, a simple craft that even I could make work. The Peter Pan pirate ship trampoline with sails made from white sheets adorned with skull and crossbones were to die for, too.
If our kids were young nowadays we’d no doubt be scouring imaginative websites like Toddler Approved (I love their Dog Party!), Tinkerlab, and Modern Parents, Messy Kids for party ideas to inspire us and our kids and make beautiful memories.
It’s not about money
There were parties we spent money on, but looking back, the parties (and aspects of parties) that stand out as memorable favorites cost us very little. Take the slumber party we had for our middle daughter’s 10th birthday. We took the girls to “Build-a-Bear”, which can be costly, and they certainly enjoyed themselves, but the party really took off when the girls came back to our house and began their spontaneous game of “fashion show” with the large collection of random costumes and accessories we’d amassed over the years. Our older daughter videoed the girls “walking the catwalk” in their outrageous outfits—though it was almost impossible to walk steadily when they were doubled over with laughter—and then later they posed for this photo:
Trust is the ticket to magical surprises
‘Trust’ is my favorite parenting word because of all the magic and joy the simple (though not always easy) practice of letting go has brought to my family over the years.
Trusting our first daughter to develop empathy and manners through our modeling rather than forcing or insisting she share or say “thanks” or “sorry” led to our big surprise on her 3rd birthday when she thanked each of her guests individually and effusively for the gifts she received. She also surprised us year after year by always reserving the seat next to hers for her sister who’s four years younger (and is exploring her Beast fangs in the below photo).
Trust in our kids to do it their way has meant we seldom need to entertain. We first realized this when our oldest had her “Beauty and the Beast” party in Kindergarten. The guests had enjoyed their Beast-themed snacks, including breadstick “Lumière” candlesticks with butter “flames”, the marvelous haunted castle cake and also a piñata. (We chose the only one we could find that vaguely fit the theme—a lovely dark haired girl—not foreseeing how wrong it would feel to be pummeling her with a plastic bat!)
After the piñata was cracked, we thought we’d need to keep the party moving by leading some games, but to our surprise, our daughter and her seven guests completely took charge, playing games on the lawn they’d learned in music class at school, which entertained them for the rest of the afternoon. Well, that was easy!
We’ve since been surprised when, for example, a large group of middle school kids chose to frolic in the ocean fully dressed (we didn’t think they’d actually enter the bracing water at the end of October).
And then there was “Rainbow Wars”, the uncomplicated, yet apparently riveting game my son’s friends invented that involved throwing glow stick party favors at each other all evening in our backyard. Who needs adult-led entertainment?
One of the biggest surprises we’ve had has been at the holiday party we’ve hosted for family and neighbors for the last few years. Kids of all ages are in attendance, yet you’d never know it, because they are outdoors playing who-knows-what in the dark all evening. Granted, it doesn’t get much below 40 degrees around here, but that can still be a bit chilly when you’re barefoot, as most of them apparently are.
When children devise the plan, it’s more fun for everyone.
Please share your stories!
(Cover photo by Hebe Aguilera on Flickr)