Our wonderful son is going to turn three years old this summer, and I am already dreading the date. Well, not the date of his birthday, but the date of the party. It’s not that I don’t want to celebrate, but I don’t think I’m up to the task of creating an amazing day for him, his friends, our friends, and of course, family. I don’t have the financial option of paying for a bouncer, a clown, a pony, or any of the fun but expensive activities that are popular. And I feel as if it’s just the beginning—seems like the parties for three, four and five year olds just get bigger and more expensive. I hate the idea that we are spending money on stuff that I’m not sure he’ll even remember and that I’ll spend the special day feeling like a hostess instead of a mom.
Wow, you sound like a mom who is speaking for a lot of other parents who might not be able to think about the whole birthday party issue before they’ve thought through what is most important to them about the special day. What you are saying is that it’s a day when you want to celebrate how lucky you are to have had three years together with your little boy AND that you want to be able to focus your attention on him, rather than a lot of party activities.
Some people love big parties. Organizing is fun and the expense isn’t an issue. But no child I’ve ever met has looked back at his three-year-old birthday party with anything but vaue memories, if that. It’s unlikely that your son will be more or less happy with any activities that are different than what he usually does for fun.
That’s the key to a successful child’s birthday party: figure out what your child usually likes to do on a really fun day. Does he love being outdoors? Does he want to sit down after a while and listen to music or a story? Does he like to get wet and dirty (easier for summer birthdays!) Does he have a favorite park? Does he like to play games or do art projects? Most important, does he love a crowd or does he like to play with a few friends? Group size really matters, especially when children are accompanied by at least one parent (and don’t even think about supervising any child but your own—pre-schoolers absolutely have to have eyes on them at all times, and no one can predict what even the sweetest three year old can do when he’s on his own).
Most parties for pre-schoolers are the most fun and the least stress when parents think of them as playdates rather than a rite of passage. Nothing of importance ever happens at a good birthday party—kids play, they have fun, they eat and they leave, all in about two hours so that no one has time to get cranky. But taking lots of photos to memorialize the event is important—you need to be able to have an album to post online for evidence that your child really had a party—so the relatives out of town can send a little something if they like. For that, be sure to have your child in a cute outfit. A pretty cake goes a long way in photos before, during and after the candles and the mess of eating. By the way, take extra photos of parents—a few years from now everyone will love to see how attractive they used to be!
Don’t fuss about the food—most children will be happy with healthy snacks, little sandwiches, and fruit.
The great bonus of our new awareness of wasteful packaging is that you don’t have to spend a fortune on fancy snacks or goodie bags. Yes, goodie bags, the invention of people who love to fill landfills with broken toys and don’t mind at all if children get a little lead paint mixed in with the chocolate frosting of the cake. Yes, I know that is cynical. And you will not win any popularity contests if you give a lecture instead of favors. But you can, in fact, provide things to take home that aren’t wasteful. Art materials like chalk, markers, and paper are usually used up by someone—you can even have a simple art project for kids to do and then let them take home what they’ve made. You can collect recycles materials ahead of time, or go to the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse at 4695 Telegraph Avenue (510 547-6470) in Oakland—art materials in abundance—great stuff, great prices.. All the color, paste and invent art projects you see at pre-school are perfect—ask teachers what your child might enjoy. Don’t forget about blowing bubbles (but give extras out for the children who use up or spill before it’s time to leave). Simple is best, and familiar is better.
If you choose to have a small party (and there’s nothing nicer than that) do let your friends know why. If you have lots of people on your must-invite list, you could even have more than one get-together—maybe meet family friends for pizza one night and have pre-school friends for a Saturday morning picnic. If you do want a big group, consider having it earlier in the day—little ones are up early anyway, and almost every park will have open space and picnic tables at 9 a.m. At the end of the morning the day is free for naps and other weekend activities, and your friends will be saying, “Why didn’t I think of that”.
It’s possible that you will limit your child’s social life if you don’t invite a huge crowd—some parents won’t invite your child to a party if you don’t invite theirs, even if you explain nicely or try to invite their child over for an extra play date. That’s a risk, but it may be a benefit. Think about how hard it is for you to plan a weekend now—do you really want to spend 25 Saturdays a year going to birthday parties for other people’s children? Will that make your child a happier, more interesting person? Will it make you a more loving parent?
Big or small, expensive or modest, birthday parties can be a wonderful way to remind someone that they are special to you. Most children, just like most adults, love to get notes and hear stories about themselves. Think about taking a few moments, at the party or privately, to have a few moments when you remember together what you are celebrating. You may find that you will be creating a ritual that will be a much better memory for your child than all the gifts and goodies in the world.