Our wonderful little boy is going to turn three years old in a couple of months 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. We don’t have the financial resources for a bouncer, a clown, a day at a gym, or any of the fun but expensive activities that seem to be popular with his friends. 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! Sometimes parents start planning a birthday party 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.
Of course, some people love big parties. Organizing is fun and sometimes theexpense isn’t an issue. But no child I’ve ever met has looked back at his three-year-old birthday party with anything but vague 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, ideally in about two hours so that no one has time to get cranky. 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. Yes, a cake is important—but most children don’t eat that much so don’t think it has to be the deluxe sheet cake with thematic decorations. A plain cake with candles and maybe some tiny cars or dinosaurs is thrilling for a three year old.
A bonus of our growing awareness of wasteful packaging is that you don’t have to spend a fortune on goodie bags. Yes, goodie bags, the invention of marketers who think we don’t have enough cheap plastic toys in our landfills. I know that sounds 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. All the coloring, pasting and inventing art projects you see at pre-schools 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 smaller party (and there’s nothing nicer than that) do let your friends know why you aren’t inviting everyone. 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.
It’s possible that you will limit your child’s social life if you don’t invite everyone in the preschool. 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 playdate. 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? 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?”
Birthdays can be a wonderful way to remind someone that they are special to you. So whether you are planning a big whoop-de-doo or an intimate get-together, think about what kind of family traditions you can start that can be as important to you as a party. Think about taking a few moments during the day to tell your child stories about himself, look at pictures and remember together what you are celebrating. Some parents even write a note to a child every year. 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.