Birthday Wisdom, Part II (the practical version)

July 02,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

No sooner had I posted my column yesterday about L.'s birthday than I thought I should write a more "practical column" about birthday parties and party-planning, and what activities have and haven't worked so well with my own kids. But as I sat down to write, I realized I might need tons more column space than I have here to really get into all the ins and outs of children's birthday parties. So I'm limiting myself to tackling what I think are the top four essential parts of any child's party: food, goody bags, crafts, and presents.

I've written before about how I love to plan a good party. When we were both in graduate school together, Scott and I used to throw some pretty mean parties, pulling out all the stops as far as cooking and music and mixing just the right sorts of friends together. What was so wonderful about party planning in those days was that we had very little money, and so thrown into the mix was the challenge of scouring the local Farmer's Market for all the ingredients to go into the food we'd prepare, and trying to come up with inexpensive ways to entertain. It can cost money to feed a lot of party people, but if you are creative in your menu planning, you can come up with many appetizers and dishes that aren't expensive to throw together (vegetarian sushi--the kind you make with cabbage leaves--like the one in this recipe was a staple at our parties. At the Farmer's Market in Rochester, New York, where we lived, you could buy cabbage heads the size of a steering wheel--really--and one whole cabbage head could produce at least two dozen tightly-wrapped sushi rolls).

When we became parents we eventually embarked down the road of party planning for little ones. Obviously the number one important thing to keep in mind when planning a party for kids is that the children have fun--this is paramount. But we have also always believed it is important for the parents to enjoy themselves, as well. Burned into our brains has always been the memory of one party we attended when L. was three. It was held at Chuck E. Cheese's and, if that weren't nightmarish enough (really--gigantic, mechanical-looking stuffed mice with pointy teeth crept into L.'s dreams for weeks afterwards), the party was held from 6:00-7:30 p.m. on a week night, and no food at all was provided for the parents. I still remember the pinched, hungry look of all those moms and dads, clinging onto their last ounce of patience while younger siblings fussed and whined, watching the three-year-olds happily munching down those tiny slices of pizza served up by grouchy college students in aprons.

So here is my two cents on what I think are the staple four elements in any child's party, whether it be a birthday gathering or a themed playdate:

If the parents are invited to stay, feed them. This doesn't mean you have to spend a fortune on food for the grown-ups, too, but at least supply some bowls of munchies for them and, if the party takes place over a scheduled mealtime, make sure there's enough food for the adults, too. This will keep them from hovering over the kids too much, and will make everyone happy. For T.'s party last January, I made macaroni and cheese bites and kept a pot of spiced cider simmering on the stove. The parents hung out in the kitchen the whole time, eating and drinking cider, while the kids played and did crafts at the kitchen table.

Goody bags/party favors: I really dislike the whole goody bag concept. Really--how many parties have your kids been to where they return home with little plastic bags filled with cheap $1 toys--whistles, flimsy notepads, novelty items, which then end up underfoot and all over the house? When you think about it, if you buy three or four $1 items for each goody bag and you invite five kids, suddenly you've spent close to $30 on things that will either promptly get lost, end up in the trash, or lose their appeal sometime between leaving the party and pulling up in your own driveway. We also decided, early on, that we would keep the favors for the guests simple, crafty, memorable, and inexpensive. For L.'s 6th birthday party, he and I made these wonderful clay boats and then filled each one with two or three wrapped fruit candies. The boats were easy and cheap to make, and each guest got to take one home, of course. For the longest time one of L.'s school friends kept his boat on his dresser, filled with marbles.

You don't have to make clay boats, of course, but with a little imagination and not much money at all you can come up with cute favor ideas like these: have kids make and decorate their own picture frames. Frames can be made out of popsicle sticks, foam, or even cardboard. Take pictures of the kids and print them out before the guests leave your house, then have each child tape or paste their photo into the frame and they have a keepsake to take home. For a summer party like L.'s, tie a roll of candy to a plastic shovel or pool toy. Or, if you keep the number of kids down to only a few, buy a bulk package of small white T-shirts from an evil mega store, then have the kids decorate them at the party with fabric paint. Or, for older kids, let each guest sign his name on the T-shirt.

Don't overschedule the party, but make sure you have one planned activity. Kids are happy just playing and eating and playing some more. But for kids of all ages, there should be one craft or organized activity during a two-hour party. If the kids are very small, print out coloring pages, give each kid a baggie of crayons (which they can then take home), and turn them loose to color. If they are older, surf the Internet to find simple, inexpensive craft ideas. Last year L. had a "space playdate party" at our house. We made rocket balloons, and assembled moon rovers out of paper-towel tubes, empty cereal boxes, and other odds and ends.

Open those presents at the party, not afterwards. I think every child's birthday party should include time at the end for gift-opening, because just as you should include your child in the gift selection process, they should also have the chance to watch their friend open up the gift. I personally think it's critical for a child to share in the joy of gift-giving, so it doesn't become an abstract, disconnected process. I always think that when parents save the present-opening for after the guests have left, it makes the presents seem more like loot, and less like gifts. Sure it might add a little extra noise and chaos to the party, but it's a children's party--it's supposed to be noisy and chaotic and fun. Birthdays come only once a year, after all.