Friday, January 29, 2010

Kids' birthday parties: Keepin' it real

Coincidentally, the Moms blog linked to this Associated Press article just a day after my 7-year-old called out to me from the post-bedtime darkness of her room to say she was mentally planning out her next birthday party. This is the kind of thing she thinks about while she’s falling asleep, and she wanted to update me right away so that I could start my part of the planning. Since her birthday isn’t for another seven months, I didn’t feel it was anything I needed to act on too quickly, but I was still curious to hear what she was thinking. Turns out she wants a penguin party this year, with penguin party favors, black and white cupcakes, a slip-and-slide in the yard and slushies for a snack.

Holly has planned her own birthday parties ever since she was five. To me, they never quite feel like the height of simplicity as her visions usually require quite a lot of materials-gathering and baking on my part. Reading this article, I couldn’t help but think it might be easier to just hire a clown, order up a bubble machine, sit back and let the fun happen. Instead, I’m usually busy pre-assembling puppets for a craft project, whipping up frosting for the cupcake-decorating contest, putting together a playlist of dance hits for freeze-dancing, and so forth.

Nonetheless, I’m glad that not only Holly but just about all of our social circle favor simple, backyard birthday parties. Oh, sometimes we go to parties where a juggler or guitarist will perform a set, but for the most part, even when clamor about over-the-top kids’ parties was in its pre-recession heyday, the concept wasn’t popular in our circles. And I’ve always found that notable because we know plenty of families who spend huge amounts of money on recreation in the form of kids’ extracurricular activities and family vacations. It’s not that they couldn’t do these kinds of parties; it just seems not to be a priority in our community.

But I do empathize with the mother in the party article who says her baby’s first birthday party was really for her. And actually, I think she’s right. Getting through the first year of parenthood is a major milestone. Tim’s first birthday party left me with wonderful memories. He didn’t yet have friends of his own, so we invited all of our friends. It was a beautiful day and we had a cookout on the patio at our old house. Halfway through the party, Tim went down for a nap and I visited and laughed with all the old friends I hadn’t seen enough of since Tim was born.

These days, the kids’ parties seem easy. Although in the preschool and early elementary years we tended to have big gatherings to which the whole class was invited, the traditions changed fairly quickly as the kids and their friends grew older. Tim is now eleven, and for the past few years, he’s favored a small-group approach, inviting just a few friends to a special event. One year he invited a friend to our family’s vacation house in Maine for the weekend; another year Rick took him and two other boys to Six Flags. This past fall, he had three boys for a sleepover; they went bowling and then played Wii games late into the night. Not only is it much easier to manage these small groups, but I like the way my kids now take part in planning their own celebrations and choosing activities they really like – roller coasters, baseball games, whatever – rather than the free-for-all parties of their earlier days.

So on the one hand, I’m sorry to see children’s entertainers getting less work; as a writer, I always appreciate any opportunity for artists to find employment. But I think cutting back on over-the-top parties might benefit everyone else: parents, birthday kids and friends alike. It’s fun to figure out how to have your own kind of fun, without bringing in the pros. And in my experience, as long as there’s ice cream somewhere along the way, it’s pretty much a sure thing that birthday boy or girl and guest alike will have a good time.

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