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Saturday, December 10, 2005

Kid Birthday Parties: How-To Guide

This is part 1 of a 3 part series... I have determined, after attending or being actively involved in ‘at least’ fifty kids birthday parties (I think the actual number is 54 as of this writing) over the past few years, that there should be clear guidelines on how to throw children’s parties. This could be a pamphlet that is attached to any baby when they leave the hospital. It is completely understandable that new parents are anxious and aggravated by creating a compelling and entertaining party for their child. I have been involved in a few parties that really would have benefited from some of the ideas in this blog entry.

It is important to start with our culture when talking about children’s birthday parties. Right or wrong, there is a strong overtone that a kid’s party is an unadulterated reflection upon the parent, and even more important as an indicator of how much the parent really loves their child. Note, this cultural phenomenon is incredibly well established in the new MTV television program ‘My Sweet Sixteen.’ In our culture, this pressure and social acceptance dynamic is fascinating and is cause for some incredibly out of the ordinary parties. For me personally, each of the 50 or so parties I have been involved with have been pleasurable, and I believe the parents all have a good sense of what is important for them and more importantly for their kids.

I think that sometimes it is difficult to know what type of party to throw. I have been in this spot at least 7-8 times, if not more. As a parent you are balancing between providing something for your child that they will remember for a lifetime, while also attempting to retain your own sanity and wit. One important thing to note parents: 95% of children do not remember anything prior to their 5th birthday (try it on yourself as a test). Think about this when deciding if you should spend an extra $500 for that guy dressed as the Wiggles to come and sing and dance.

So I have come up with my own guidelines, though I am sure everyone has their own opinions, which I would love to hear if you have comments or ideas. This list should be helpful to new parents who are looking to put together a birthday party for their kids and still keep their sanity and have fun at the same time.

First Birthday Party – Let’s get this straight from the get go. This is not a party for your child; this is a party for you. You have successful made it through one year with this child, be it the first child or maybe the 10th (note – if this is your 10th you not only don’t need to be reading this, but you need to go to the doctor and have a procedure done). Anyway, you deserve a party and you might want to make it a big one. Your days of having big parties for adults could be coming to a slow end. The best thing to do for the first birthday is to either have it at a restaurant with family and friends, or do something at your house. You can go all out on the food for adults and also the drinks. Stock the bar with all top shelf liquor and order the best food around. Given the stress associated with this party, go ahead and have it catered or go to Costco and get the prepared appetizers. This could be a blast for all involved. You probably want to schedule this on a weekend afternoon or early evening. Gifts at this age are difficult, so any guidance you provide to the parents will be extremely helpful. One important thing to note is that there are probably going to be many little kids around. They need to be occupied at all times. If you want this to really work for the parents, you should look into hiring a babysitter or two (the high school kids down the block work well) and have a game/movie room. The worst thing that could happen is the kids require so much attention the parents don’t have a good time. This party should be fun.

Second Birthday Party – This gets much more difficult. All of a sudden most of the kids coming to this party are very mobile and require a lot more attention. You can throw a bigger party, but I suggest you scale back year two. Doing a small party with 3-4 kids and their parents might be a good way to go. The smaller the better if you are going to do this at home because of the high degree of stress with the kids this age. If you want to do a bigger party, the best option is to call on a very organized environment, such as Gymboree. This is going to be one of your more challenging parties, but with Gymboree in charge you will be in good shape. They are professionals at this stuff and will reduce the stress dramatically. There are other good commercial sites for these parties, though not as strong as a Gymboree. Chuck E Cheeses is always an option, though the kids might be a bit young for this type of party and without a controlled environment you might be putting yourself in for a stressful day. Have this party on a weekend day. The best time is between 11am and 5pm. Keep this party to two hours as the parents have to stay and both the child and parent will lose interest within 90 minutes or so. With a two year old party, it is not as important to have a theme as some of the later parties, but it is helpful to communicate the child’s interests as it relates to gifts. For example, if your child is into Dora The Explorer, you might want to create a sub theme of the invitation that relates to trains. Serve food and drinks for the parents if possible. They will have their hands full, but if the size is small enough it will be very controllable.

Third Birthday Party – The third party is the first party where the kid is going to start to understand. They still are going to be confused about what is going on, but they will get a better feeling for the fact the party is for them. This party is a good opportunity to increase the size from the 3-4 kids to more. You still don’t want to invite more than 10-15 as the parents will still be staying around for this party. Having the 3 year old party at your home is a great idea. This is the first party where a theme for the kid really works and you might want to set-up your house to match the theme. Pick a point of interest for your child and make everything around that theme. The child should feel like this is their day and everything in the day is for them. They may not get the fact they are getting older, but they will get the fact that this is a celebration of them. A good example is what we are doing for our three year old son, who is an avid Thomas Train fan. We are going to clear out our family room of furniture and put 5-6 train tables out for the kids. It is going to be like the Barnes and Noble play area times five. The kids are going to love it and it is very controllable. Another friend of ours had a Dora party where the kids went on a treasure hunt and ran into Swiper and the bridge elf and some of the other characters in their neighborhood. This was an amazing success. The key part of this party is keeping the kids occupied. Have a treasure hunt, games, train tables, doll houses, dancing, etc… The time will fly by at this party because of the structure. The third party is all about themes and structure. There should be no downtime. For this party you should have some food and drinks for the parents, the kids are much more independent and the parents will have more free time in this party. This party is also a good time to have more food and drinks for the kids. They are becoming more mature and can handle more independence.

The idea of the first three years is to reduce stress for you and other parents as much as possible. Big is not always better and the more structure you create the better off you will be. The first few years are really parties for the parents also and needs to be set-up and treated that way. As the children get older they will be much more involved in the planning and organization, but for now it is up to you. When it comes down to it though, don’t stress yourself out. You want your son our daughter to have a great day, and for their friends to have fun, but this is not a contest. You should ensure you are not taking too much on to make the parties happen. You should enjoy these days as they are important parts of your kids growing up and you should include yourself in the fun.

In the next installment of this three part series on kids parties, we will start to look at some of the more advanced theme parties and drop-off parties. We will look at some of the creative concepts that have come out recently and also explore ways to ensure a 100% success rate. Until then, have fun! Always remember, this is not a reflection on you as a parent, it is a time for you to celebrate the life of your child and for you to recognize the hard work and love you have put into the life of your family.

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