Your stomach groans audibly as you watch your two-year-old inhale his third cup of radioactive-looking green jelly, slurping it from the plastic spoon with the speed and expertise of a Guinness Book of Records professional.
The little girl sitting next to you looks up and smiles in chocolate-fuelled ecstasy, which might be cute if her teeth weren’t smeared with dripping brown goo, melting down her chin onto her frilly white party dress. The entire room is a war-zone of popcorn missiles, sticky hands, icing-smeared linoleum and child hysteria.
Your little sweetheart gazes up at you, with a crazy, bizarre glint in his eyes, wriggling around in his chair and shaking his head from side-to-side so fast you’d swear he was battery-operated. Maybe it’s the tidal wave of sugar careening through his veins, or the king-sized hit of artificial colouring from the jelly, smarties, and jam tarts he has consumed thus far. You know very well, that, short of a jelly wrestling match, hundreds of tears, ear-piercing screaming and a very publicly humiliating tantrum, you have absolutely no chance of controlling what your child consumes today.
Next it’s time for the presents. You look on in horror as your birthday child is presented with a mountain of extravagant electronic and battery-operated plastic gifts, each louder and more obnoxious than the previous. By the fifth present, the child is bored. She has escaped several times, only to be dragged back to the present table. You note that the other children wouldn’t mind a go at the present unwrapping. Every now and then a chubby hand reaches out to grab at some shiny paper. Any why not? After all, there are enough presents for all twenty children to open one.
Alphabet-magneted to your fridge at home are four other birthday invitations, and you have RSVP’d to say you’ll be in attendance for every single one. Your eyes dart around the room, frantically searching for a paper bag to breathe into. Welcome to the world of children’s parties.
Ironically, most children’s parties are surprisingly kid-unfriendly, though any situation that places a large group of children, some of whom may not have even met each other before, in the same space for several hours, is likely to breed excitement. Birthday parties for younger children add to the mix, not only toys (which create complex child property disputes at the best of times), but many new toys, all of which are very clearly designated to one child in the group. Throw in bucketfuls of sugar, artificial flavours and colours, party games, and decorations and you have, well, a recipe for disaster.
Yet every birthday is a special landmark for children and their families. For the children, they are a sign of growing older, a reminder of all the achievements they have attained in the last year, and a chance to have all of the people they love and care about together in one place to celebrate. For parents, birthdays can deliver the proudest of moments, offering a chance to commemorate the life they have created and nurtured together, and marvel in the development of their child.
But at a time when child-party entertainers and caterers have never been more commonplace, when child party-goers have come to expect lolly and cup-cake-laden feasts, and birthday boys and girls anticipate elaborate gifts, how do you undertake the seemingly impossible task of planning a child-friendly party, without including all of the aspects of children’s parties that kids know and love?
Ask children what they like most about birthday parties and, nine times out of ten, they’ll say the food. So how do you avoid serving up a birthday feast of fluorescent cocktail frankfurts, frosted smartie-covered cupcakes, fizzy sugar-drinks and chocolate crackles, without an enraged mutiny of five-year-olds on your hands?
Party food tips
- On your birthday invitations, make sure that you ask parents to notify you when RSVPing, if there is any food their child cannot eat.
- Serve the healthiest food first, and keep the few sugar goodies well out of sight (even of your own children), whilst preparing and serving lunch.
- Make sure your healthy food includes party treats: buy or prepare easy-to-make party treats such as mini-pizzas on a base of wholemeal muffins, banana muffins, scones, berry pikelets, fruit-skewers made with watermelon, grapes and banana, or spinach and cheese pastries.
- Serve diluted fruit juice, but jazz the cups up with crazy straws or party decorations.
- Don’t go overboard with the sugary treats: one slice of birthday cake and a chocolate crackle is more than enough for each child. If you must include a few sweets, do so as part of a game, such as pass the parcel, rather than placing a large supply on the table.
If you’ve seen the classifieds of any parenting newspaper, you’ll know that there appear to be more clowns, magicians, and magic fairies available than there are kids’ parties for them to perform at. So when many children are accustomed to programmed entertainment, do you fork out for a professional, or don the red nose and rosy cheeks yourself?
Though our children would rarely recognise or admit it, let’s face it, most adults are far more interesting than children. Sort your way through your friend and relative mental database to come up with some entertainment activities for party-goers. Is your child’s grandmother a great storyteller? Perhaps her grandfather enjoys dancing and singing nursery rhymes, or her older brother or sister is a craft-wiz and can help them all make their own birthday hats. Children will probably enjoy old favourites such as Pass the Parcel, Pin the Tail on the Donkey, and egg and spoon races (use hard boiled eggs), just as well as paid entertainment.
If you must use paid entertainment, put a unique educational spin on things whilst engaging the children’s interest. For example, instead of, or as well as, having a magician perform for the children, have them hold a ‘magic workshop’, where the kids can learn a few simple magic tricks themselves to take home and show their family. Or hire an African drummer, and hold a drumming party where each child will be able to learn some drumming skills.
- Ask the entertainer to tell the children a little about where she, or her art (eg, magic/clowning) comes from and the history behind their skill.
- Ensure that the children will be dressed appropriately for planned entertainment by including dress specifications on the invitation. For example, if there will be lots of physical activity, ask that party-goers be wearing a tracksuit or similar comfortable clothing. Always specify that a change of clothing should be brought if games have the potential to get messy.
Birthdays can be costly, not only for the parents of the birthday child, but for party-goers as well. Most children will receive more than enough gifts from immediate relatives to enable them to feel special on their birthday. Be creative with present ideas, and specify well in advance if you have any unique present suggestions.
You might ask adults to pledge time with, or teaching a skill to, your child for the coming year. For example, a musician could donate a piano lesson or two, a would-be athlete could teach your child how to dribble a soccer ball, a chef could show your child how to cook something. At present time, you can ask party-goers to explain their ‘gift’. Or you could have a craft table set up in a corner, and explain to children that they can make a drawing, pasting, story, etc, for your child before the party ends. Hold a show-and-tell of craft items at present time near the end of the party.
- Speak to your birthday child about gracious gift acceptance prior to the celebration. Explain that every gift is dear and precious because it is given or chosen by a loved one, or friend—even if it isn’t something they wanted.
- If money is tight and there is something your child really needs, consider specifying the type of gifts your child would like on the invitation. For example ‘Susan loves craft. For her birthday, we ask contributions of a craft item for her craft-box such as stickers, paint, glue, cardboard, paper, glitter.’
Many parents dread the party exit, on which a sugar-filled lolly bag may be pressed directly into their child’s gleeful hand without prior consultation. ‘Lollybags’ don’t have to include actual lollies in order to be appreciated by children. Relatively inexpensive and creative gifts such as craft bags filled with stickers, crayons, drawing pads, or activity bags with a yoyo, bottle of bubbles, and party whistle can present a healthy alternative.
Always hand gift-bags to the parent of the child, preferably out of the child’s sight. They are then able to decide which treats their child is able to have, and when.
The most common child-unfriendly mistakes child party planners make are scheduling poor party times, and insufficient supervision. Think not only about what time of day is best for your child, but what time of day is best for the majority of party-goers in order to avoid a houseful of cranky, tired children. For example, your three-year-old may no longer take a nap, but others may, so holding a birthday lunch may not be the best approach. As a general rule, parties for under-fives should include at least one adult for every four children. This will vary depending on the age of the children and the party venue and activities.
- Make sure your party is no longer than two hours for under-fives, or three hours for over-fives.
- Have at least a loose schedule planned in relation to times for eating, free play, present-opening, cake-time and planned games, shows, or activities.
Before planning your child’s party, make sure he actually wants one, and explain to him that it isn’t necessary to invite every child in the grade, but that just the people who are important to him commemorate the occasion with them (though in a world where reciprocal party invites are a must, this idea may be met with resistance).
Remind your child that their birthday, party or not, is a celebration not only of her individual journey and existence, but of one of the most important days of your own life, and take some time alone with your child to reflect on her life journey, culturally, emotionally, physically, socially, and academically, and how much she means to you.
Published in Kindred, Issue 27, Sept ’08