Forget the manners, double the fun


Food fights are de rigueur at this birthday party By Susy Schultz

Harry Brown, David Meyerson and Spencer Brown enjoy throwing out their manners along with some spaghetti.

Don't you have moments when you want to throw away all the rules and just roll in the mud with your kids?

For years, while the boys were little, we would start a group gardening day and inevitably, the hose meant for the rose bushes would wind up in a clear patch of dirt, destined to become a glorious mud patch for rolling in.

The pattern was the same. I would be distracted, look over and for a moment be shocked--what would my mother say? But then I would just give in and grab some mud myself.

OK, maybe mud is a bit much, but sometimes you just have to throw out manners for a moment of fun.

And while it is a little scary, birthday parties can be the perfect time for organized misbehavior. Maybe this year, you should try the Bad Manners Birthday Party.

Not only is it a guaranteed good time, but it is a great parenting tool for months before the event.

Just think of it. Instead of looking stern and always being the no-no-no parent--"Stop that," "use your fork, young lady," "say excuse me" and "young man, burps are not meant to shake the house, cover your mouth"--you can simply smile at your little misfit and say, "Hey you, save that one for the bad manners party."

Bad manners basics Years back, while visiting my sister Vicki in Baltimore, I met her friend Carol Knight. We refer to Carol as "the best mother in the world" because she is creative and tuned into children. The bad manners party is Carol's brainchild.

The minute I heard about it, I wanted to do it.

Just think of it, you eat with your hands, never say please and thank you, burp the alphabet with no scolding. You can even spit water through your teeth.

Like a fool rushing in, I set it up with my son Zachary for his 8th birthday before getting suggestions from Carol.

Had I consulted her, Carol would have told me to invite just a handful of children, have it in the back yard in the summer, instruct the kids to wear bathing suits and, at the end of the party, hose everyone off.

Zachary's birthday is in April--no chance of bathing suits and hosing down then--and I invited more than a handful--17 kids. (I have this thing about inviting the whole class.)

But it worked.

We made it clear on the invitation that everyone should dress in old clothes. We decided the yucky stuff could take place in the basement, which has a concrete floor. We lined the walls with black garbage bags--it gave the whole place a bit of a spooky air--put two long tables down there and set it with plates and cups--no silverware, no napkins.

There was excitement in the air and nervous energy as the party started. Some of them really got into the idea. One of the girls came in with a gift wrapped in an old paper bag, which her mother had driven over several times to get a really rude effect. It was very cool.

As each child came through the door, he or she was wrapped in a tall-kitchen bag with holes for the head and arms and a belt made from excess bags.

Once the little ones were thoroughly encased in plastic, we played several rounds of freeze dancing to get out some of that energy. Then we sat down briefly and worked out a few rules. Even chaos has to have order. I wanted each kid to feel safe and in control and some of the kids needed a license to break the rules.

• No please. No thank you. No excuse me.

• No throwing food in the face.

• No name-calling.

• If someone says "Stop," that must be respected.

• Eat with your hands.

• Gas passing is acceptable--the boys insisted on that one.

• Manners are suspended only in the basement.

• You can ask to leave the basement at any time.

That done, we lined up and marched downstairs where there were big plates of spaghetti--you can't beat eating those noodles with your hands--hot dogs with ketchup, Jello and large glasses of water--I didn't mind sending home slightly soggy kids but I thought sticky, juice-soaked children was too much.

It was funny to watch. These well-raised kids took some time to really get it. They would put their hands in the spaghetti, grab it out and then look around sheepishly.

I had to walk around encouraging them. "Just grab it with your hands." "Go ahead, mush it around." "You can have a food fight, it's fine."

No doubt, the boys got into it much faster. But once they got over the hump, the girls were no slouches either.

Once, when I looked at one girl and said rudely, "What do you want?" she looked surprised, like she was going to cry. Then, she remembered. And she yelled at me, "Gimme one of those."

We served the cake and ice cream downstairs and it was enjoyable bedlam. Only one child requested to go upstairs because he had too much. But he climbed only two steps before turning around and coming back.

After about an hour, the bucket brigade came in. I had several buckets of warm water and clean, but old, towels ready.

They looked like my boys in the mud patch, but each child had their hands and the bottoms of their shoes dipped in the buckets, faces wiped and bags removed before going upstairs.

We played a few games upstairs, opened presents and even chatted a bit about what it all felt like to be told to act bad.

Bottom line: Cost was low because I didn't spend money on party decorations or a nice cake. I needed five other parents to help and it did take about two hours to clean the basement.

But it passed the real test: Zach and all his guests had a great time.



Susy Schultz is editor of Chicago Parent and the mother of two boys.


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