Ten tips Few things are certain when it comes to raising kids, but one thing is sure: Birthdays come once a year. Be it big or small, the anniversary of your child’s entrance into this world deserves celebration. Here are some tips for keeping it fun for everyone—your child and you.
1 Involve the child. The best way to ensure a party’s success is to include the guest of honor in the planning. Allow him to choose the theme, assist in menu planning and help decorate. This shows that you value his opinion. Even toddlers can paste stamps on invitations and put party plates on the table. Consider giving your 12-year-old a party budget and letting her make her own decisions. According to Ann Grecek, child development specialist for the Children’s Center of Berwyn and Cicero mother of two, “It’s important to give kids the opportunity to practice decision making. Planning a party is an easy way to do that.”
2 One size does not fit all. The size of the guest list should reflect the age and temperament of the child. A 2-year-old is likely to be overwhelmed—not honored—by a party with 20 toddlers and their parents. Think about your child’s limits as well as yours. How many guests can either of you handle and still enjoy the party? As children enter school parents are faced with the issue of whether to invite every class member. Schools generally prefer invitations not be handed out in class so no one feels left out. Another option is to provide a birthday treat for the whole class but let your child choose whom to invite for a more private celebration.
3 Beware of surprises. As a general rule, small children do not appreciate big surprises. Toddlers especially thrive on routine. Heidi Gassel, an Oak Park mother of two and a former party entertainer, has seen a 3-year-old dissolve into tears while getting a birthday greeting from his favorite costumed character. She advises parents to “prepare kids for a visit and explain that their special guest will be much bigger than they look on television.” Even for older kids, surprise parties can backfire. Preteens and teens want to look and feel their best for a party. Sending them unaware into a group of their friends may not be their idea of a good time.
4 Grow with them. Kids don’t stay little for long. Kids “outgrow costumed characters by age 6 or 7. After that, they prefer karaoke, magic shows or even game-show party formats,” says Matt Kissane, owner of Absolutely Entertainment. Whether you’re hiring entertainment or doing it yourself, let your child’s interests guide the activities. Older children may enjoy jewelry making or laser tag parties that are not appropriate for preschoolers.
5 Know when to back off. There will come a time when your child won’t want you heavily involved. Preteens and teens may only need you for setup and cleanup. (But that doesn’t mean you’re off duty.) Grecek says: “Recognizing when to back away depends on maturity more than age. Still, as a parent you are responsible for your child and his guests. The best solution is to stay close, but unobtrusive.” Consider allowing your middle-schooler use of the basement for his party. Periodically check in as you serve snacks and soda.
6 Have realistic expectations. So much effort goes into a birthday party that it’s hard not to expect perfection. But keep your kids’ ages in mind when planning. Children not yet in school may not understand organized activities, for example, and 11-year-old girls may be happy sitting around talking to friends instead of participating in a spa treatment. Don’t force the guests or your child to fit the mold you dreamed up. Just be ready with some other activities if the ones you planned start to tank.
7 Classic games are classic for a reason. Piñatas, pin the tail on the donkey and Bozo buckets have remained constants because they can adapt to different guests, ages and themes. Toddlers can stick the nose on the clown while 8-year-olds with blindfolds are able to stick the shield on the knight after being spun in circles. Piñatas now come with pull-strings for young kids. You can also buy the traditional, but more dangerous, kind that has to be beaten and broken with a stick. Scavenger hunts can be preschool friendly or intricately designed for high school kids.
8 Get inspired. Most themes for young kids come from favorite books or television shows. If those don’t spark your ideas, turn to the Web where sites such as birthdaypartyideas.com, coolest-kid-birthday-parties.com and hypermom.com offer a variety of creative ideas.
9 Good habits start early. Opening presents can be the nadir of many birthday parties, particularly for toddlers. Jealousy, tears and even rude remarks are common. Some parents skip opening gifts at the party altogether, but it is possible to look at this as an opportunity to learn. Consider waiting until the end of the party, then have each guest draw a number, bring up his gift and sit next to the birthday child while it’s opened. This keeps things orderly, involves the guests and gives you the chance to snap a picture for the thank-you card. Grecek advises teaching and practicing good manners. “Always open cards first, smile and say thank you. Model this for your child until he is old enough to do it himself.” And always send thank you notes.
10 Remember the guest of honor. Sometimes we get so caught up in the planning and excitement we forget the day is about the child. Your child may not recall the designer cake, but he will remember whether he had fun.
Alena Murguia, who lives in Berwyn, is the mother of Patrick, Connor and Matthew and works part-time for Chicago Parent.