Children's Birthday Parties: The Dos, Dont's and The Arghs
Remember children’s parties? They used to be easy. You knew what to expect. Everybody seemed to have fun. No one ended up broke after those three to four hours of silly fun. Kids were generally happy with their presents. There were no special dietary requests, no gift suggestions sent weeks in advance, no fancy stationery invitations, and no stress about booking the right venue and inviting the right people. .
Nowadays though, kids’ birthday parties are so much more than pass-the-parcel, musical chairs, homemade cupcakes, DIY bunting and balloons. That era is truly over. A child’s school reputation and your social status as parent and member of the community might be tied exclusively to the quality of the few hours other people’s children – and their parents – spend at your event. Or should I say events? It's very likely there will be one party in the crèche/school for your child’s classmates, one at home for close friends and family, and one at a specialist venue for your child’s friends.
Instead of dozens of cheap balloons strewn all over the garden and around the house, expect costs to balloon up to the hundreds of euros as you might need or choose to do most or all of the following: buy invitations, RSVPs, 'Thank you' notes, menu print-outs; treat the birthday kid with a special, never-seen-before outfit just for the day, new shoes; book an outstanding venue, activities, live animals and entertainers; purchase ingenious and not cheap party gifts for the participants; possibly get a childminder or two depending on the size of the party; maybe have a professional photographer; order one big cake and lots of smaller cakes, plus gluten-, sugar, nuts- and other free-from stuffs you were advised of in advance … and the list may go on according to the extent of your social shunning fears and spending power.
If you are unaware of the expectations and etiquette of children’s’ parties nowadays it can be a social and emotional minefield, and can add yet another three weeks of parental stress to an already overwhelming year; and, as you know, that’s every year. When I first home-baked some (free from everything ...) treats for my daughter’s first crèche birthday party, I was horrified to find that other parents had given out high-end bakery cake and Disney party bags. The following year, I also ordered out the baked goods and sent my daughter to her crèche party with a few dozen personalised balloons for the kids could take home. The week after she came home with an Imaginosity ticket – and the obligatory goodie bag – she got from another birthday party. This year, I’ve organised three parties. One in my home, one in the crèche and the main event at a children’s venue. For each of them I ordered a custom-made free-from cake, spent loads on party gifts (having discarded the junk items the venue organisers put in), paid for no-shows, got lots of presents my daughter never touched and dealt with last-minute cancellations, complaints and tantrums. I needed a new plan for this year.
birthday party going to be a wholly different ballgame. Last September my daughter started school, which was a very smooth transition, except for the endless number of birthday parties and increased expectations. That is what our weekends are about now. Chauffeuring the party guest to locations anywhere between the counties of Wicklow, Meath and Louth and all over Co Dublin. To date, since starting school, my daughter attended a total of school-related birthday parties, in addition to the kids dos of our personal friends and acquaintances ( I stopped counting after the one). We spent an incalculable amount of money on petrol and gifts, and no longer have free weekends, really. We were blacklisted by some for not spending enough on the gift; others were surprised we even thought of buying a gift (can someone write a manual about gifting for kids, please?). My daughter is so tired between school, extra-curricular activities, playdates and parties, she is known to ask whether she is going to school or a party that day. Talk to other parents and they feel the same, asking themselves the same questions. Do we really need to go to all these parties? Do we need to reciprocate if we were invited to twenty-seven birthday parties this year? Can we afford to go to this one? Have we spent enough on the gift? Guests are not faring better than the hosts. But hosts are facing way more stress; possibly.
And to add to the stress, this year my family has gone the DIY route, for the most part. My daughter still got three parties – school, home and kids' venue. I was not going to spend €150 on cake and little bijou cake pops like I did last year. Though they were sooo beautiful ... Unfortunately, most of them ended up on the floor and were used for an impromptu cake fight.
For the school party, I did the unthinkable and served the kids in my daughter's class shop-bought tartlet moulds filled with homemade jams, dried fruits, and lots of fresh fruit cut up in funny shapes and no chocolates (Yes, I'm a self-righteous treats Nazi). Wish I could have been there to see their faces. Though they got soap bubbles and balloons, which seemed to make things better, as observed from across the courtyard. For my daughter's house party, I again did the unthinkable (I don't bake)and made a cake. A no-bake one made of layers of lady fingers/savoiardi, three types of fruit, custard and mascarpone filling (some cake ideas here), topped up with a whipped cream "icing" in Frozen blue and simple gold chocolate beads and snowflake decorations handpicked by my daughter. Was lighter than air, super low on sugar, went down a treat with both kids and adults, and cost ten times less than if I had ordered one from the cake shop.
We made away with the birthday cake for my daughter's party in Jump Zone, where, by the way, they have a flexible cancellation policy, can order gourmet pizza (including gluten free), and don't provide party bags (Thank, God!). If you've ever seen kids eating cake at parties, they'll struggle with forks, eat with their hands; millions of crumbs will end up everywhere and become indelibly embedded in your carpet or wooden floors; and, somehow, most of the cake gets wasted. So, I again I broke away with the kids' party protocol, and bought freshly made buns and mini-cupcakes from The Natural Bakery, and simply jazzed them up with the same cake decorations and syrup writing. The kids wolfed all of them down; not one of them remained.
Best thing about all this though: my daughter got to contribute to the making of the treats and the presents, and really enjoyed it. We filled a whole week organising all this. She happily joined the long visits to a few supermarkets to find just the right food colouring, the cake toppings, the decorations; we spent another half hour in the bakery, picking out buns and mini-cupcakes in different colours; helped me decorate all the treats and had so much fun writing her own numbers and letters on the cakes. We also worked for days on putting together 'Thank you' party bags with beautiful and affordable stuff from Tiger and Sostrene Grene – another really fun DIY project. Was I apprehensive that it was not a good enough effort and that not everything looked like, you know, it came from a box and was made by professionals? Sure, I still dread to think the kids or parents might not have been entirely happy with the offering, but my daughter and I had a lot of fun doing it, and that's all it matters.
Every year parents are faced with the unreasonable pressure to strike the right balance between holding a fun party for their children and ensuring that the party – or parties – are not considered too lavish or too modest by other parents in their family or social circle. Is this all going too far? Is your child being taught to expect more every year? Is this another symptom of the peer pressure both kids and parents engage in almost without exception? Yes, yes and yes! For both your sake and your children’s and out of consideration for other parents and their kids, try setting some simple ground rules that will make everyone happy – and financially solvent by the end of the year.
- Keep it simple. Create a Facebook event, group text or e-mail list for your guests and get them to confirm their presence one week before the event. People will have a rough idea of who’s coming and can discuss gifts.
- Prevent cancellation costs or paying for no-shows by booking a flexible venue or hold the party in your living room or a relative/friend’s big house or garden.
- Feel free not to invite everybody in your friends circle, extended family and all of your child's classmates – and their siblings. 'The more, the merrier' really does not apply here. Not everybody expects to be invited, and quite a few people will feel relieved not to be.
- Dispense with gifts and party bags, if feasible. Get your child to pick one bigger present that they really want and get guests to contribute towards its cost on an opt-out basis. If people are not comfortable giving you cash, ask for gift vouchers instead of gifts or nothing at all.
- Don’t go overboard with the entertaining and remember that not everybody likes Queen Elsa or the Minions. Prepare a few magic tricks or rent a clown costume, and get the kids to join in a silly dance contest. Have jump ropes, skippy ropes and potato sacks at the ready, and a really good party music playlist. Organise drawing contests, a game of footie in the garden, a rock’n’roll game of musical statues.
- Get the older kids to help entertain and mind the younger ones – they will love the responsibility. The younger kids can help with decorating. Get them to cut, stick, paint and collage – they will feel extra important.
- Please consider doing away with the traditional goodie bags. Giving our children cake and sweets at the party, and then sending them home with another load of assorted little chocolates and plasticky sweets high in chemicals will not make us grateful. Sometimes, a simple hand-written 'Thank you' note and a little guest memento will suffice.
- Don’t think you can cope with the mayhem and the mess in your home? Depending on the season, get them all tickets to the puppet theatre or the cinema, have a picnic near the playground or a pet farm, and send them home with a balloon with their name of it and cake for the whole family (because most of the cake at the party goes in the bin anyway). Everyone will be happy and you won’t need to get your carpets professionally cleaned.
Main image from cool party site, catchmyparty.com
Diana Valentine shares interiors inspiration, musings on food and travel adventures on her blog.
She also runs cool lifestyle store home-lust.com. For more on life and things to do with kids, check out her latest posts here. Or catch up with her on Twitter: @_DianaValentine