Children’s birthday parties… we all know just how awful they are for parents: the noise, the dirt, the fear of having so many unpredictable boys and girls running around your house whom you are not allowed punish if they misbehave, not to mention the kind of parties you spend hours preparing only to find your kid is having an antisocial day and would prefer to be left alone to play in his or her room and is actively ignoring the seven children you were pestered to invite and you, yourself, end up having to entertain single-handedly.
I have had children who pout, swear, whip out their willies during the sack race, those who tell you repeatedly that it’s better in their house, the kid who just stood there, the one who would not let go of his mother for 45 minutes at the age of 8 (but was fine the moment she was out of sight), Evil Knievel, allergy kids, and a kid at a sleepover who happened to be a bedwetter and had never slept away from home (not a problem, but Gosh!, the responsibility!).
There are, of course, some lovely kids who come to the parties, some children you know, some you don’t and then there is the the child your son has invited whom everybody knows. You mention the kid’s name to your friend in passing and her face becomes a mask of shock quickly disguised into something else as she stutters “Cameron? Oh! Aehm. Is he in your Liam’s class?”. He’s only 5. Nobody wants to be the one who ostracizes a five-year-old.
If you consider that you only organize a first or second birthday party for your firstborn (you quickly realize that they don’t get the concept of birthdays and prefer the red balloon you blew up or the empty cardboard box to the actual gift you got them), and birthday parties peter out around the age of 13 when they become too cool to blow out candles in public, with three children you need to plan and survive around 34 birthday parties. 34!!!! If you factor in the ability of your husband to, systematically, be out of town that very day and the fact that, if you’re unlucky, you also have to manage a baby and an interfering younger/older sibling, we’re talking Beirut, here*. And yet, we don’t qualify for a veteran’s pension.
How do I survive children’s birthday parties? I have two strategies:
1) Plan and over-plan (there is no such thing as too many party games)
2) Out-source it
I try to make it as painless as possible. To do so, I have to make it fun for me, the adult. That’s why I usually choose a theme around which to build the party to get some creative kick out of the unavoidable. But just look at their little faces as the excitement nearly kills them as they count the days (“Only 47 more days to my birthday!!! Yaaay! Every month of Maaaay is my birthdaaay! Muuuuummm! It’s really soooooon!”). I say “the excitement”, but sometimes we’re not far from infanticide. Drivememaddd.
Some themes I’ve tried:
Pirates, har har!
- Invitations made with actual scallop shells left over from dinner one day, with a marble stuck on as a “pearl”, or pirate heads with cloth head scarves and paperclip earrings (I do them, but it’s nice for the kid to do the coloring and write the names on the invitations.)
- A pirate ship cake
(Please note: I only made a fancy cake once. The kids couldn’t care less, even though I was super-proud of my cake. They tore into it, and within minutes, it had been reduced to chocolate rubble.)
- Fancy dress (you can always improvise a pirate costume: cut off too-short trousers, Mum’s stripey T-shirt and big brother’s gangbanger bandana, plus eyeliner “scars”)
- A treasure hunt, “hit the pot” and musical statues for dancing pirates
Saturday Night Fever (because it’s less dangerous to organize a disco for seven-year-olds than for teenagers)
- A great solution for a winter birthday, as it’s dark early
- I bought a small battery-operated disco ball with LED lights for 10€
- They learned to do the Macarena
- We held it on a Friday after school. The kids thought they had been “out” at night and the parents could pick them up on their way home from work
- We made hot dogs with carrot salad and a fancy ice-cream dessert with sparklers. It was all very bling 😉
The Olympic Games
- I have three boys that are like monkeys on crack. Having them party with 8 other boys inside your house is a terrifying situation. Best get out of the house.
- Egg race, sack race, shooting hoops, throwing a sockful of sand into a pyramid of empty tin cans…
- Party favours were personalised mugs filled with sweets (plain mugs cost 2€ a piece and I painted them with special markers that just needed 48 hours drying to be dishwasher proof).
- The invitations were “aged” with tea, made to look like rolls of parchment, sealed with candle wax.
- Another treasure hunt, but this time to find « dragons’ eggs ». (I hid certain clues around the house and garden, or tied to a tree along our route. Others, I slipped in chicken eggs I had blown-out, rinsed and dried. The children had to smash the egg to get the clue).
- The dragons’ eggs were made of paper maché and painted brown.
- I bought cheap T-shirts (2€ each) and ironed on a dragon design I created on my computer (Powerpoint) and printed onto iron-on paper.
- I cut a cross into the bottom of the eggs and put in a T-shirt per egg per child, then hid them around the neighbourhood (and prayed it wouldn’t rain or that a nosy person would go investigate the large brown eggs sitting between vines, in flower beds, etc.)
- Once all the eggs had been found, each kid could take one home.
- I made a chocolate cake with a dragon design in icing chocolate. I drew the dragon on paper and cut it out to make a stencil. (The chocolate eggs are surprise eggs, the coloured ones are M&Ms).
When it comes to outsourcing, I’ve tried indoor play centres (three times), bowling (twice) and laser game where kids put on electronic chastity belts with flashing lights and shoot each other with plastic guns (twice). Next week, I’m taking my youngest to a drive-through safari park ten minutes from home.
The venues usually provide free invitations, but they’re so boring I always make my own. It’s easy and quick with a little Powerpoint handiwork and clipart, or a bit of construction paper and a few strands of wool.
Outsourcing is far more comfortable, but it is also more expensive. I’ve explained to my sons that having a birthday party at the bowling alley was their main gift. If you’re putting 100€ in it, they can’t expect a new bike that year.
You don’t usually get to bring a home-made cake, so it’s industrial all the way: chemical sweets, factory pound cake, pitchers or fluorescent-coloured syrup.
Depending on the activity, you also have to make sure you have some back-up games for them to play in case they get through the schedule too quickly. I ended up playing a German party game called “Schokoladenessen” (eating chocolate) at the bowling alley when they had gone through their two rounds like Speedy Gonzales and we were left with 40 minutes to kill before the parents were due. I was glad I had brought all the props: wooly hat, scarf and gloves, a knife and fork, a die and a 100g chocolate bar wrapped in several layers of newspaper and wrapping paper and string. When a kid rolls a 6, he or she must put on the hat, scarf and gloves and attempt to eat as much chocolate as possible with the cutlery before the next person gets 6. It’s a riot!
The upside is definitely that while you get home with hearing damage and the wish to never see another persons under 20, you have no cleaning up to do. The downside is that there is a certain charm in seeing your little one show his friends around his universe with huge excitement and (usually) love everything you do with him that day.
So, next Wednesday afternoon… spare a thought for me, sitting in my car with five 7-year-olds, praying that they don’t get bitten by an emu or open the door in the bear enclosure. Until then, party on!
* Yes, Darling, I’m talking to you!