October 03, 2005

How to plan a birthday party in fifteen minutes or less

About a week before the child's birthday, I suddenly remember that we ought to have a party. I tell myself that next time I am going to remember this ahead of time. OTHER PARENTS plan birthday parties MONTHS ahead of time, and what kind of parent am I? Then I tell that inner You Suck as a Parent voice to go to hell.

At the grocery store, I buy a couple packs of tacky birthday party invitations. I would let the child pick the design but I can never get a child to come to the grocery store with me. Mainly, this is because I won't let my children buy refined sugar disguised as healthy snacks. According to my youngest child, I am the only parent in all of Traintrack Village who is not willing to buy Weird Sticky Sugar Dyed Red and Sold by the Foot.

So I have to choose the invitations myself. And the options are often dreadful. I try to find cards without much text because I have a low tolerance for cartoon puns. And merely looking at the cards sends me into a rant about gender stereotypes, leading me to mutter angry things to other shoppers who take one look at me and push their carts very quickly into another aisle. This could be another reason my children don't like to shop with me.

Then I look at the calendar to pick a Saturday for the party. Usually, because I've waited too long, the party comes about a week after the actual birthday. Sometimes a few weeks. I used to worry that this sort of neglect was traumatic for the child, but I have since discovered that no one really cares about the date. And if I am wrong, well, every kid needs something to talk about in therapy some day.

Next, the child and I sit down at the kitchen table and write out the invitations. The most important part of the invitation is to write: "Wear play clothes that can get dirty" on the bottom of the card. Otherwise, we will get some girls wearing party dresses who won't play games because they don't want to get their dresses dirty. Honestly. I am not making this up. We still get the fancy dresses sometimes, but I have learned to keep sweatpants and such on hand for the girls to change into. Usually once they have changed their clothes, they will happily trudge through the pond like all the other kids. I really should write, "Wear shoes that you can afford to ruin" on the cards but I've always worried that that would scare some of these young parents.

Next, we take five minutes to plan an activity that we can do outside. Something simple. Water balloon fights if it is warm. Going down the front hill on inner tubes if it is winter. Relay races. Scavenger hunts. In the warm weather, anything that involves mud and water is popular. The extent of our planning is merely to choose an activity ahead of time; spontaneous games often result.

What is funny is that the activities I choose are usually at least a hundred years old, sometimes thousands of years old, but some of these younger parents (and by that I mean anyone who does not have grey hair and at least one kid in college) are always congratulating me on coming up with new ideas. One time when a parent came to pick his child up from a winter party, he stood and watched the kids go down the hill on black inner tubes and said, "Where ever did you get the inner tubes?"

"At the auto parts store," I answered, stating the obvious.

"At the auto parts store?" he asked incredulously.

"Yes," I said, "They are the inner tubes of truck tires. We blew them up at the gas station."

Then he started going on and on about how clever I was to think of using inner tubes for, er, inner tubes. Yes, these young parents are easy to impress.

When it comes time to buy stuff for the party, my choices are simple. I never waste money on paper plates or paper napkins or any of that insipid birthday party stuff. I don't like to buy disposable products, especially disposable products that promote dreadful gender stereotypes, and I don't think kids need that stuff anyhow. How many kids come home from a party exclaiming about how cute the napkins were? Really. That would have to be the dullest party ever. We just use real plates and cloth napkins at the party. Well, actually, the cloth napkins don't get used much. These are not Martha Stewart's kids we've got here.

And the food? Halfway through the party, Spouse goes out and picks up pizza and soda. We do have cake and ice cream, of course. Here is where I have a confession to make. I am the shockingly horrible parent who does not make a homemade cake for my child. I don't even order an expensive bakery cake personalized with the kid's name in order to make up for my guilt of not having a homemade cake. I buy a couple of frozen Pepperidge Farm cakes (often on sale, 2 for $5) and put candles on them. I would feel guilty about this cheap and easy shortcut, except that I don't.

I used to feel guilty. Then one year during some kind of insane Susie Homemaker spell, I said to one of my kids proudly, "I am going to make you a homemade cake this year." He said, in a hurt voice, "What? I don't get a Pepperidge Farm cake? But it's a tradition!"

So that's the party. Parents drop their kids off, many of them exclaiming how happy they are to get an afternoon to themselves. (We will often invite a younger sibling to stay and join the party which makes the parents even happier.) The kids mill about in the living room while I make sure I know all their names. Then we go outside for some kind of crazy activity. When they come in, everyone is hot and sweaty, or cold and muddy. We eat pizza and cake. We sing happy birthday. We drink gallons of soda. We open presents.

Then everyone goes outside again. I give every child a ziplock bag. I go upstairs to an open window, and throw candy out the window. The kids scream and yell and run around picking up the candy. I throw more candy. They scream and yell and pick it up. This activity goes on for about half an hour. It could go on for hours if I let it. You can entertain children endlessly by throwing candy out an upstairs window. Our household has become famous for this particular birthday tradition.

The day ends with another tradition, the sleeping monster game. Spouse lies on the floor of the living room and pretends to be a sleeping monster, complete with dramatic fake monster snores. The kids try, one at a time, to sneak past him. He wakes up from time to time, grabbing at their legs, sometimes tackling a child. Much screaming and giggling and running around ensues. So far no one has gotten hurt during the playing of this game. Well, unless you count my husband. He has taken some kicks to sensitive body parts.

When parents start arriving, I usually try to get my child to stand at the door and say polite things as the other kids leave. Spouse limps around the living room picking up crumpled wrapping paper. The parents try to get their kids to say thank you. I provide plastic grocery bags for clothes that are too wet to wear home, and apologize for the white socks that will never get clean again. It's all good.

As my kids have gotten older, they have outgrown the birthday parties, of course. Teenagers would rather gather at night to jam and play monster. But With-a-why is still young enough to see want this kind of daytime party. And his birthday is in October.

37 comments:

Rana said...

Now, those sound like _parties_! *grin*

Some days I feel like about a hundred years old because I read about these insane parties that some parents throw for their kids, and I find myself muttering, "Back in _my_ day..."

If we were lucky, we got to go to a movie or something like that, but mostly it was about having friends over and eating food and staying up too late and doing lots of running around and giggling.

As far as I can tell, my brother and I turned out fine.

Part of the reason I want to have kids is to teach them about things like inner-tubing. *grin*

Storm Front said...

I absolutely LOVE the idea of throwing candy out of an upstairs window. Your very own version of a much easier pinata! My kids are both in their 20's but I always came up with fun stuff that didn't require a lot of planning but was tried and true and got the same kind of comments from parents. "Where did you come up with these ideas?" they would ask...

I miss those days sometimes. Hope With-a-why has a great party!

Bad Alice said...

How happy I am to hear your preparations for a birthday party. Last year I was floored and intimidated by this birthday party my five-year-old was invited too. It was a princess dress-up party, held in a country club at a fancy housing development. There were stations set up, manned by volunteer parents, where the kids could get makeup, manicures, hair goop, bead a bracelet and make lip gloss. The cake was hand made, with fondant icing, no less. The invitations had been hand cut from construction paper and glittery pipecleaners to look like little purses. I felt like a schlump who had stumbled into Beautiful People Land.

I noted that subsequent birthday parties took place at one of those inflatable places, which may be pricey but is definitely low maintenance, and I know my daughter, girly as she is, much prefered the inflatables.

Piece of Work said...

Sounds like my kind of party. And I'm so glad to hear about it, as I tend to not feel obligated to throw the big crazy parties the other parents do. I mean, my kids are really small (1 & 2.5) and you still wouldn't believe the parties we go to. I'm kind of dreading the 3 year party coming up because our house is too small for a bunch of kids and with no yard . . I think I can get away with just a family party one more year.

jo(e) said...

Bad Alice: Those parties that encourage rigid gender stereotypes just make me shudder. Ugh. Five-year-olds putting on make-up? Thank goodness, mixed gender parties seem to be the norm around here.

I am amazed at how elaborate birthday parties can be nowadays. My kids have been invited to parties that cost hundreds of dollars.

What is funny is that when I was young, most people had lots of kids and small houses, and everyone had birthday parties at home. Now, most people seem to have fewer kids than me, and bigger houses, and yet ... they never do parties had home. Seems strange.

Yankee T said...

I am the queen of the cheap at-home birthday party. Activity? A hose, a slip-n-slide, some bubbles and sidewalk chalk, and water balloons. Both kids have summer birthdays. I will confess to the homemade cake, but that's it. Goody bags are paper lunch bags filled with the candy of my choice. I miss that age. We had our last bathing-suit birthday party when YD was 12. Now they're way.too.grown.up!
I love the candy out the window deal. Wish I had thought of it!

Pink Cupcake said...

These sound like amazing parties, Jo(e). You would definitely have had to have spare sweat pants for me though, as my mother refused to let me go parties without wearing a party dress, whatever the invite said! I also love the idea of throwing candy out of the windows. :)

ccw said...

These sound like great parties. Kids just love to have a party.

I fully admit, I am one of those elaborately decorated birthday party people, but I amaze the parents around here by having them at home. That is all it takes in my neighborhood - allowing dozens of children to run wild in my house and yard. However, we do the old games, too. The kids love that stuff.

And the kids here must be weird b/c they do comment on the cute tableware. It's a complete waste of money, but I cannot help myself.

jo(e) said...

Yankee Transplant: Yeah, summer parties can be the most fun. Anything with water involved! I have a child for each season, which forced us to come with stuff for all kinds of weather.

jo(e) said...

CCW: I do have a friend who manages to pull off elaborately decorated parties. With themes and all. Even clever homemade birthday cakes. And matching goody bags.

My decorating talent does not go much beyond blowing up a few balloons.

listmaker said...

Throwing candy out a window? What a great idea! Our traditional game was "head, shoulders, knees and toes" played progressively faster until everyone fell down.

The last kid party we gave was a surprise party for College Daughter's 16th birthday. Rebellious Teenager is way too cool for birthday parties. Guy birthdays consist of taking over the basement for video games, food, and staying up all night.

Bad Alice said...

When I lived in Arizona, everyone had a pinata at their birthday party--it was expected. Those are fun, because the kids can take out their energy on an inert object. Or, if you don't want whacking, they can see who pulls the magic ribbon. I don't see those as often in Georgia.

Now, I'll have to see if I can get out of having Bratz decorations at the 5 year old's party.

reverendmother said...

I love it, jo(e)! High five!

I'm one of those "young parents" and I may need your moral support come February. I'm so much more your style but the pressure around here to be otherwise is strong.

Michelle said...

I usually do invitations on the computer (last year, I put a photo of one kid doing bunny ears over the other kid on the cover) but this year, I was out of paper, and out of time, so a couple of weeks ago, when it was G's birthday, I also just picked up some invitations at the grocery store (although I let him choose them b/c he's my grocery store buddy). I was so proud of him because I wrote out the info on the "this is what the card says inside" thingee, and he wrote every single invitation himself, addressed them himself, and even those to be mailed.

The Thank-You notes weren't as easy to get out of him!

I'm all about what's easy and fun, these days. This time, it was a pinata and pizza and crazy running around of boys in the backyard.

Suzanne said...

Candy from the window? Brilliant! I'm another young, easily impressed parent.

I have such ridiculous birthday party angst. So far, we've just had parties with grown-ups and a few kids, but for my son's 4th birthday in March, I'd like to have a kids-only party. And since I am the laziest, least creative parent on the East Coast, I have no idea what to do. Or, rather, I didn't till I read this post!

BrightStar said...

The candy out the window reminds me of my favorite feature of Arizona birthday parties -- pinatas!!

I think your son's party sounds like it will be fantastic.

academic coach said...

Won't you be sad when With-A-Why doesn't want these wonderful birthday parties any more?

jo(e) said...

I suppose it will be a little sad when my youngest outgrows this kind of thing. But always there is something else to look forward to. I love the energy of teenagers. And of course I hope to have grandchildren some day.

Friday Mom said...

Very fun. Sounds like the birthday parties I had. My mom was pretty low-key too. I remember them fondly.

Elizajoey said...

I stumbled across here after seeing your comments on various boards and finally seeing a link to your blog - you have a brillant and hilarious writing style.

One of my jobs [poor uni student] at the leisure centre where I work is to run the birthday parties. I'm quite the hypocrite because I roll my eyes at the stupidity of parents to waste their money but that it how I am getting paid. Sometimes I feel so dirty like I'm working for George Bush or something.

Seeing a nice natural party like the one you describe is brillant. You wouldn't believe what kids expect nowadays - the lollybags can't just be a bit of confectionary in a plastic bad with a clown face on it. Oh no, they have to have magazines, masks, make-up (only if you're a girl of course) and it is quite common to see them the size of large gift bags. It is quite funny that all the parents tell me that they just HAD TO give the big lolly bags. I must be a bitch because if something bad happens and I end up with kids, they ain't getting no two pound giftbagj

bitchphd said...

Hehe, 'tis the season. Like the upstairs window candy idea--PK is a fan of pinatas, and so am I, actually, but I figure you can only schedule so many activities, and the already-traditional pumpkin-carving (perhaps this year pumpkin-smashing instead) about uses up the attention span of kids his age.

I do admit, though, that I like doing the homemade birthday cake. PK enjoys baking with me, and my mom always did them for me, so that's part of our family tradition. The kid always gets to dictate the shape of the thing, and then part of the fun of it is figuring out how the heck to carve a round or a rectangular sheet cake into the shape of whatever it is....

bridgett said...

We do birthday parties at our small, old, messy home with our normal plates and our normal cups, but with crepe paper festooning everything but the cat. (She would not hold still to be decorated.) We have gone to these crazy "rent the amusement park for Precious" events and that's fun for the kids, but so is playing Twister and dancing in their socks to old swing
records. My husband bakes the cake (always, as did his mom for him) and Kid gets her choice of ice cream, with delivery pizza and juice doing the trick for the entree.
We usually do some sort of craft that's heavy on the glitter and glue and play carols on the piano and sometimes gang-decorate the Christmas tree. It's all pretty low-key by contemporary standards, but Kid feels very excited to be able to invite a whole houseful of guests. The parents think it's odd but charming and I think they use our example as a means to bargain down their kids when they start getting a bad case of the gimmes.

Mona Buonanotte said...

I totally like the Dirty Birthday Party idea, get the kids outside and in the mud or snow. If I have to look one more mechanical guitar-playing pizza parlour critter singing Happy Birthday, I will pummel it with a chair.

Candy out the window??? You're like Santa!!!

How did you get so creative?

Ianqui said...

Homemade cake? Please. It was always, ALWAYS about the Carvel ice cream cake. And I'm disappointed if I go to some young relative's party and there's no Carvel cake.

(Apologies to those who don't know about Carvel...)

Anonymous said...

Um,
I'm free in October.
Can I come?
I'll bring my own sweatpants and promise not to hit anyone while we run around outside for candy. PPB

Sarah Sometimes said...

I just had a flashback to the (very modest) birthday parties I had as a child, indoors, because we lived in an apartment building. Pin-the-tail-on-the-Donkey was always a beloved feature. Happy birthday to With-a-Why.

Terminaldegree said...

Glad to hear that parents still do the old-fashioned parties. I loved these as a kid. My mom planned silly activities like race-with-a-potato-on-a-spoon or 3-legged races, and I loved them. We also had mini-golf races. Peanut hunts. Make-your-own-pizza (with English muffins as "crust). A "treasure hunt" with clues to follow (for some reason, the "treasure" was always hidden in the big pot in the stove, and we never caught on). And everyone won a prize, even if they came in last. She spent very little money and I loved it.

In 6th grade I decided I was too cool for the games, so we went swimming and then had a sleepover. Simple as that. No manicures or glamor shots. Just lots of goofy fun.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

The princess birthday parties not only teach gender roles, but also consumerism. I swear products aimed at kids push the consumerist agenda harder than anything else, harder than patriarchy, harder than militarism, harder than Jesus.

There was a blizzard during my tenth birthday party, a sleep over that became a three day festival, with a dozen children trapped in our house. The snow plow left a mountianous white wake that we burrowed in like bunnies. You could make the best snow fort ever just by digging. (Although I bet growing up near Snowstorm city, you saw snow piles like that all the time.) It was really one of the top three parties of my life.

jo(e) said...

Rob: Oh, I think you are right about all the products aimed at kids. Problem is that the marketing taps into parents' guilt and their desires to be good parents, and without even realizing it, they end up supporting a consumerist agenda. It's tough for any parent to stay completely out of that whole deal.

Yes, being from Snowstorm City, I am an expert at building snowforts -- complete with caves and tunnels and sometimes even double layers. Snow days are so much fun.

Phantom Scribbler said...

I love you, jo(e). Are you available for my kids' birthday party, say around the fourth of July?

Ianqui, we always had the Carvel cake, too. My kid doesn't like ice cream cake -- such a disappointment!

Running2Ks said...

You are the best at this! I didn't even think of the Mardi Gras candy throwing thing. Cool idea!

I need to follow your lead on the party thing. They have to stop being like weddings around here.

halloweenlover said...

Oooh, Jo(e)!!! Me too me too! I want to come to With a Why's birthday party!

You clearly are best. mom. ever. Don't kids get hit with the flying candy, though? We were a big pinata family also, but the throwing candy out the window thing is priceless.

apstraight said...

This makes planning the 2 year party far more joyful... I think that I will print this out as a reminder for future years...
Thanks for so many good posts...

MommyProf said...

Parts of our area are big time into the competitive birthday party. That's why we don't live in those parts of town. But you are braver than I - we still had Offspring's party at a museum.

iBeth said...

Love this post. I always hoped I would be the kinda mom who threw neat parties, but by the time I became a parent, I had learned my limits. I much prefer parties like the ones you throw to the elaborate "hire an entertainer" parties. Wish we had an upstairs so that I could steal your throwing candy idea. Maybe I will try it from the top of the swingset.

Mrs. Coulter said...

I loved inner tubing in the snow when I was kid. Great party idea.

My dad was always the one who came up with the elaborate party stuff. He built a coffin one year for my Halloween party...

I'm dreading the day Lyra is old enough to have a birthday party that involves inviting anyone other than her grandparents.

Anonymous said...

You all made my day! We have a 4, soon to be 5 year old and one in high school, and yes oldest one is in college As an "older parent" I get weary of the the young parents who are so worried about having the best party, best car, best kids (that never works out). I was so considering the big splashy party for soon to be 5 but now I am fortified to just have a fun party that I know he will love!