Are you looking for ideas to make sure your kids’ birthday parties are all fabulous occasions you look back on with fondness? I’ll share in this post my completely biased, non-research-based, experienced-mom’s opinion on birthday parties: Keep ’em small, keep ’em simple, personalize the party theme and activities to suit your unique child in that exact moment of time and let the kids play fun and simple party games they’ll enjoy.
What do I recommend for a first birthday?
This is a friends-of-the-family occasion. Invite your closest friends and family members for a low-key gathering, at a time of day your baby is likely to be awake and happy. (Sunday brunch is a much better bet than Friday at 7 pm). Let the baby play and do whatever she wants most of the time – when the time is convenient and she’s in a good mood, go ahead and give her some cake, and get the cake-smooshing pictures and sing the song so you have it all on video. Then go back to relaxing with your friends!
What do I recommend for birthdays age 2 – teenager?
Guest list: My rule is “one guest per year old.” So, the two year old has two little friends and their families. The five year old has five guests, etc. When my girls got older, and wanted to do sleepovers, the rule for sleepovers became “one overnight guest for every two years old.” So, we had 6 guests for a 12th birthday sleepover.
If you want to host a party at the skating rink or the trampoline place, where you invite the whole class or the whole soccer team, go for it! But I wouldn’t do that for a birthday party. I would do it for “hey, it’s a teacher in-service day and there’s no school – let’s go skating!” That way, if your kid ends up having a bad day, you could leave early, which you can’t do from your own birthday party. And, you don’t have to be nagging your kid to “Make sure you talk to everyone who came, since it’s your birthday party.” And the parents of the guests don’t have to buy gifts, and don’t have to remind their kids whose birthday it is.
Parents stay or drop-off? Whichever you choose, be really clear about it in the invitation! Under 5, I assume you want me to stay with my kid, but as the children get older, it gets harder to guess. We often said: “Parents are welcome to stay if desired, or leave if they choose. If you leave, please be back by 1:00.” The parents who were also our friends would often stay and help out. The ones who didn’t know us well would typically drop-off. More comfortable for everyone involved.
Time of Day: Please pick the time of day when your child is at his best! Often parents pick a bad time because “it was the only time the party room was available. It’s my child’s nap time, but I thought it would be OK…” That never goes well.
Keep parties short. A party for a child under 5 should be scheduled for under 90 minutes – could even be less than an hour. If it’s all going well, people can stay and play longer, but no one feels compelled to stay if it’s not going well.
Theme and Activities: I never choose my theme months in advance just because I can get a good deal at the party store. Kids’ interests can change, and it’s really lame to have a My Little Pony party when you’ve moved on to more mature interests. I wait until one or two months before the party, and think about what my child is most interested in right then. Again, I want the birthday party to honor who they are in that exact moment of their life. And it’s often not a packaged theme anyone can buy in a party store: one of my daughters did a zodiac theme and one did a write-your-own-musical theme.
Activities are our big focus, but we’re not talking hired entertainers or rented bounce houses or pony rides. Just fun kids’ games which tie into the theme. (See below.)
Decorations. I try to be pretty environmentally conscious most of the time and use re-useable goods. But, I do like some bright and pretty decorations for a birthday. I try to think about how much waste I’ll create. So, paper plates and a paper banner? Reasonable. 8 foot long plastic tablecloth with matching plastic plates and color coordinated plastic forks that you use once and throw away? Not so reasonable.
Goodie Bags. Over the past 20 years or so, it seems like goodie bags have become required staples of birthday parties. Over the years, my kids have come home with bag after bag of candy (which they don’t need), decorative pencils and erasers (which we already have way too many of), tacky little plastic toys (that end up in the trash) and other junk from the dollar store. They’re junk. And even kids figure that out pretty soon. Yet, kids get so conditioned to expect them that I’ve seen kids be very disappointed when they don’t get one. I’m hoping my son’s friends opt out of this consumerism.
If you feel compelled to do a goodie bag style take-home item for every kid, you can do a balloon bouquet for decorations, then send one home with each child. Or choose something simple, small, and ecologically friendly.
Gifts. This one is tricky for me. We know families who opt out of gifts and say so on the invitation. We know others where the child has asked all guests to give donations to their favorite charity in lieu of gifts. And, of course, we know other families who invite 20 guests and get 20 gifts which their child may or may not want because the parents buying the gift often don’t know the child well enough to choose an appropriate gift.
When our girls were growing up, we had small parties of kids who knew them well and would buy well-suited gifts. And we bought very few toys for them and very few gifts. So, we did gifts at their parties. And they opened them in front of the person who gave them the gift so they could say thank yous directly. We haven’t really decided what the tradition will be for our boy.
Examples of Themes
Putt Putt goes to the Zoo – 3rd birthday. Our daughter loved this game by Humongous Entertainment, so we re-created the game with family members playing the baby animals who needed to be rescued.
Dinosaurs – 4th birthday. Fun photos: Asked Grandma in Wyoming to make dinosaur tails to tie on. Asked Grandpa in Seattle to make dinosaur head kids could wear. Asked big sister to do face paint. Dino Dig – bury toy dinos in shredded paper for kids to dig up.
Cats – 4th birthday: My daughters had cat costumes from the last Halloween. Other kids were given home-made tails to tie on, cat ear headbands, and we did face painted nose and whiskers. We played cat and mouse hide and seek games, chased balls of yarn around the room, and lapped up milk out of bowls with our cake.
My Little Pony – 5th birthday. We had a friend style all the guests’ hair into “pony tails” with braids and ribbons. We had some horse races, a horse beauty pageant, and so on. I’d found some old ponies on Ebay, and those were decorations and take-home gift.
Pet Store – 6th birthday. We played lots of animal games. We ended by designing a pet store, where each child played a type of animal. When parents arrived for pick up, we gave them pretend money, and they had to buy their child to take them home.
Astrology and Mythology – 7th birthday. We got from each guest’s parents the birth-date and time of day they were born. We prepped stickers for each child with their western zodiac symbol, Chinese zodiac, a poem about the day of the week (Monday’s child is fair of face…) the flower for their birth month, the meaning of their name, and so on. We played games to earn the stickers and each assembled a personalized book.
Warriors themed 8th birthday. Based on the Warriors books by Erin Hunter about a clan of cats. We played cat & mouse game (hide & seek), hunted for birds (we hid bird toys around the house), and did “barnyard noises” game with cats, mice, and bird noises. We made a cake decorated with plastic cats – the cats were take home gifts for the guests.
Magic- 9th birthday. We learned magic tricks and performed for each other, watched a video of some magic shows, and had a top-hat shaped pinata we had made.
Spy Kids – 10th birthday party. (Our daughter was into Spy Kids, and Where in the World is Carmen San Diego, and had recently watched her first James Bond movies.)The guests were “spies in training” and played card games to learn bluffing skills, traveled through a laser beam maze made of yarn, and did driving simulators on the X-box. They were then given a series of clues to solve to save a kidnapped agent.
Write your own musical – 11th birthday. Before the party, we made CD’s with 15 or 20 of my daughter’s favorite songs from musicals and gave those to the guests as invitations. In the evening, the guests created characters and a plot line and found a way to weave in many of the songs. They rehearsed multiple times. In the morning, all the guests’ parents were treated to a performance of the musical.
Rock Band – 12th birthday. Guests were invited to dress up like rock stars. We played Rock Band on the Xbox all evening and ate junk food.
What kind of parties do I not recommend?
Often on Facebook groups, blogs, and the playground, I hear parents asking/saying things like “We’re looking for the right venue for our one year old’s party.” “The party isn’t for six months, but I’ve already bought all these adorable Minnie Mouse decorations.” “What entertainer do you recommend for a three year old’s party?” “We’ve got 25 kids coming – and since they’re all 4 years old, that means all their parents too, and the room we rented only fits 20 people.” “My daughter’s sixth birthday party is coming, and I have to put 22 goodie bags together by tomorrow – so I’m going to hit the dollar store – they’ll have something I can toss in.” “We didn’t want to leave anyone out, so we invited the whole class, and we’re getting a bouncy house for the yard.”
I don’t want those parties for my own child. But I also dread it when my kids get invited to one of those parties! I can tell you that over the 21 years I’ve been parenting, I’ve been to parties where the over-tired toddler guest of honor was in total meltdown for much of the party. I’ve been in those over-crowded party rooms where all the parents are miserable and all the kids over-stimulated. I’ve come home with all those little bags of stupid little throwaway toys that no one cares about and more candy than my kids need in a week, And I’ve been at the bouncy house parties where there are so many kids there that none of them really remember or care whose birthday they are celebrating.
So, for your sake, your child’s sake, and your guests’ sake, try small, simple, personalized parties that everyone can enjoy!