It all started with a backyard party innocently enough. We had close friends and family over, a Dora the Explorer cake and a small bounce house with Dora velcro'd to the front. Alicia was turning 1 and it was all very exciting. She blew out the candles, got cake on her face, received a bunch of toys with some assembly required and had a blast.
By the time her second birthday rolled around, Andreya was in the picture and we were juggling two birthday parties, so things got a little more complicated.Then it got a little more expensive and a little more involved and required even more and more planning. Planning and carrying out birthday parties for your kids year after year might be the most exhausting, money-sucking experience we have to deal with as parents. And the stakes are high.
When did it turn into a major party planning event to host a little kid's birthday party? Back in the day, a pizza and some juice boxes would do it. Flashback to 1979, with "My Sharona" and "I Will Survive" blasting out of the radio. My dad was in his Haband mail-order pants, my mom was in her Sears house dress and the Wilgoren family was continuing its tradition of successful backyard parties in the little house at 6 Leo Road. On the menu: two large Papa Gino's pizzas, a bag of chips and a couple of two-liters of Shasta. If you got a cup of Shasta it was a special occasion. If we spent more than ten dollars on that party I'd be surprised. Pin the tail on the donkey required a tree, a donkey picture, a tail and my dad's red bandana as a blindfold. Musical chairs required... just chairs. The limbo required a broom. It was all easy, simple, no hassle and fun. Now, for the next generation, we're planning and meeting and spending and sweating so the kids can have two hours of running around like crazy people. I can let them do that at home for free. Can't I?
Dadmission: Alicia and Andreya now spend half the year opening birthday gifts and the other half of the year planning next year's party.
Will it be the zoo, the museum, Gymboree, My Gym? Do you want the full party package where they order the cake and pizza and provide the balloons? Do you want face painting, balloon animals, flame throwing, amusement rides and/or ponies? It's hard not to be sucked into the parental vortex and feel like you need to keep competing with the other parents.
Here's how our routine Wilgoren birthday party goes now -- maybe you can relate. A and A spend six months thinking about what they want to do and then Gloria and I put the plan into action. Much of the work comes ahead of time, inviting friends, sibling's friends and acquaintances you don't really want there but feel obligated to invite, along with family you don't really want there but feel obligated to invite...
Once the deposit is made on a place (assuming you haven't figured out a way to convince your kids to still have a backyard party) the clock is running. Tick, tick, tick. Most places just provide the space, so then you need to figure out the food... Food for the kids and food for the adults... Some vegetarian stuff... Some gluten-free stuff... Some healthy stuff so you don't look like totally irresponsible parents... And then some stuff in there that you REALLY like. We usually end up doing some version of pizza and salad, because what kid really doesn't like pizza? They better like pizza. Then comes the party favors. Kids open these things before they even leave the party, and I've seen their looks of utter disgust if they don't like what they see. Little bastards. Basically, the 25-for-a-dollar party favors you used to get at the super market (think plastic cars and hair accessories) and shove into a brown lunch bag no longer cut it. If you're dealing with girls, there better be some princess stuff, some Hello Kitty stuff, some beauty accessories etc. But don't try giving that to the boys! If you're dealing with boys, there better be something related to The Transformers, super heroes and cars. You separate them all out, one bag for each kid, and then buy a few extra for the dinks who come to the party even though their parents forgot to RSVP.
Dadmission:The parents who forget to RSVP and then arrive with their kid should be flogged and publicly humiliated.
So now it's the morning of the big party. You're running on little sleep after making two trips to Costco and the grocery store the night before to pick up things that a normal party place should really provide for the money you're spending but don't. You get the kids up and dressed and out the door. You have the party place for two hours and just fifteen minutes to set up all the crap you've spent six months to plan. So you go to the party place while one party is ending and literally sit there and line up stuff at the door on wheeled carts so when that first party ends, you can burst into action. You lace up your sneakers, do your warm up exercises and wait for the starting gun. As soon as that first party clears the space, it's off to the races. You have fifteen minutes to load in food, party favors, decorations and those extra pairs of socks for the kids and parents who forgot socks, even though each one of these party places always requires you to wear socks or buy them and every parent knows it. Tick tick tick. You get the stuff in just in time and are left panting at the door already wiping sweat off your forehead when the first guests arrive ready to party.
Let the fun times begin! The kids are all running and jumping around. Fifteen kids are racing around in plastic cars, five are throwing projectiles at each other and ten are slammed into a bouncey house which is ready to deflate under the pressure of ten kids using it as an MMA fighting cage. It's about fifteen minutes in before the first kid ends up crying after being elbowed, kicked or hit with something by accident. There's ten parents talking and you are double fisting your video camera and cell phone camera to snap photos and video at the same time to keep everything for posterity. The clock is ticking tick tick tick. Half an hour of play if you're lucky and then it's on to the clown (if you're having a clown) because he/she needs to get his thing going so he can be well into face paintings and balloon animals by the time you're giving the kids their pizza.
For face painting, keep it simple: butterflies and flowers for girls, pirates and Spider Man for boys. No need to do a full-face, broadway-style, three-hour painting like the kids are going to go on stage to perform. The stuff will be smudging in just a matter of hours anyway. Parents will thank you. For balloon animals, keep it simple, too. There is nothing sadder than a sweaty, overworked clown trying to make balloon elephants and space ships out of balloons that then break and sputter across the room. Flowers for girls. Swords for boys. Simple. The balloons are going to all be broken before the night is done, anyway. Trust me. If you have a costume character coming to entertain, like a princess or a super hero, now is the time, too. Because time is running out. Make sure to VET your character before the day of the party. I'll give you a for instance. We hired a little mermaid lookalike from a party place sight unseen. She looked like Ariel and had the flowing hair and even a mermaid costume. Great so far! But she also had a very thick and distinct Russian accent when she spoke. Ariel called for the kids to follow her on a treasure hunt and the poor kids couldn't understand her. We had to translate for the little mermaid. Mortifying for her. Embarrassing for us. She likely disappeared under the sea after that. If you don't have a clown or a costume character, continue with random play.
After an hour, you are already slammed for time. It might only be eleven in the morning, but you're sitting all those kids down for a full pizza meal followed by cake and ice cream. Sit down. Sit down. Sit down. We don't have time for all this fun. Once the kids sit, you slide them each a pizza and a juice box. Several of the kids will refuse to eat and will want to go right back to playing. Several will eat under protest because they know they want cake and can't have cake unless they eat the pizza.
Dadmission:You won't have time to eat so don't even bother.
By this time there's only half an hour left. You'll round up the kids right away so they can sing happy birthday. They sing. You'll stuff cake or cupcakes in their faces. Don't be picky. You give the kids cake and then shovel dishes over to the parents because nobody wants to take home cake leftovers when you're in such a rush. You'll start cleaning up. They'll run around for five more minutes and then it's time to start passing out the party favors. Remember what I said about the favors. These can make or break a party and also your kid's street cred at school. Bad party favors can reflect poorly on the entire party. Siblings will compare and will often come to blows over what's inside the bags. Stuff will come out of the bags while kids are gathering their shoes and getting ready to leave. The next people will alread be lining up at the door with stuff on wheels looking at you wondering how soon you'll be done because they only have fifteen minutes to get their stuff done as well! The clock is ticking. Tick. Tick. Tick. You round up the kids and their bags and their parents and get their butts out the door. The other family starts loading in while you settle the bill.
By that evening, the girls will already be talking about the next birthday and what they want to do. This is called the pre-planning planning. You leave and collapse at home with some cocktails, reflecting on what a good party you put on. If the party was a success, you've won good behavior from the kids for at least a couple of hours. And they've won the envy of their friends for the next day at school. Parents everywhere will ooh and ahhh and wonder how with such busy lives, you pulled off such an incredible party. For the next several days you write thank-you notes with the kids, put together toys and think about just how great it must be to be a kid nowadays. And then you think that the kids better throw YOU some really great parties some day to make up for all the doo dah they put you through.
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