After journeying through high expectations and demoralising Pinterest searches, Sarah Tennant draws up the rules for stress-free fun-filled parties.
Birthday party etiquette is a dire and murky minefield. How late is too late to send out invitations? How do you chase up an errant guest who won't RSVP? Do you have to make the cake dairy-free for the one kid who's allergic? Will you become a social pariah if you don't do goody bags?
Such conundrums have always been with us but nowadays party expectations are higher than ever, thanks to a guilt-inducing little phenomenon known as Pinterest.
Don't get me wrong, Pinterest is great for looking up specific party ideas –'homemade bubble-blowing mixture', for instance. But click unwarily on the 'Celebrations and Events' page and you will find yourself scrolling through miles of impeccably vintage birthday tables in mint and ecru. You know the type: bunting, table skirts, macarons in apothecary jars and cake pops sticking out of a milk jug. Friend, beware the cake pop. That way lies madness.
The bad news is you'll probably never be able to shake the vague sense of inadequacy that comes from not having picture-perfect, creative, tasteful how-did-she-do-that parties. That's modern motherhood. The good news is your children are still small and easily impressed. Now is the time to forge your own birthday traditions, ditching the stuff that makes you crazy before they've decided that Pass-the-Parcel is a basic human right. Your party doesn't need to have a theme, a colour scheme, a photo booth or a bouncy castle. It just needs to be fun.
Am I suggesting you lower your kids' expectations out of a craven desire to avoid stress? Yes. Yes, I am. Let’s be frank –you have a lot of birthday parties ahead of you: set the bar high now and in five years' time, when you have two more kids and their birthdays are all within a week of each other, you'll be rocking and crying in a corner while your eldest says reproachfully, “Mum, you used to do cool parties”.
I have three children, and over the years I've learned a thing or two. I pass on my wisdom as one slacker to another. If you're not a slacker, absolutely fine –all power to you. And send me a cake pop when you're done.
🎈 rule #1
Listen carefully: invite friends. Not random kids you barely know from playgroup. Not extras invited to make up the numbers when you realise your one-year-old has a limited social circle. Friends. People you like. People who have been to your house before and know the house rules. People to whom you can say “I love you, but buy Madelyn a battery-operated toy that beeps and I'll de-friend you”.
At one stroke, this cuts party angst in half. It allows you to ring up and demand an RSVP when they forget. It means you know which kid can't cope with the stress of musical chairs, which kid is terrified of clowns and which kid needs to get home by 3pm to nap.
🎈 rule #2
I vastly prefer to invite whole families rather than individual kids, for several reasons:
1. It gives me someone to talk to at the party
2. It avoids the tragedy of sad uninvited siblings
3. It means I don't have to do scary things. Someone's small child wets his pants, clonks another child on the head or melts down at the sight of a balloon? Not my problem! I cannot stress enough how delightful this is.
Now, I have a friend who prefers not to invite parents because of having to bustle around making them hot drinks. Which leads me to rule #3.
🎈 rule #3
have the party outside
Admittedly, this only works if you had the foresight to give birth in the warmer months. I foolishly had two babies in June, but for my March baby, it's brilliant.
You don't have to make hot drinks for the adults. You don't have to clean the house, before or after. You don't have to deal with small children running around in a confined space. You don't have to decorate. You don't have to put away the special toys, or lock the dog in the garage, or google 'how to get Fanta out of carpet'.
The location doesn't have to be fancy; perhaps the local public gardens, or your own backyard for added convenience. The local playground works fine too – just make sure there are toilets handy, and an undercover area in case of rain.
🎈 rule #4
don't try to do everything
This isn't just for your sanity, but for the sanity of the kids. Preschoolers aren't known for multitasking: they're known for getting overstimulated and melting down. They just can't focus on food, presents, games, excursions, friends, costumes and hired entertainers at the same time.
So, rather than spending time and money on a bunch of half-appreciated party ingredients, pick a focus and ditch the rest. If you're going to the zoo, make the zoo the main event —forget games and serve simple food they can grab in between running off to see the monkeys. If you want to do a girly tea-party, hold it somewhere calm and quiet where they can focus on the pretty table and food – not at an indoor playland where the ball-pit will compete for their attention.
Depending on the child, you might even leave out some pretty obvious party elements. My nephew, for some reason, finds having 'Happy Birthday' sung to him intensely traumatic –so we don't do it. Or maybe your son prefers birthday doughnuts to birthday cake.
🎈 rule #5
play down the gifts
With all due respect to the thoughtfully-selected items your loved ones will choose for your child, nobody likes a house full of junk. So what to do about gifts?
According to Miss Manners, it is impolite to put 'No Gifts' on an invitation – the idea being that one should not try to dampen other people's generous impulses.
For the same reason, it's also impolite to offer hints on which gifts would or wouldn't be appreciated.
Fortunately, having followed rule #1 and only invited close friends, you will be intimate enough to be able to ignore such etiquette and say “Look, Jason really doesn't need anything; just bring yourselves”. Of course, they will be intimate enough to ignore that and turn up with a four-foot-high plush bear. Such is life.
If you're lucky, people will ask for suggestions. My stock-standard answer is “She likes art”. That way the giver can pick up a nice cheap gift in two seconds flat from The Warehouse, and we get useful craft supplies instead of plastic toys. I highly recommend this strategy. (Incidentally, art supplies are also great for goody bags and prizes if you want to avoid lollies.)
I also highly recommend opening the presents after the party. Forcing children to watch another kid open gift after gift is a refined form of torture; and few birthday children can get through the process without exhibiting greed, unfiltered candour and other unappealing traits. (My daughter, at age five, once mused: “Oh, thank you! It's lovely. I bet Mummy thinks it's tacky.”)
🎈 rule #6
keep food basic
These days, the major party-food issue is allergies. The solution is to keep things very simple. You can scour the internet for a cupcake recipe that's gluten-, dairy-, soy- and refined-sugar-free; or you can serve grapes, which are (fancy that!) free of anything other than grape. Popcorn is also good and some marshmallows are gluten- and dairy-free. Add fruit cubes, carrot sticks, hard-boiled eggs, three-ingredient potato chips (potatoes, oil, salt), shaved ham, jelly – Bob's your uncle.
As for the cake, serve it with the food, not at the end when everyone's full and halfway out the door.
Also, don't serve communal dip unless you have a strong stomach. Children are gross. Plastic shot-glasses of dip are cute, though (see? Pinterest does have its uses).
🎈 rule #7
don't assume you need a party
If a party still sounds like a poor headache-to-fun ratio: don't do it. Start an alternative tradition —go to the movies, a cafe, the beach, the ballet or the miniature trains. One family I know alternates 'proper' parties with family outings every second year.
As for the Pinterest fad of celebrating half-birthdays with half a cake? Well, if you must, you must. I'll be over here, looking just a mite reproachful.
Sarah Tennant is a Hamilton-based freelance writer. She has three children – Rowan (7), Miles (4) and Morris (3 months). She once hand-made beautiful party hats out of scrapbooking paper and none of the kids wore them.