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Planning the Perfect Birthday Party [Washington Parent]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Washington Parent
Cover story
June 2003

Each fall, Lisa Simon starts to feel maternally challenged. She has birthday parties to plan for both of her children: Jessica turns 5 in October, Steven 8 in December.

“Since my son turned one, I always wanted my kids’ birthday parties to be terrific,” she says. “Only I never knew what would be the most fun, most affordable plan.”

The options whirled around in her mind. She could have it at home, but there was never enough room, and there was always a huge mess to clean up. She could rent a hall and have the affair catered, but that could get very expensive. Or she could take family and friends to the park—but what if it rained?

“Honestly,” she admits, “the whole thing made me a little crazy.”

Simon isn’t alone.

Although most families look forward to their child’s annual birthday, the desire to plan the perfect party—which for some parents feels increasingly like a requirement—can be a challenge.

In response to parents’ demand to throw the ever more perfect shindig, the birthday party industry has grown up in recent years. From clowns and magicians who will come to your house, to theater parties and trips to amusement parks that take the party out of your house, the options seem unlimited.

In fact, last year, Simon’s husband Tony bough The Fun Company for Kids in Alexandria, VA. Now, all their parties are held at Dad’s place.

“ I know firsthand how tough it can be to figure out what to do for your child’s birthday, and so I’ve tried to take the worry out of party planning,” says Tony Simon, whose Fun Company hosts about 40 birthday parties a weekend and provides everything from ball pits, arcade games and prizes to pizza, cake and a clean-up service. “It doesn’t cost families a fortune to have their parties here, and most importantly the kids have a great time. After all, isn’t that the whole point of throwing a birthday party for your child?”


Indeed, celebrating the life of the child is exactly the point of a birthday party, says Shelley Butler who, with child development expert Deb Kratz, authored the Field Guide to Parenting. The easy-to- navigate volume touches on a wide range of topics ranging from “Discipline Tools, Rules and Limit Setting” to “Play, Learning and Intelligence” and, of course, offers tips on planning the ideal, age-appropriate birthday party.

Recently, Butler offered a little extra insight for Washington Parent readers.

1. LIMIT THE GUEST LIST. This can be the hardest tip to follow, but Butler believes less is more when it comes to parties—especially for young children. “A basic guide is to invite one child for every year that the birthday boy is old,” Butler explains. She realizes, however, that this isn’t always easy to follow.

2. KNOW YOUR CHILD. “Some kids do fine when they are in big crowds, and for those kids a slightly larger party is probably going to be fine, “ she says. However, very sensitive children, who don’t do well with a lot of noise or wilt when they are in large groups, might cry or hide for the entire event. Butler’s knows this firsthand; her second child was on the shy side, And the family was faced with a challenge just before he turned 5.

“He told me he didn’t want anyone to sing the “Happy Birthday” to him,” she recalls. “That was tough, because I didn’t want to cater to his insecurities and tell all the guests we were going to outlaw this popular birthday tradition. But mostly, I didn’t want to overwhelm and upset my child on his birthday.”

So Butler and her son compromised. “We decided the guests would sing the song very quietly to him,” Butler recalls. “He still hated it, mostly I think because he didn’t want to be the center of attention.” Eventually, her son grew out of the phase, but the experience taught Butler an important lesson,

“Kids tend to feel powerless in their lives because someone else is always making decisions for them—and birthday parties can be especially difficult because this is their day to shine. They want some control.” Her suggestion? Tip number three.

3. LET YOUR CHILD HELP MAKE THE PARTY PLANS. “By age 3, children are likely to have definite ideas, opinions and expectations about their parties,” Butler says. “Therefore, they need to have a say in what they’d like their parties to be like.”

Of course, she realizes you can’t let a 3-year-old make all the party plans. But let him have, input, Butler says, and when a final plan is determined, talk about how the day is likely to play out. “If your child knows what to expect, he will have a better time at the party—and so will you.”

4. PREPARE FOR THE POST-PARTY BLUES. When the party is over, Butler says there may be some tears. To avoid a total post-party meltdown, she recommends borrowing a book from the library that your child has never read before, then setting up a special quiet time when just the two of you can read and decompress.

Another idea is to open some of the presents after the guests have gone, such as a special gift from Mom and Dad. For younger children, leftover wrapping paper and boxes can also be a real treat.

“If you have little kids, don’t throw out the party trash too fast, You may be overlooking a good calming activity by letting them play with the extras,” she says.

And, when it comes to planning a successful party, Butler says parents shouldn’t overlook the fact that the simplest of things can go a long way. Which brings her to tip number five.

5. ESTABLISH LONG-LASTING FAMILY TRADITIONS. That doesn’t mean it isn’t terrific to hire a juggler or have a party at a skating rink, or buy matching Spider Man tablecloths and cake toppers.

It’s just that children—especially young ones—don’t have expectations for their birthday parties because they haven’t yet experienced them. Consequently, Butler says, these early birthday parties present a wonderful opportunity to create family traditions.

Some ideas include having your child awake on his birthday to an intimate family-only breakfast of smiley face pancakes.

As he grows, whip out his baby album and show off photos from the day he was born—an idea that especially thrills slightly older children.

And when it comes to present giving, make Grandma and Grandpa homemade picture frames and photo albums for their birthdays. When it comes time to get gifts themselves, Butler says kids won’t expect a truckload of toys.

“The point of having a party and giving presents is to make your birthday child feel wonderful about just being himself,” Butler says. “There are a lot of magical things parents can do to help their children celebrate their birthdays. Just letting them know that you love having them in your life can be the greatest party gift of all.”

The first birthday parties can be traced back to ancient Egypt, when rulers were honored on the day of their birth with gladiatorial contests and sumptuous feasts. The Romans were also big party givers, staging parades and chariot races to celebrate birthdays of their important leaders.

For centuries, though, mere mortals birthdays were often not remembered, much less celebrated. Then a couple hundreds years ago, superstitious European common folk began to fear that evil spirits were attracted to people on their birthdays.

To protect loved ones from harm, family and friends would gather around the birthday person, bringing good wishes and gifts to ward off evil spirits.

Eventually, parents decided the people who needed protecting most were children and a new tradition was established. The Germans are credited as the first group to pick up on the trend when many began hosting Kinderfeste.

Mothers whipped up treats made from sweetened bread dough coated with sugar. Guests gobbled these first birthday cakes up. Superstition reared its head here, too, for Mom threw a coin and a ring into the batter, believing the guest who received a slice containing the coin was guaranteed riches in the future. Finding the ring signified a coming marriage. However, if the cake fell while baking, it was a sign that bad luck was on the way.

Adding candles to the top of the cake is a custom that can be traced to tribal people, who prayed over the flames of an open fire. They believed that the smoke carried their thoughts and wishes up to the gods. The tradition carries on today: Did you blow out all the candles in one breath in hope that your birthday wish would come true?

As for that favorite birthday sing-along song, that’s all American. Written in 1893 by educator Patty Smith Hill, the music was orchestrated by her sister Mildred. But they originally called the tune, “Good Morning to All.”

In 1935, a chap named Clayton F. Summy substituted new lyrics and re-titled it, “Happy Birthday to You.” Summy’s version is copyrighted until 2010, and is ranked in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s most frequently sung song.


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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.