My son wept through his entire 3rd birthday party. He didn’t have just a few hard moments here and there, it was like he had the worst time ever. The party was in our backyard, and the theme was no theme because this soiree was going to be pure, 3-year-old, unadulterated fun: pizza, cake, bubbles, bounce house, and the presence of every darling friend from his preschool class.
But I never really got to settle into host mode because every two minutes the sound of my son’s wail bubbled up from a different part of the yard and he had to be tended to. First he was quivery-lipped because a classmate was manhandling his (indestructable) Thomas the Train tent. Moments later he was stumbling out of the bounce house sobbing noooooo because someone was being “too crazy” in there. Then there were heartbroken — truly heartbroken — tears as kids tossed around his basketball. It was all too much for my sweet little man. And I get it.
Still, I kept looking longingly at the other parents chatting over cold beers under the shade canopy. All I wanted to do was hang out with them while my son enjoyed the company of his friends. That shouldn’t be so hard, right? I had to laugh (a sad laugh) that I’d spent all that money and brain-space sweating over this party that wasn’t really a fit for where my son was at the time.
After the thing was over, most of our guests left, but one family, dear friends, lingered. As the summer sun started to dip, we grownups ended up sitting on the lawn and chatting as our sons jumped together in the bounce house while squealing with unbridled 3-year-old joy. I finally got to have a beer and it was amazing. We ate cold pizza and leftover Spiderman cake. We laughed and agreed that this — this simple, small, intimate gathering — should have been the party.
After that experience I started thinking a lot about family celebrations — birthdays in particular — because I wanted to explore ways of ringing them in that are simpler somehow. Yet still meaningful. More meaningful. So I went about asking my brilliant, creative friends about their own approaches to birthday observance. They gave me all kinds of ideas (and permission to steal them) which was super helpful as I started to imagine re-building my own family’s culture around birthday celebrations.
A few nuggets that resonated – and that we’ve since co-opted:
- Family-only celebrations are OK! Younger kids, especially, really do get overwhelmed with a ton of fanfare and crowds (exhibit A: my dear son). Keep in mind that just because your kid loves his preschool buddies doesn’t mean he can handle it when they all come over en masse and get their mitts all over his “special fings.” A daytime family outing followed by a grownup’s night out once the kids are in bed can be a pretty ideal way to mark a birthday. After all, you parents are the ones doing all the work day in and day out. Go live it up!
- Create a culture in which parties are sometimes. Some years it’s a party. Some years it’s a special adventure with the family and a special friend or two. I now give my kids a few birthday celebration options each year. I make sure that all the choices are things my husband I can and want to pull off. Kids love the privilege of choosing, and older ones will add their own creative suggestions making it fun to collaborate. By the time my daughter was 6 or 7, she started gravitating toward special fancy/ grownup activities with one or two special friends over parties. Thankfully.
- If you do go the party route, grab some best practices or frameworks that minimize those elements that can be stressful to kids (and, um, parents). One of my friends keeps the guest list manageable and age-appropriate with the rule of one guest for each year of the child’s age. You might think about co-hosting with another birthday family to keep expenses and birthday party burnout in check. On the invitation, be sure to indicate not just start time but also a specific end time — to keep the party short-n-sweet to minimize meltdowns. Two hours is usually plenty.
- Establish your family’s special birthday privileges and rituals that everyone can look forward to. Friends of ours write a letter to their kid every year; the littlest ones can’t read it themselves, of course, but by 2 or 3 they’ll get it and look forward to it. Or decorate your kid’s bedroom, place a “throne” at the table with a custom-decorated birthday plate, serve breakfast for dinner (or cake for breakfast!), cover the floor with balloons, or create a rite of passage, like the opportunity to go to a fancy “tea” or plan a daylong birthday menu by themselves. One tradition all kids love: cake-smashing. You can’t beat it. (Note: goes for grownups, too.)