Kids birthdayTo throw or not to throw? It’s the birthday party tradition you either love or hate. Normally, I love to throw a good party for adults. Wine. Hors d’oeuvres. You’re all set. But birthday party planning for kids adds an entirely different layer of pressure.  For me, this is the part that can take the fun right out of the party. It is easy to get carried away, and what I have learned over the past few years of party planning is that simpler is better.

The trend today seems to focus on the wow-factor. From décor to entertainment to catering and custom cookies, birthday parties aren’t as simple as they used to be. In my days of growing up in the ’80s, the wow-factor was whether or not you had a clown. That was the entertainment standard. (Thanks, Mom—but I am still afraid of clowns!)

Now, I am just as guilty of spending hours on Pinterest looking at party themes—most of which I can’t recreate myself.  We all want to create that wow-factor for our kids because these memories are magical in their eyes. These childhood memories are the ones we look back on and long for as adults. Life is simpler and sweeter as a child, and birthday parties capture the essence of childhood.

So, we make those Spare Tires (chocolate covered doughnuts) and Traffic Lights (red-yellow-and-green fruits) with cute printables, but when the guests arrive, they are ready for play, presents, and cake. Sure, the pre-party pictures of those countless details will go in the scrapbook (who am I kidding—they’ll be in some online album that I can post in ten minutes!), but I sure do feel like I missed some moments of the party to make sure those little details were perfect.

What Henry remembers the most from his parties (besides the cake) is what he and his friends did, not the snacks with the cute names. So, I have stopped looking at Pinterest as much. The go-all-out ideas that I simply cannot recreate with my skill level and lack of time are certainly works of art and achieve that wow-factor, but I have come to focus more on the experiences made during the party. This helps me to manage the stress I may feel when it comes to throwing a party and allows me to enjoy creating those memories.

Let’s start with the invite list: can we invite everyone? Kids nowadays have friends from church, sports, and other activities. We may want to include everyone, but there will be limitations when it comes to the budget. What I have found to be helpful in managing the invitations is to keep the party simple. Making the food instead of catering, reducing the number of decorations purchased, or having the party at home can ease some of the budget issues. Not everyone will be able to come, but being able to invite whom we want without excluding anyone is a good way to get the party started.

Truth-be-told, birthday parties at my house stress me out. This is a flaw of mine, being that I am obsessive, but I am cleaning before, during, and after the party. I spend so much time cleaning—or thinking about cleaning when the party is over—instead of enjoying the party.  I prefer to reserve a venue or open space when possible. We have done fro-yo parties, mini-golf parties, and painting parties, to name a few. Some venues require fees to rent, but others don’t. The list is really endless and can be as budget-friendly as needed. A party on the beach or at the park provides natural entertainment and doesn’t limit that all-important invite list.

Since Henry is severely allergic to nuts, I always make his birthday cake. Most of my party-planning time is dedicated to this task, and I actually really enjoy it. I ask Henry what kind of cake he wants, and then I start my detective work to figure out how to make a (working) dump truck cake, a Millennium Falcon cake, or a sperm whale cake. If you ask Henry today, he can tell you the correct order of each cake that I have made for him. He truly loves this part of his birthday. Every year brings a different interest, and I have certainly learned a lot about making cakes. I let Henry help me with his cake until it gets to a certain point of completion. Then, the cake is “revealed” at the party. My cakes will never look like the fancy bakery cakes, and it does add a little more stress—especially making sure that I have enough freezer space to accommodate the cake—but this has become one very sweet birthday tradition for us. 

Gift-giving. It seems improper not to bring a gift to a party, but we have tried to minimize the number of things we have over the past few years—from clothes to toys to books.  The quantity of gifts received at a party can be overwhelming, so we include a “no gifts necessary” clause on the invite. We ask Henry to choose a meaningful place for donations to be made. At first, Henry asked, “You mean I won’t get any gifts?” We used this moment to discuss with Henry the importance of giving to others who are in need. Since he loves animals, he asked for donations to the Coastal Discovery Museum and the Humane Society. When we attend birthday parties, Henry “gifts” an “experience” to his birthday friend. “Gifts” may be a trip to a movie of the friend’s choice, mini-golf, or the arcade. Henry treats his friend to something that they both will enjoy and remember.  A toy will be outgrown, but memories are lasting.

Throwing a birthday party can be stressful, but it doesn’t—and shouldn’t—surpass the enjoyment of celebrating! Finding ways to enjoy the simplicity of the celebration can create lasting memories. Henry won’t look back on every party and remember the small details that I obsessed over; he will remember all of the experiences with his family and friends. What I have learned from birthday party planning is to see the party through the eyes of a child, and that means being more present in each moment, too.  

Deirdre Johns is Mom to Henry, an eight and a half-year-old lover of animals and nature. She has been teaching English for thirteen years and has lived in the Lowcountry with her family since 2012.