WORDS: Madhavi Nawana Parker
Anyone growing up in the 70’s, 80’s and a bit of the 90’s will remember the old backyard party. Not much fuss, a bowl of cheezels, party pies, some fairy bread and maybe if you were lucky, organised games like Pass the Parcel and Musical Chairs.
I wasn’t a parent back then and have no idea whether birthday parties were easier in the 70’s, 80’s and a bit of the 90’s. What I do know is, children’s birthday parties can work up a sweat in even the most relaxed, organised and enthusiastic parent.
Children’s parties can be the perfect storm of kids, noise, sugar and emotions. To help navigate the territory, here are 5 tips.
1. Choose numbers carefully.
How many kids attend isn’t your child’s decision. If you left it up to them, you could end up with their entire class, soccer team, your neighbours, the lady at the grocery and maybe even the butcher. It’s your house and your sanity. If you’re outsourcing, it’s your money.
Realistically, how many children can you host without ageing 20 years in the space of 2 hours? A common guideline many families successfully use is inviting according to what age a child is turning – plus one. That means if your child is turning 6, they can have 7 friends.
Less guests means your child won’t tire quickly, wearing out their social skills mid party and losing it when they want their bedroom back and people to take their hands OFF THEIR STUFF. If your child is sensitive, your best compass might be how many children your child can handle. If this means three friends and they are 8, then so be it.
As they get older, be flexible. Leaving a couple of children out of a class or social group can come back to bite you. If there are 12 children in a group or class and your child turns 8, allowing 9 children, means leaving 3 out. Try and make values-based decisions. A respectful ratio like 7 kids out of 12 are invited won’t make it so obvious when some aren’t.
2. Make parties simple, predictable and keep attention off the birthday child if they’re sensitive.
Some children can’t handle attention, noise and fuss. Honouring their personality allows them to enjoy their party in a way that’s meaningful to them. Sometimes it helps to make the guests and games the focus. Quiet and non-competitive activities like craft, Lego, bubble blowing and calm games are good to have on hand, balancing the mood and giving opportunities for a reset.
When appropriate, involve your child in the planning and make sure they know what to expect. If they are a sensitive attendee, keep the attention off them and focus on observing the party on arrival.
Try and be swift with your drop and go plan if they have reached that age. Lingering can make it harder for them to let go and have fun.
3. Understand the party game system.
If you’re brave enough to host a party at home, you might want to know there’s some new etiquette here. Everyone is a winner. The old version of Pass the Parcel where no one made sure every child unwraps a layer to find a toy is gone. Back in the good ole’ days, if you unwrapped a layer, you were a winner. Unwrapping a layer wasn’t guaranteed. Is this going to break our children? No. Should we think about whether it’s time to go back to the old way? Maybe. When children practice losing in a supportive environment, this provides practice for handling emotions. Every time they do this successfully, their resilience for disappointment and frustration improves.
If you want to keep friends however, go along with the standards of your community. Why? You don’t want your kid to be the only one whose parents don’t believe everyone should win a prize at a birthday party. If we change this, let’s do it gradually and compassionately, preparing children ahead of time and upskilling them to cope with these emotions.
Children under 8 tend to struggle with the necessary emotional skills to handle winning and losing, so if you decide to let them all win, that’s okay – as long as they practice losing and not getting perfect outcomes at home with you. Birthday parties don’t have to be a learning environment.
4. Prepare for unwanted gifts.
Avoid embarrassment and prepare ahead for unwanted gifts. A silly role play along the lines of, ‘What do you say if Bob gives you a kilo of washing powder for your birthday? You say, ‘thank you very much, Bob. I love it,’ works a treat. Sure, this is lying, but it’s a good kind of lie, right?
5. Play it neutral around invitations.
It’s inevitable your child won’t get invited to every party and probable they‘ll get invited to parties their friends won’t. Telling them not to tell anyone won’t work because we don’t want to encourage secrets – and some kids will blurt it out anyway. Give them an opportunity to step inside their friend’s shoes and imagine how they might feel if they discovered they weren’t invited.
If your child’s the host, do something along similar lines, encouraging them to kindly avoid talking about parties in front of everyone at school.
When your child hasn’t been invited, keep calm and help them do the same. We must eventually learn we can’t be invited or chosen for everything. Little disappointments in early life help us prepare for the bigger ones later. Keep it simple, explain there were only a certain number allowed, stay kind about the other child and their parents and if you can, do something special with them instead.
In summary, if you stick to simplicity, compassion and self-compassion, I reckon you’re on a winner. Happy partying beautiful parents.
For information on Madhavi’s programs to build resilience, wellbeing, confidence and social emotional intelligence in young people, as well as step by step books and journals: