Here's how to prevent your child's birthday celebration from taking over your life. By Lisa Witepski
The party packs were a masterpiece. Each item had been selected with care, so the guests would have a wonderful memento of the occasion – to the tune of R800 per pack. The pièce de résistance? An iPod Nano for every child.
No, we’re not talking about a goody bag from the Oscars, but rather the take-home spoils from a child’s party in Sandton, Johannesburg. It may sound extravagant, but no less so than the mom who ordered live butterflies from Knsyna to be released at her daughter’s birthday party, or the politician’s four-year-old grandchild, who had her own 1950s-style sweet shop (complete with popcorn machine), face-painting, pony rides and a former member of Joburg Ballet dancing en pointe to Let it Go at her event.
Is all this necessary? Not according to Joan Tindale, principal at Greenpark Nursery School in Johannesburg, who insists that less is more when it comes to children’s parties. Which is ironic, given the amount of stress that every mom inevitably experiences when planning her child’s party – which turns what should be a sincere celebration into a worry-fest regarding the venue, food and entertainment. So how do you bring back the joy to planning your little one’s event?
Cut the guest list
The first thing to remember is that the party is for your child – not for you. That should alleviate a lot of pressure, especially when it comes to the guest list. Joan advises that the younger your child, the smaller the guest list should be.
What about all the kids who are going to feel left out when their invitations don’t arrive? “Your child will most likely have a birthday ring at school, where they will have a chance to celebrate with their friends. That means your party at home can be for family friends,” explains Joan. If you do decide to invite school buddies, don’t be afraid to let moms know that the invitation doesn’t extend to siblings. Don’t feel bad, because older siblings are bound to find the party boring since the activities and entertainment on offer aren’t age appropriate. Babies will require all mom’s attention, which means that the guest, who might feel a little overwhelmed at being in an unfamiliar setting with a high potential for sensory overload, won’t be able to get the assurance she needs to feel confident.
As adults, we immediately imagine that parties equal fun. However, the reality is that they can be stressful for kids, such as the shy birthday girl who finds herself on show, or the child who hates loud noises.
This is why Joan recommends limiting parties to two hours. You can also reduce the “fear factor” by welcoming kids into your home as you would an adult. “Take the time to show them where everything is, from the food to the bathroom. Let them know that your dogs are friendly, and tell them if any area is out of bounds. Remember that something that’s fine for your child may be scary for others in the group – maybe some of them don’t like clowns, for example.”
On that note, decide with your child beforehand if there are any toys that she would prefer her guests not to play with. Hide these away before the guests arrive, so there are no awkward “Jamie-won’t-share-with-me” moments.
“Moms always worry that some of the kids won’t have fun or will feel left out,” observes party planner Melinda Connor of Pretty Things For You. “I’ve found, party after party, that kids entertain themselves and pretty much do their own thing. If you’re offering a specific activity and they’re not into it, they’ll find something else to do. What kids need to have fun and what we think they need can be two different things.” Joan agrees, pointing out that children inevitably sort out their own games, perhaps with a little direction from their parents.
If you’re still worried about entertainment, you can always turn to old-fashioned party games, such as pass-the-parcel, which Melinda says are making a comeback.
Something to be aware of, though, is that younger kids (below the age of five) battle with the concept of winning and losing, especially if, despite trying their best, the winner is chosen by chance.
Melinda says that for babies up to the age of three, entertainment isn’t much of a focus, although you can bring out some soft-play equipment to keep them busy.
Face-painters and magicians are just not necessary, Joan adds.
Sugar can be a mom’s nightmare. But, Joan says, the party doesn’t need to rival a sweet shop in order for kids to have fun. Choose a few snacks and include some healthy options. “Children won’t refuse food just because it’s healthy,” she says, so get those fruit kebabs ready.
Melinda notes that kids generally don’t eat much at parties, so this is one area where you can cut down.
If you’ve decided to host the party at a venue, don’t worry about ordering food for the kids as it may all go to waste. There’s no need for a special kids’ restaurant either – the point of a party is to play, not to stand around a table.
About that budget
Most moms moan about the cost of the party, but it is possible to host an event without breaking the bank.
An easy area to save money is the food. Party packs can also be expensive, but Joan believes that a take-home gift shouldn’t be obligatory – you’ve just treated the kids to a fun day. Melinda’s tip is to keep things small, or to use an activity at the party to create something the children can take home.
General themes are more cost effective than specific ones. You’ll pay less for polka-dot balloons and serviettes than those decorated with an obscure superhero.
If you’re set on a party at a venue, bear in mind that your local park is as good an option as a hired space. The flip side, though, is that the venue may offer added value, like activities, or even the fact that you don’t have to tidy up.
Similarly, a planner may take the stress out of the day, especially if you work. “Let your planner know how much you are able to spend, and she has to make everything happen within those parameters,” Melinda suggests.
Remember, you can’t control everything – meltdowns may happen. “Be kind but firm, and remove the child from the cause of the upset,” Joan advises – but bear in mind that it’s her party, and she can cry if she wants to.
In her 16 years as journalist, Lisa Witepski’s work has appeared in most of South Africa’s leading publications, including the Mail & Guardian, Sunday Times, Entrepreneur and Financial Mail. She has written for a number of women’s magazines, including Living & Loving, Essentials and many others, across topics from lifestyle to travel, wellness, business and finance. She is a former acting Johannesburg Bureau Chief for Cosmopolitan, and former Features Editor at Travel News Weekly, but, above all, a besotted mom to Leya and Jessica. Lisa blogs at whydoialwayscravecake.blogspot.com and lisa.witepski.blogspot.com, and tweets at @LisaWitepski.