Psychologically Speaking: Good old-fashioned birthday parties

Planning them should be simple and not cost a fortune, nor send you or your child into a panic.

fire dancer 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy of Jovle)
fire dancer 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy of Jovle)
Dear Dr. Batya, Having made aliya recently with three young girls, we'd like to have a birthday party that doesn't stress everyone out. I want my children to feel comfortable but not be scarred for life when we don't hire the latest entertainer. The thought of entertaining a bunch of active kids is definitely overwhelming. I'd be grateful for any advice. - T.W. Ra'anana I'll give you my perspective, as a psychologist, on children's birthday parties. First of all, as to the stress and competitiveness in the children that you mention in your letter, welcome home to Israel. One of the wonderful things about living here is the simplicity and casualness of the country. Planning birthday parties should be just as simple and casual and should not cost a fortune nor send you or your child into a panic. Going overboard this year, especially if your girls are young, may make next year's party all the more difficult to plan. The birthday party, like everything else you do with your kids, teaches them certain values. You don't really want to be extolling the virtues of excess - neither you nor the children need the stresses of "keeping up with the Cohens." The key to a successful birthday party is to keep it simple, fun, short and well organized. This way everyone will have a great time. Where would you like your party? If you can't or don't want it at home, there are some wonderful neighborhood parks. Determine your budget, the amount of work you're willing to do and then include your child in the planning and preparation. Here are a few tried-and-true suggestions which should enable everyone to enjoy. Keep your guest list manageable. A general rule of thumb is to invite the "age of your child plus one" for young children. For older children consider inviting the whole class so as not to leave anyone out. That said, parties held during holidays or inviting just your daughter's girlfriends will make things much more manageable. After age three encourage other parents to leave as they may otherwise add to the chaos. Have an activity as soon as children arrive, such as creating a message for the birthday girl on a giant card or collage of cut-up pictures to glue as a way to engage each child, especially those that are shy, young or don't know anyone. Have lots of short games so children stay occupied. Monitor the children throughout the party to ensure that no one is overwhelmed and not participating. Ensure that toys your child doesn't want played with by others are out of sight. Pick a general theme. For example, our kids loved craft and baking parties. Depending on their age, the guests helped make and/or decorate their own party hats, loot bags, pizzas and cupcakes. Define boundaries by putting down paper tablecloths for food and crafts and let your imagination go wild. Keep your party short. For young kids an hour to hour and a half is plenty long enough. Tell parents in advance when the party ends but be prepared for those parents who "forget" their kids. Hand loot bags out (with their projects and perhaps a little book) as the children leave. Consider asking a teenager to assist with face painting, nails, makeovers, games and crafts. If you do hire an entertainer, check out references of people who have used him before. Do some of the things that you enjoyed as a child. Consider a dress-up area, treasure hunt, three-legged race, pin the smile on the sun, relay races with eggs on a spoon or grapefruits carried between girls' necks, threading cereal on shoelaces or bobbing for apples. These can keep children of all ages engaged and cost little or nothing to do. Encourage cooperative games where everyone works together to create something special. If you do have competitive games, make everyone a winner by giving a prize to each person as they get out, with the real winner taking home only a slightly bigger treasure. Ask yourself what values you'd like to impart. If you are into recycling perhaps make things from old boxes. Egg cartons make great holders for small raisins, candies and art supplies. If nature is your theme, decorate flowerpots and plant a flower. If it is charity, perhaps you want to personify giving and receiving by having used books brought for those less fortunate or making potpourri bags or chocolates to give to the aged or ill. Consider not opening birthday presents during the party as children may get embarrassed, the birthday girl may not want to share or risk having her new gifts destroyed. If you do open gifts, you can photograph each guest with her gift and your daughter, and then encourage your daughter to write a thank-you on the back of the photo. Laundry baskets work great to store those gifts which can be opened later after your child has helped you clean up. Remember, if you feel okay with what you have planned, so will your daughter. Be flexible and be prepared for the unexpected. Put on some of your daughter's music, take a deep breath and remind yourself that the most important thing is for her to have fun. The writer is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra'anana.