By MARY HOOD HART
This year, for my daughter’s 7th birthday, I’m doing something I would have found difficult a few years ago — I’m leaving town and letting my husband handle her party. Anna shares a birthday with my sister Louise, and Louise is turning 50. So as a special birthday celebration, the four of us sisters are gathering, along with our mother, for a weekend getaway.
I’m leaving without worry because I know my husband can handle Anna’s party. While we’ve made lots of mistakes over the years, Jim and I have finally learned some secrets to hosting successful parties and creating happy memories. For us, the best parties are those we’ve hosted at home. We’ve tried pizza parlors and bowling alleys, but those parties have never matched our homemade variety. Over the years, these home parties have become more fun because, through trial and error, we’ve adopted some ground rules.
Here are a few of our party ground rules:
Don’t start too young. A birthday party for a 1- or 2-year-old is not for the birthday child. It’s for the parents. The younger the child, the smaller and simpler the celebration should be. Small children don’t take kindly to sharing their birthday (and toys) with others their age.
Keep the invitation list short. As tempting as it is to invite 30 schoolmates, such numbers invariably create chaos. Our best parties have included no more than 10 invited guests. In a classroom, the way to avoid hurt feelings is not to invite everyone, but to mail or phone the invitations instead of passing them out at school.
Avoid sleep overs — unless you have unlimited energy and patience.
Avoid competitive games until the guests are mature enough to lose gracefully. Don’t even think about playing Musical Chairs with children under 6. Pin the Tail on the Donkey is also not for everyone. Even older children sometimes resist wearing a blindfold. On the other hand, I believe it’s a mistake to eliminate all competition. Once children are 8 or 9, they enjoy playing to win. We keep the competitions diversified — some games requiring skill, some teamwork, some brain power, some pure luck. With a wide variety, chances are everyone will have an opportunity to win.
A non-competitive game that appeals to most is the classic fishing game. We hang an old bed sheet between two trees, and the children line up to fish, sometimes for small prizes, more often for paper fish we’ve drawn and cut from paper plates. This is always a hit with the preschool and kindergarten set. Older children love to work behind the sheet hooking up the catch. (For a makeshift pole, use a broomstick with rope and a clothespin tied on one end.) Another favorite is a treasure hunt. We hide a box of inexpensive goodies and leave clues for the whole group to follow, one clue at a time, until the treasure is revealed. Then, all the loot is divided among the guests.
Expect the unexpected. Party etiquette isn’t what it used to be. Invariably, some parents will ignore or forget the invitation and never call to RSVP. Some guests will say they’re coming and won’t. Some won’t respond, and you’ll assume they’re not coming, but come party time, they’ll be at your door. Some parents will be late picking up their children when the party’s over. (Be sure to confirm pick-up times when children are dropped off.) Some parents will ask if they can bring siblings. To obtain an idea of how many guests to expect, I’ve learned to be proactive. Rather than wait for slowpokes to respond, I call them a day or two before the party and ask if they’re coming. Even so, I always have extra food and treats for unexpected guests.
Finally, keep it simple. You don’t need to spend a lot of money. You don’t need to hire ponies, characters or clowns. You’ll be amazed what fun kids can have eating cake and ice cream and playing some well-chosen games. And you’ll be amazed what a great time you’ll have, too — especially when it’s over.
Mary Hood Hart lives in Calabash, N.C., with her husband, Jim, and their four children, ages 7 to 15.