Latest Chart: The fear in planning a birthday party

July 7, 2017

By Ekta R. Garg

Ever since she was three years old, Eleven has been celebrating her birthday with her little sister. Both of them have summer birthdays that are two weeks apart, and when they were younger it was an easy way to save money. Plus, when kids are little, they really can’t argue much. Show them balloons and cake, and they’re happy to go along with whatever else you might propose.

This year, however, because we’re going to be out of town for Eight’s birthday, the girls and I talked about something we’d never broached before: a separate party for Eleven.

“Yes, finally,” Eleven said when I asked them about the idea.

Eight didn’t say anything for a little while. She probably didn’t want to admit just how much it bothered her that her big sister and de facto best friend wanted to separate on something that had always been a “both girls” kind of endeavor. Also, lately, Eleven has begun to assert her feelings in more thoughtful ways. More outspoken ways.

She’s letting us know what she wants.

The entire family tossed around ideas, and eventually we settled on doing a birthday party at home. I smiled and nodded and pretended to get excited as I offered to look up party ideas online. All the while I hoped Eleven didn’t see my apprehension.

This would be the first time we were going to host a party at home, and I really had no idea how to go about entertaining a bunch of kids.

In all the years past, whenever we’ve done parties, we’ve always left the entertainment up to others. The Little Gym and other party places happily gave us the freedom to set up double birthday parties. I went all out to plan amazing gift baskets in lieu of goody bags (spending no more than $5 per basket, no less) and elaborate menus, but I chickened out at the thought of bringing the girls’ friends home. What, I thought, could I possibly do to keep them engaged?

This year, especially, felt like we hit a new milestone. Eleven has become more aware of what other people think. Thankfully she’s in a school with a positive environment and one where the majority of her friends lift her up. She’s never endured any serious bullying, and she’s certainly never had to deal with a “mean girl.”

I’m more aware now than ever before that my older daughter has entered the life stage where little things have begun to matter more. I want to do everything within my power not to embarrass her. I realize that may be impossible. Once she gets deep into her teens, even asking, “How was your day?” in front of her friends may produce an eye roll. But I figure if I can do anything to actively avoid any potential mortification, I will.

I wanted to make sure we planned something fun for Eleven and her friends. Food wasn’t a problem. Again, pizza and cake usually induce smiles and eagerness from anyone. Because Eleven’s birthday was on a Saturday this year, we decided to hold the party on her actual birthday and invited people over from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

I couldn’t help wondering just what we were going to do for that long.

My trepidation notwithstanding, I Googled things like “ideas for tween birthday party.” Of course, thousands of websites popped up ready to offer advice, and after combing through several of them I made a list of Minute Games. These are games that use common household items and that are timed to be completed in—you guessed it—a minute.

I offered Eleven the idea, and she smiled wide.

“That’s a great idea! Can you show me the games?”

I pulled up the Word doc with the games and we discussed different options. The more we talked, the more I realized that I hadn’t totally bungled this. On a subconscious level, I had used what I knew about my child and come up with a solution that she actually liked.

We talked and planned and shopped for supplies. In the end we came up with six games and a blind auction. These were the games we picked:

Runny Nose, in which kids have to pull out as many tissues as possible from a tissue box in a minute or less (we ended up splitting the kids into pairs and making this a little more complicated by telling one kid to pull out the tissue and passing it to the second kid who had to fold it into a neat square);

Marshmallow Toss, where the kids would be split into pairs and one would toss the marshmallows while the other caught them in a paper cup (we used mini marshmallows, and by the end of the game we had marshmallows all over the floor!);

Stack the Cups, where the kids would have to build a pyramid of plastic cups and then take it all down again (we split the kids into three teams and made it a little more complicated by placing the stacks of cups on one side of the room; one teammate was responsible for running cups back and forth to the others who would have to pass them down the line and let the teammate on the end do the stacking and breakdown; the catch was everyone could only use one hand);

Cereal “Straws,” in which kids would get some Cheerios and see how many Cheerios they could thread onto pipe cleaners (this one ran pretty much as described);

That’s a Wrap, where kids would get a handful of Hershey kisses and see how many they could unwrap in a minute (again, we told the kids they could only use one hand to do the unwrapping, and later on we handed out paper bags so the kids could keep the kisses they unwrapped);

Listen Carefully, in which kids have to listen to a grownup shake a soda can that contains a mystery item (the website suggested nails or screws) and guess what the item is and how many are in the can (we ended up not playing this game because we ran out of time.)

In the blind auction, we handed out fake money to the kids and made them bid on our goody bags. I bought reusable bags in a variety of fun designs and colors and put things like books, fancy water bottles, and small board games inside. Each bag got one item, and no one know what was in each bag. After the auction ended, we gave the kids some time to barter with one another if they wanted to swap bags and prizes.

When all the kids had arrived, I took a minute to welcome everyone and explain the idea of the Minute Games. None of them rolled their eyes. None of them looked bored. In fact, when we asked them to help clean up after the Marshmallow Toss (which we played first so we could get the flying sugar out of the way) they all scrambled to pick up the abundance of marshmallows on the floor.

We played the five games and did the auction, and then everyone ate pizza and cake. After lunch we had about 15 minutes left in the allotted party time and told the kids they could enjoy some free play. And they did. No complaints; no demands.

I was astonished. We’d gotten through the entire party, and everyone was still smiling. No one had complained even once that they had gotten bored, and all the kids seemed to have a good time. Early in the party Eight started to grumble about something small, and I took her aside out of view of everyone else and made sure to let her know I expected her to get involved. We had invited a friend of hers to the party too, so she certainly wasn’t without company, and she just needed to accept it already that this party was about her sister alone.

For a few seconds Eight’s face crumpled in disappointment, but I didn’t have time to listen to her grievances. I sent her right back out to the rest of the group, and her friend called to her and everything was fine again. Even Eight had a good time.

After everyone left, Eleven FaceTimed with her grandparents and they “opened” presents together. Eleven spent the rest of her day sorting out what presents she wanted and what she didn’t, and then she and Eight were together again enjoying the spoils of the party.

That night as I went to give Eleven a good night kiss, I asked her whether she had fun.

“Yup,” she said, and I could hear the smile in her voice.

I was so glad. In the dark, she couldn’t see my face. Otherwise she would have detected that I wasn’t just asking the standard parent question. I genuinely wanted her to approve of what we’d done that morning.

Maybe, then, this is part of what parenting is all about. Putting in the time and effort and energy to engage our children and showing them through our words and actions that we’re doing all we can for their good and their enjoyment. Even with teen angst coming in the future, I have a feeling that starting with the right intentions and following through on those intentions will count for something.