Ideas for a Fun (And Tear-Free) Birthday Party

Last year I had a birthday party for my son, who turned two years old. It did not turn out well, and by the end of the party he was in tears. His birthday is coming up shortly and we would like to avoid a repeat of last year's disaster. Can you give me any ideas to keep this year's party fun and tear-free?

Question:

Surprisingly, tears are not uncommon at birthday parties. There are several reasons that these supposedly happy affairs turn into tearful events. Young children are often overwhelmed by people, too much activity or presents. Children can't quite predict how it will feel to have all of those special friends together at once. It can be taxing for some kids to try to focus on so many people together.

Similarly, with birthday party activities, we tend to plan too many fun things which can be exhausting or overstimulating for young children. Ironically, birthday presents can be the hardest to deal with. Having to open, appreciate and then set aside numerous presents is not a good match for young childrens' interests.

Children may also be disappointed by the time their party rolls around because there has been so much anticipation. Finally, too much sugar and junk food can ruin any day.

Parents may also be stressed and cranky because of strenuous preparations or arrangements. Parents may also feel pressure or competition from other parents to create a "picture perfect" birthday party. Even though are many possible sources for stress in birthday parties, there are also many opportunities for memorable fun and festivities. Here are some things to consider as you make plans for this year's party:

  • Narrow your agenda. We generally have a lot of expectations for birthday parties. They are a significant milestone in our childrens' lives and in our lives as parents. Not only has our child flourished, but we have survived. Often parents want some celebration that acknowledges them as well as their child. If you find that there are too many agendas for one party, consider having a couple of small celebrations. Some families arrange to have adult friends and relatives drop in to visit sometime during the birthday week. Some kids may want a small afternoon party of a few friends and then a separate overnight with one special friend another day.
  • Keep it simple. One rule of thumb is to invite the number of guests that matches your child's age. Fewer guests can make for a more manageable party and can allow for more meaningful interaction for the ones who are there. Thinking about the needs and personality of your particular child, rather than external pressures of expectations, will help you determine what size the party should be.
  • Minimize and spread out presents. Presents can be one of the hardest things about birthday parties. The traditional pile of presents that accrues can be demanding and overwhelming for kids. There are expectations of gratitude (even if the present isn't something you wanted), restrictions on playing with the things you open ("Don't play with that now. You have other presents to open.") and lots of eager kids who want to play with your new things before you even get a chance to play with them yourself.
    Here are a few possible solutions: With a smaller guest list, the pile of presents is more manageable. You can ask guests not to bring presents. You could have your child open the present as soon as each guest arrives and gives it to him.
  • Plan activities which involve the children, rather than entertain them. Often birthday party planning includes activities which are designed to entertain kids: magic shows, clowns, dressed-up superheros. While children may enjoy these shows, they may also be frightened or overwhelmed by them. They also don't allow kids to be active and engaged. Activities and games, which allow for childrens' active participation may be more satisfying. Make your own pizza, cupcake or cookie decorating, treasure hunts, scavenger hunts, "do-it-yourself" face painting with mirrors, paints and wet clothes on low tables are examples of activities in which children can really get involved. Similarly, skating parties and swimming parties offer kids plenty to do.
  • Include your child in the planning. Often in our eagerness to surprise and please our children, we do all of the planning without them. Children often prefer the sense of control and predictability that comes with being included in the planning, rather than being surprised.
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