You can get away with the extended-family-plus-cake setup for your kid's first, oh, four or even five birthdays. Sure, you might invite one or two chums from preschool or the neighborhood, or the close-in-age cousins, but really: So long as there are candles to blow out, cake to eat, presents to open, and attention to hog, a preschool-age kid is gonna have a blast, even as the youngest person at the party by multiple decades.
This is a pretty sweet deal for the Inadequate Parent. What's easier than arranging an extended-family-plus-cake birthday party for a cute preschooler? It's one of the few family shindigs all the grandparents and aunts and uncles actually want to attend—cute kid! heartwarming photo-ops! clearly defined locus of attention, so that the conversation never strays into such topics as, for example, how are things going with you and Ted? oh, that's too bad, he was so nice, and a doctor too!—and, as long as some of them show up, and come bearing gifts, the kid won't even notice any absences. Plus, you'll probably score, like, half a year's worth of free clothes for your kid, which is good, because you are a poor.
Unfortunately, these good times come with a pretty hard end-date, and that date is: whenever little Maeddyssonne first attends a fellow kindergartener's sixth birthday party, and returns home flushed and spiral-eyed and filled with thoughts and ideas and anxieties about birthday parties. From that day onward, 99 percent of your conversations with your children will be about birthday parties, until the day they hit puberty and stop speaking to you altogether.
This development might happen before kindergarten for some kids, but, if it hasn't happened by then, kindergarten (especially if it's full-day kindergarten) is the year it almost certainly will. Kids make an abrupt shift that year, from regarding fellow little kids as curious objects for study to really wanting to fit in with and be liked by them. It's jarring and amazing and a little bit bittersweet! All at once, the other kids are as cool as you used to be, and you're mostly a means by which your kid can make his/her life more like the other kids' lives. I want an iPad with Minecraft on it, like M'ykynnzy's! Can I have a Marvel Avengers-themed epinephrine PIC line, like Zaiden, who is allergic to all things? I'm gonna punch the shit out of you when I want your attention, because that's what one of the 32 Isabelles in my class does all the time, because she's a fucking psycho! And, most expensively, I want to invite all of my friends to my birthday party, including both of the ones who are not named Isabelle.
They pass that last mania around as virulently as the zombie virus in a horror flick. There's always one showoffy Achiever Parent, Patient Zero, who kicks it off with the meticulously planned and hitch-free September bash, themed to the last spork to some Nickelodeon intellectual property; their kid, already advantaged by being a little older than the other kids, comes out of this thing The Coolest Kid On Earth, and all the rest come out as the Infected. Suddenly and out of nowhere, you are goddamn swimming in party invitations, to bowling alleys and parks and playgrounds and birthday-industry hellholes like Chuck E. Cheese's. And, just as suddenly, you're inescapably aware of your own kid's birthday out there, distant but on its way, like the ominous wind pushed out in front of an approaching thunderstorm, or the shiver in the ground from a far-off but onrushing freight train.
And so it is that you, in your capacity as a loving, insecure, guilt-wracked parent, will be suckered into arranging a Big Birthday Party. This, frankly, is terrifying. So many moving parts! The guests, the venue, the victuals, the invitations, the cost, the necessity of clean pants, the certainty that one of the little punks will show up with a runny nose and give everyone the Marburg virus! And how much your poor kid cares about it, and how much you care about how much they care about it, and the burning need to feel like you've done all you can to mitigate that cute, sweet, guileless little person's misfortune of having such a bummy loser for a parent. It's a nightmare.
Here are some tips for throwing this thing together. No, it will not be the best party a little kid ever had. Yes, you probably will age 15 years by the time it's over. But, if you can just pull off a few key components, at least it won't be a lingering memory of childhood humiliation for your kid. It might even be a happy memory! Especially if you don't invite Boozin' Uncle Ted.
Listen. Chuck E. Cheese's is the worst place. It's shabby, and gross, and choked with enough blinking lights and fast-paced, unintelligible noise to give the goddamn Sphinx an epileptic seizure, and its ticket-redemption gimmick is a scam of damn near criminal proportions. You shamble out of Chuck E. Cheese's white-eyed, incoherent, and coated in several layers of weapons-grade germs; if your beloved kid weren't with you, you'd walk straight from the turnstile into traffic and end it all. It's so bad.
On the other hand, it's got what kids crave, and the pimply teens who work there do a pretty good job of packaging it in easily deliverable form. Staging birthday parties for kids is what Chuck E. Cheese's (and its various off-brand ilk) do, and they're pretty good at lubing the whole operation: They provide pretty much everything but the friends. It's the Happy Meal of kids' birthday parties: It's easy, super convenient, requires almost no planning, and it almost certainly involves the ingestion of an alarming quantity of farm-animal anus—but your kids will flip their fucking wigs for it. Most importantly, as with a stupid Happy Meal, stiff-arming your own revulsion and letting your kid have it for a special occasion is fine. Little Hortense will be so goddamn happy. (And tired! Which is the most important part.)
The broader point, here, is this: The smart play is to throw this thing at the kind of place that stages kids' birthday parties for money. If you can't stomach the idea of two or three hours in a Chuck E. Cheese's, that's OK; many bowling alleys, ice- or roller-skating rinks, rec centers, swimming pools, indoor playgrounds, kids plaza-type places, and the like sideline in helping harried parents throw birthday parties. Maybe they don't all provide as many of the birthday-party essentials as Chuck E. Cheese's—you might have to order/bring a subset of the pizza/cake/disposable cutlery/decorations package—but if you hunt around, you should be able to find a place that'll wrangle some or all of that shit for you, for the kind of downright offensive added fee that indicates both parties know bankruptcy is a better outcome than trying to throw this thing in your own home.
Which is to say, for the love of God, no matter what you do, no matter how much it might seem like an appealingly humble, intimate setting, do not, do not, do not attempt to throw this party in (or directly outside of) your own home. Unless you are a millionaire famous person with a house like goddamn Hogwarts, you will not be able to fill it with enough fun activities to induce the kind of euphoric, dilated-pupil delirium five- and six-year-olds look for in a birthday party; at some point either they will find something destructive to do or, worse, get bored and make your kid feel terrible. Also, the stress of trying to make your home presentable for a bunch of strangers—and kid-proof it, and render it sufficiently hypoallergenic for little Zaiden, and make it seem like the kind of place where people eat raw vegetables and read literatyoor instead of subsisting on toast and Looney Tunes, all so a bunch of other parents won't ostracize your poor kid for being a bad influence—will age you like a time-lapsed banana.
No. To hell with that. Pick some godawful Kid Venue with a staff of teens who'll help you manage the thing, and book it, and ... well, maybe don't relax, but save yourself a stroke.
(The other nice thing about these venues is, your payment usually only buys you a designated block of time, so you don't have to worry about anybody lingering. After an hour and 45 minutes, you announce, "Hey everybody, just a reminder, they've got another party starting in 15 minutes, so we'll have to clear out of here!" and watch the poor suckers scramble to get their kids out before the meltdowns commence. And then, in most cases, the venue staff cleans up for you!)
Two full months, plus one week, in advance. This way you can get the invitations out two full months before the party—early enough for the other parents to block off that day on their calendars without having to shift a bunch of shit around. This is a nice thing to do for them (weekends tend to fill up when you've got kids and responsibilities and a spouse and shit), and also, it increases the odds that your kid's best friends and/or the class's coolest kids will be there.
Before you complain that this is too early for party planning, recall that you've known, for six whole years, around what date your kid would be turning six. It's not like something else might come up and your kid's birthday might shift to the next fiscal quarter.
The closest Saturday to your kid's actual calendar birth date, whether it comes before or after. This way you can prevent the birthday from spiraling into a whole month-long Thing, where there's like three weeks between the birth date itself and the birthday party and the whole time is this vaguely celebratory morass in which every time you say or do anything your kid doesn't like, she bursts into tears and accuses you of ruining her birthday.
Sunday's not quite as good, because it doesn't give the kids a day to recover from their birthday hangover (this is a real thing!) before they're back in school. This is another reason to plan this thing well in advance: so that you're not stuck doing it on a Sunday, and sending a bunch of kids into school on Monday at their absolute goddamn worst.
As for what time to have it, I think mid-afternoon is best. Like, from 2 to 4 p.m. This probably won't get you off the hook for providing food at this thing, but it does mean that most of the kids will have had lunch before they arrive, which reduces the odds of tantrums and crankiness. And it also lets them get home in time for dinner, which the parents will appreciate.
Late morning or lunchtime might be OK too, so long as you know that there will be at least one embarrassing meltdown at the end, when the kids get tired and hungry, and this might ruin the rest of the day for some poor suckers. Maybe even you!
Never in your wildest goddamn dreams even think about doing this as some kind of dinner or after-dinner thing. Don't even imagine it. I mean if you even imagine it, I will find you and look at you sternly until you apologize.
If you are a millionaire, and thus can afford the cost of it, this is simple: Invite everyone. All the classmates, all the play pals from the neighborhood, all the close-in-age cousins, all the kids of the other parents in your goddamn CrossFit sect or whatever. All of them. On the other hand, if you are a millionaire, you are not reading this, so fuck you.
If you can't afford to invite everybody, it gets a little tricky. A good rule of thumb regarding classmates is: If you can't invite all the classmates, invite less than half of them, so that the kids you don't invite won't feel like they're the sad losers nobody likes. If you don't necessarily have a really good sense of exactly which kids your kid hangs with the most in school, first of all, don't beat yourself up about it, you're not a loser just because you don't know all the names of your kid's running crew—but also, a good idea is to email the teacher, say that you're planning your kid's birthday party, and just ask which kids are your kid's closest school pals. A good teacher will get it, and will give you a small handful of names.
Here's what not to do:
- Don't ask your kid who to invite. That's too much to put on the shoulders of a little kid who has spotty recall and almost no understanding of group dynamics; for example, your kid might not even realize that she's inviting all the girls but one from her class, and even if she does, she'll have a hard time anticipating how it might crush the poor little left-out kid when literally all the other girls are talking about the birthday party before and after it. This isn't a Teachable Moment; it's a stupid birthday party. If you want your kid's input on the guest list, the way to get it is throughout the school year, by asking her questions about who her friends are, keeping tabs of which kids she talks about the most, and subtracting from that list the ones she talks about in the context of their smoking habits and neat-o switchblades.
- Unless you've got a really strong handle on the class dynamics and feel confident about it, or can't avoid it, probably don't invite, like, six girls to your daughter's birthday party, plus one solitary boy (or a bunch of boys and one girl, or nine girls and two boys, or whatever). If you're inviting both boys and girls, good, great, but strive for some balance. Ideological reasons aside, it's just the smart, practical thing to do, so that nobody has a bad time and none of the other parents decide you're an incompetent.
When your kid gets older, shit can get more fraught, but for now, it's not all that complicated. If your kid's in a kindergarten class with 20 or so kids, she's probably got a small subset she gets along with the best; invite them, and it'll be fine.
Probably you received a class roster and contact list at the beginning of the school year, with all the kids' names and their parents' names and email addresses on it; probably you idly tossed it onto your then-small Provisional School Papers pile; probably that pile is larger than your motor vehicle now; probably you have a better chance of discovering the Lost City of Z than you do of ever setting eyes upon that class roster ever again. Probably you can request another copy from the put-upon administrative staff of the school. Probably you will have to swallow your shame and self-loathing when they don't recognize your name during the phone call because you're the one and only parent in the entire goddamn school community whose involvement begins and ends at the bus stop.
Evite (or similar) is good for this. Failing that (if too many of the parents didn't provide email addresses, for example, or if you've already lost 10 copies of the class roster and are too ashamed to ask for another, or if you are a paranoid survivalist weirdo and fear the internet), buy some stupid Pixar-themed invitations at a greeting-card store, fill 'em out, and ask the teacher to stash 'em in the invitees' backpacks or folders or whatever. Don't have your kid give them out. A parent in my kid's school did that, and my kid came home with three invitations, only one of which was for him; it was like I'd been tasked with inviting people to this other kid's birthday party. I've got enough on my plate! I can barely remember to take my prescribed psychiatric medication most days!
Make sure the invitation notes that you'll be providing cake and pizza at this thing. The parents will want to know that. Especially the ones whose kids are allergic to stuff. Also, you can specify on the invitation that you don't want any gifts; at least a couple of parents will ignore that, but that's OK, because it'll be a big relief to any who are strapped for cash.
Cake and/or ice cream and/or ice cream sandwiches or whatever, pizza, disposable plates and forks and shit, napkins, party hats, noise-makers, a couple of modest streamers or other disposable decorations, your child. As discussed above, many venues will provide some or all of it; many other venues, if you arrange for or bring this stuff, will set it up in the reserved party room for you, which is a big help.
If you're having the party at home, you're a fool, a goddamn fool, but also, you're gonna have to come up with a couple hours' worth of organized distractions. If the party's a couple hours long, you might be able to pull off a loud, noisy kids' movie on a big TV, if you've got some kind of physical activity the kids can do beforehand to settle themselves down. The drawbacks are that if the kids get bored and restless, you're fucked, and even if they don't, the other parents will hate your guts for having their kids sit still for 86 minutes, then filling them up with cake and sending them home.
Goody bags are a Thing, nowadays, which fucking sucks. The good news is, most big party stores will have an entire aisle of these things, arranged by intellectual property theme. You buy a package of goody-bag fillings (silly little toys and gizmos and stickers and shit) and a package of cheap bags, and you sort the former into the latter, and you give 'em out at the end of the party, and that's it. Nobody's gonna kill you if you don't do goody bags, but giving them out right before the kids go home is a nice way to prevent any but how come I didn't get any presents?????? meltdowns by any overtired, sugar-crashing kids.
(Don't give them out at the beginning, or the party will be two hours of kids shrieking no that one's miiiiiiiine, Moooooommmyyyyyyyy he took miiiiiiine!!!!!)
This is one dimension of the party where it's good to be the host. Because you're the host, and your kid is the star of the show, you have a little latitude to decide what role you want during the actual party. If the idea of overseeing a herd of small children for two hours makes you want to pull your head off and spike it like a football, you can focus on making chitchat with the parents while you all keep one eye on your respective kids. If the idea of making chitchat with a bunch of strangers gives you an actual panic attack because you have the social skills of a bag of rice, you can follow the herd of kids around and make smiley oh wow you guys sure are such fast runners! look at you go! faces at them, and leave the chitchat to the other parents. Nobody will hold it against you, both because it's your kid's birthday, and because they're grateful that you're giving them a break from attentiveness.
If you have a co-parent, don't abandon your co-parent in one role or the other, though. Check in from time to time to see if they need a switch. And, if they do, make a good show of yourself in the other role, okay?
If it's your kid, it'll be compounded by his shame and embarrassment at melting down in front of his friends. Be more sympathetic than usual, take a crack at quickly transitioning to some new fun thing that might distract him from it, and don't hesitate to whisk him off to a quiet spot so that he can get it together without worrying that his friends are staring at him.
If it's somebody else's kid, make the kind of "Aww, poor little guy!" face that indicates both sympathy and a sense that it's no big deal; make this face at both the parents and the kid; ask 'em what's up; then, step away and let 'em figure it out their way so neither parents nor kid feel like they're on the spot. If you want to help, you can help by initiating some next phase of the party— Hey kids, who's ready for cake?—that'll Ctrl-Alt-Del the malfunctioning kid.
If it's a spat between two kids, split 'em up long enough for each to cool down a little, then have 'em shake hands, then say good job, and have an idea for a fun thing they can go do right now.
If it's you, step outside and sob into your hands behind a dumpster. It's OK! It's cleansing and cathartic. But it will scare the children if they see it.
Hand sanitizer and booze. The former goes on the hands of everyone in your family the very moment you walk out of the party; the latter goes in your face the very moment your kid goes to bed.
You did it! Everybody survived, kept their limbs, escaped with their dignity. Your reward is a heretofore unknown variety of rhinovirus, and 364 days to get ready for the next one.
Photo via Shutterstock
Adequate Man is Deadspin's new self-improvement blog, dedicated to making you just good enough at everything. Suggestions for future topics are welcome below.