Having the police show up at a 1-year-old's birthday celebration makes a parent wonder: Is this party worth the stress?
Alison Ray said the police cameo at her daughter's bash in August occurred because a neighbor was upset that guests were freely moving between the front sidewalk (where the plastic wading pool was) and the condo building (where the food and drinks were).
While one officer was negotiating a peace settlement among the adults, the other offered a tour of the squad car and a light show to the kids. Ray sent the partners back to Chicago's streets with homemade coconut cupcakes in hand.
The next week, Ray would be back to playing hostess, not just in her professional capacity as a meeting planner, but also for her older daughter's third birthday. Leading up to it, her husband was out of town on business for a few days, and Ray managed to contract a virus that raised her temperature to 101.
And yet, Ray maintains, "I love hosting parties."
Not all parents bounce back so cheerfully from the supersize stress that a wee one's birthday bash can create. A few years ago, the jitters might have revolved around whether the goody bags were good enough (or, secretly, "better than"). These days, parents are scaling back, which brings new — or old-fashioned — challenges and rewards.
"Trying to make a party work in a manner that the kids have fun and you don't upset anyone's feelings and the party doesn't go out of control and it doesn't become exceedingly expensive is sort of a hard combination," said David Sparrow, a senior editor for Parents magazine, which included a "7 party problems solved!" story in its September issue.
These days that can mean no party — especially for 1- and 2-year-olds who can't appreciate or remember them, and smaller parties for older children, Sparrow said.
"We're seeing parents say, 'Let's just do something with two or three friends,' whether going to a game or taking a couple of friends to a show," said Sparrow, who lives in New York. "It's still a special experience, but it doesn't have to be everyone in your class running around."
"Going to a game" doesn't require that your town boast a pro sports team, said Dawn Lantero, author of "S.P.L.A.S.H. Parenting Principles" (Growth Spurt Publishing, $14.99).
"With four children, I have planned a lot of parties," Lantero said. "One time we took a group of fifth-grade boys to a high school football game after painting their faces and decorating T-shirts and our minivan. The boys were such passionate fans that they ended up being featured on the cable TV coverage of the game and could watch themselves on TV the following week."
Party destinations still popular
Lantero prefers home as the base of her children's "friend parties," which they were allowed to have every two years, with a family-only party in between. Lantero once hired a dance instructor for a group of third- grade girls. She has arranged a teddy bear tea party, a necklace-beading party, a T-shirt tie-dye party and a sports party with an obstacle course in the yard, boasting tunnels and baby-pool splash stations.
"It was an absolute riot," she said. "These are simple ideas that take organizing but not a whole lot of money."
Party destinations remain popular, however, for reasons such as insufficient space at home or the outsourcing of entertainment, food and serving duties; they also allow the parents to mingle and enjoy the party more.
Pump It Up, which has 164 "inflatable party zones" across the country, saw party numbers decline at the end of 2008 through the middle of 2009, said chief executive Lee Knowlton, who's based in Tempe, Ariz. So, a bit like the wedding industry, Pump It Up began offering discounts for non-Saturday parties or entry-level 90-minute parties for smaller groups with no food and no goody bags. Prices vary by location.
"When we did that adjustment around July of last year, we saw a turn," Knowlton said. "The last eight months, we've been above last year's sales."
Even before the surprise at her younger daughter's party, Ray and her husband had booked their older daughter's birthday party at a fantasy-play destination, with attractions such as princess and wizard costumes and slides — as well as a mini-police car and a jail.
If there is a "next time" for either daughter at home, Ray figures it will be around the time both have reached sit-down dinner-party age.
And she will add one more detail to the to-do list, she said: "Always invite the neighbors."
A no-surprise party guide
Guest list: Conventional wisdom is to invite the number of guests equal to the age of your child. In some areas, it is customary to invite the child's whole class; a variation is to invite your child's gender only or just three or four best friends (with the invitation being sent to each child's home, not to school).
To avoid unexpected guests (e.g., the invited guests' siblings), be direct on the invitation, Parents magazine's David Sparrow suggests, with something like, "We wish we had room for everybody, but we have to limit attendance to invited guests."
Gift moderation: Some parents are softening the "no gifts" approach that has become prevalent the past few years, particularly for smaller parties of three to five children.
"For the most part, people like to give a gift and, obviously, kids like to receive a gift," Sparrow said. Parents magazine suggests registering your party at echoage.com, which e-mails your invitations and encourages guests to make a monetary contribution online instead of a wrapped present. Part of the money goes to a charity of the child's choice; the rest to the child to choose a special present. Other parents ask for donations to help a local cause.
Help!: Parties where the parents drop off the kids generally start around age 5 or 6, Sparrow said. "It really varies based on the parents' comfort level," he said. Be direct on the invitation by listing drop-off and pickup times.
In advance, ask one parent or older sibling/baby sitter for every three kids to stay and ensure that everyone is accounted for and safe at all times. "Too many adults is not a great thing after a certain age," Sparrow said. This can create tension between adult socializing and party oversight.
Allergies: If you know a guest has allergies, tell his parents what you're planning to serve, said Sparrow. You might offer to make something separately for that guest or ask his parents to bring something. It's wise to keep common allergens (peanut butter) off the menu, just in case.
Good goodies: Many parents are opting out of goody bags, often filled with "a bunch of candy and choking hazards and annoying little trinkets that don't really work or are lost within a day," Sparrow said. An alternative is to have the children make items during the party that they each can take home.
"Kids do have the expectation of coming home with something," he said, but you can make it a practical item or something connected to the party, such as a ball and bat for a baseball-themed party.