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» Planning your party together

A party lasts a few hours and, during that time, there's an excellent chance that you'll have only limited contact with the birthday person. If all is going well, he or she is bound to be caught up in the action. In a sense and to the extent that it is possible, your child should end up feeling like a guest at his own party. There is no need for the youngster to be burdened with a sense of responsibility beyond remaining friendly and willing to participate with the other children.

Too often, a child attends her own party unaware of the plan¬ning and work that putting it together has involved. It is possible for the birthday child to feel concerned, even worried, about the event. She's a stranger at the affair, wondering about the kind of cake, the nature of the games, the sequence of activities, the guests, and the presents.

Although the party may be relatively short, pre-party planning and preparation may take days or even weeks. And, during this period, you and your child have a marvelous opportunity to work together to achieve important common goals – pride, excited anticipation and the pleasure of seeing your plans take shape.

Your youngster can be helped to feel that he is a decision maker. As he participates in planning his party, he'll have a chance to express himself and to find that what he thinks counts. His "grown-upness" is what the entire event is acknowledging, and here, even at the start of this new year, he can see some concrete evidence of his growth.

Though your birthday person should feel like an "equal" partner, you are the ultimate authority. This is a secret between you and us. Be selective when asking for opinions and phrase your questions to offer choices that fit into your master plan. For example, pre-select party items that fit into your budget and then ask your child, “which one of these three kinds of paper plates, (favors) (types of cake) would you like to have at your party?”

Obviously, the younger the child, the less he will be involved in the planning. But from the age of three, he can begin participating in some of the pre-party decision-making. In the process, he'll get to try out new skills and observe the organizing that is taking place, noting that there are many aspects to the party and that the decisions each of you makes are going to have consequences.

It's important for young readers and pre-readers to think about the order of things -- just the kind of "brain work" your child can experience as he helps with the party preparation. Planning a sequence of activities (for example, decorating the room, playing games, eating, opening the presents), and then noting the materials needed for each (crepe paper, recipes, cake, etc.), can promote mental growth by helping him see relationships and associations.

Your child also can help "write" the plans, the shopping list, the invitations, etc. If he is comfortable with printing but not yet able to spell out the words, you can dictate the letters in the words, keeping things short and simple. With children who aren't writing yet, you can jot down their dictation. Use the youngster's own words, filling in the details later.

Three-year-olds can decorate, can select a package of invitations (and color in the blank areas), can tell about who they hope will come to their party, and can express an opinion about chocolate icing versus vanilla. They can watch the party begin to take shape.

The older the child, the more genuine assistance she can provide. Satisfaction and more learning can come from trips to the store and chances to count and handle money, compare different types of decorations, taste various foods and choose favorites.

This is an opportunity for your child to hear herself talking about her likes and dislikes, observations, and opinions, many of which she hasn't realized she holds. And, as she is busy becoming familiar with who she is, so are you. A most valuable part of this "shared" work is the language exchange, cognitively stimulating for your youngster and emotionally rewarding for you both.

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» The Pre-Party Jitters

We may as well acknowledge at the beginning that parties, though exciting, also produce a bit of anxiety. CHARLES THE CLOWN finds most nervousness resides in the parents rather than in the children, but the butterflies can be contagious. Parents have numerous legitimate concerns. The guests might not enjoy the party. What if the birthday boy has a hard time? Or if grandma insists on running the show? Will too many children come (any number of children can seem like "too many" if you aren't used to controlling more than a few)?

Both parents and kids have a lot riding on this day. One of the best ways to reduce or forestall tense feelings is to prepare as thoroughly as possible. What people fear most is uncertainty, and a plan can eliminate much of this. Through planning you can involve your child in the party from the beginning. In addition, planning will have a calming effect on your child, for working together creates confidence in each of you. Your youngster will know that you are ready for any happenstance, that you have contingency plans in place. If the birthday star has an overwhelming moment, a special hug will be forthcoming; if the kids don't like a game, you will have another all set to go. If "this" happens, you'll do "that." If "that" happens you'll do "this."

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» Expectations

Sometimes, anxiety will wait until the start of the party to surface. CHARLES THE CLOWN often has arrived for a performance in mid-party, only to be greeted by a frazzled host or hostess who privately confesses that "everything is going wrong." Yet, often the party in question is doing very nicely. The children are happy, there is a feeling of excitement and fun in the air, a cheeriness and beauty to the decorations and (occasionally) the kids even will have eaten their sandwiches!

Why the disappointed parent? Usually, the person has a set of expectations that aren't being met. Mom spent two hours making the beanbag toss and none of the kids are using it. Dad made a special tuna salad, guaranteed to be a winner with the kids, but no one ate it! Parents need to know that preparations are important -- but that the children still may not love each and every moment. Only one test determines whether you've thrown a successful party: are the guests enjoying it? If they are, pat yourself on the back.

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» A Party Notebook

Planning and giving a party involve coordinating many elements. Take notes. Make lists. Get yourself a small notebook and divide it into specific sections:
  • GUESTS - include phone numbers, names of parents, additional information
  • THEMES AND ACTIVITIES -- begin listing things that are appropriate for your child's age, that fit your budget, and that sound like fun
  • REFRESHMENTS -- make a shopping list
  • DECORATIONS -- divide into sections for homemade and manufactured
  • ARTS & CRAFTS SUPPLIES -- include accessories for games, etc.
  • GIFT LIST -- compile suggestions for parents who may ask what your child would like to receive
As you gather information, place it in your book. Note each bakery, the kinds of cakes it makes, the prices, the specialties, the lead time required. Note why you selected the date for your party and why other possible dates were ruled out. If you have to change the day of the party, these explanations will become important.

Writing things down helps to make sure you've covered all the bases. And, from year to year, consulting previous party records can give you a useful guide and make you feel like an experienced hand. Who came last year? How did the mix of children work out? What was served? Which activities, refreshments, entertainers, trips, parents, and favors worked well? Which did not?

Be in touch with any individuals whose services you might want to use -- a photographer, an entertainer, the fellow who rents merry-go-rounds, the shop that prints up HAPPY BIRTHDAY banners or imprints your child's name onto balloons.

Your list will help you juggle your budget around, survey possibilities, and determine which combination of goods and services will work for your party. As you review the budget, ask questions such as -- what if you didn't have this affair at lunch time, and used the money you were saving to buy a birthday party activity audio or video? Or, if you kept that guest list down to ten kids, might you get away with the smaller cake -- decisions, decisions.

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» Checklist for Purchasing Supplies

Use this checklist as a planning aid as well as a budgeting guide and shopping list.
  • Number of Guests:
  • Age Range:
  • Invitations $
  • Stamps $
  • Decorations $
  • Other paper products $
  • Lunch (for the kids) $
  • Snack for parents $
  • Cake and ice cream $
  • Favors $
  • Activity accessories (CDs, games) $
  • Entertainment $
  • Setting the Date

» Choosing the Date

It is, of course, nice if you can hold the party on the actual birthday date. But, obviously, if this date falls in the middle of a school week, on a holiday such as Christmas, on the same date as another child's party, or on the weekend the house is to be painted, other arrangements need to be made.

Also, many children lead busy social lives. And, since they aren't old enough to make the rounds alone, contact with the world outside their home often requires an assist from a parent. When a youngster receives a birthday invitation, it usually means mom must check the date and time to make certain transportation available, that the invited child doesn't have another party, doctor's appointment, or junior gym, and that someone else can take big sister to her ballet class.

As a parent, you already know that flexibility is one of your best friends. This is doubly true when it comes to birthday parties. The idea is to have a special time set aside to acknowledge the growing and changing. Having a successful, well-attended party a week (or even longer) before or after the actual birthday is much better than insisting on scheduling the affair for the "proper" but inconvenient day.

When selecting a date for your party, check around with friends. Of course, you know if your child's birthday falls on a national or religious holiday. But there also are special, one-time-only holidays, local elections, and school conference days of which you should be aware. Try to avoid three-day weekends. On the other hand, a holiday in the middle of the week might, however, present the perfect time to call in the cake and kids.

Select two or three tentative dates well in advance. A month in advance is fine. Attempting to schedule any earlier will prove difficult because prospective guests (and their parents) more than likely will have yet-to-be-finalized commitments that leave them unable to accept or reject your party dates. Call the parents of those children whose attendance counts most. Let them know that you're planning a party and that you have picked two or three possible dates. If a child can't attend because of a transportation problem, find out the details. Perhaps one of the other parents can provide a lift.

Part of the pre-party organizing includes getting an extremely clear guest count -- including parents. Do you want each child to bring a chaperone? Are there key parents, probably your own close friends, whose help you'd appreciate? Try to determine how many "parent posts" your party will have: one adult helping with the cake, another at the beanbag toss to promote the taking of turns, another keeping the children out of the kitchen while the refreshments are being readied.

Once you know how many adult assistants you'll need, get specific commitments from moms and dads. One of the secrets of a successful party is to leave as little to chance as possible. Wouldn't you be in for a shock if on the day of your child's party a nearby department store decides to hold an incredible sale, making your party an excellent babysitting service for bargain-hunting parents?

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» What Time of Day?

We once held a "Children's New Year's Eve Party." It began at seven-thirty, and by nine o'Clock -- the "official children's midnight"-- most of the five-and six-year-olds looked as if they were ready for Dick Clark to play them a lullabye. Mustering up an end-of-the-year burst of enthusiasm, we distributed our collection of pots and pans, hightailed it to the front door, and provided the neighborhood with a percussion version of "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain." Declaring an immediate New Year, we put the children to bed. The sitter found the television, and Mr. and Mrs. CHARLES THE CLOWN left for a somewhat more sophisticated (but not nearly as enjoyable) celebration.

When parent-people think of children's parties, they almost always envision afternoon affairs. But there may be other options. Depending on your child's age, you might wish to consider a morning party, a dinner party, or even a slumber party.

On many a Saturday and Sunday, CHARLES THE CLOWN gets up early, breakfasts with the family, puts on his baggy pants, fastens his wig, and sets out for the first of his four scheduled party shows."In the morning? In the early morning?" you ask. The answer is "yes." There are wonderful reasons to hold an A.M. party.

Unfortunately, those who designed the calendar saw fit to give us only one Saturday and one Sunday per week. Therefore, most of us tend to crowd a great many activities into these particular 48 hours -- shopping, recreation, religion, and chores -- all into two rather inadequate days. Some lucky folks also get to sleep late. All this and a birthday party too?

Saturday mornings generally are unscheduled territory. Calling a party for 10 A.M. means giving a party that is less likely to compete with your guests' tightly packed weekend calendar. The kids feel fresh and so does the day.

You can even set the arrival time for nine o'clock and throw an official breakfast party. The novelty will strike a note of interest among your guests, and there are marvelous things to be done with pancake cakes (for those who prefer to skip a heavy kitchen detail, frozen waffles with birthday topping will do the trick.

As one additional option, consider holding a party for toddlers from 5 to 7 P.M. Your young guests, who have had their naps prior to arriving, can bring their appetities. This early evening time may be convenient for working moms and dads as well.

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» The Indoor Party

Do you live in an apartment in New York City? Is your child's birthday in mid-January? Unless you're really determined to have the kids play pin-the-tail on the snowman, you probably should house the festivities indoors.

Deciding whether to hold a party inside or outside involves a lot more consideration than thinking about the weather, though meteorological conditions are certainly a factor. If you don't have a yard, if the park is turning to mud, if you can not get a grandparent to host, there are movie parties, amusement center parties, bowling parties, hobby shop parties .. or how about holding the event at the community center?

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» It’s An Inside Job

Is it possible to conduct a children's party in your home without ending up with stains on the rug, potato chip crumbs in the piano, and a pain the size of Miami between your eyes? Charles has some advice about having a party inside your home. YES! Definitely YES!

Though some consider it best to have a large house, complete with a playroom, a sympathetic housekeeper, and locks on all the rooms you wish to place "off-limits," your attitude is much more important than the square footage of your living space. Of course, it helps to approach the event systematically, with realistic expectations and the calming knowledge that almost any stain can be lifted with a decent spot remover. In other words -- do not hold a party in your house if you are not prepared to let kids -- even well behaved, highly engaged kids -- be kids.

Make sure you take adequate steps to protect your home.

Recreation rooms are wonderful. If you don't happen to have one, choose between the living room and the dining area. Opt for the room with the most "open" space -- or be prepared to move unnecessary furniture to other parts of the house. As we are sure you've noticed, children have an amazing amount of energy and require a lot of leg room.

Remove breakables. Cover couches and stuffed chairs with colorful sheets (do this neatly so the room doesn't end up looking like the King's summer palace seen on a winter's day). Try to find or borrow an old rug to place on top of your brand new wall-to-wall. Do not put one of those plastic tarps on the floor -- they cause lots of tripping. Keep all walking surfaces free from potential hazards.

Indoor parties generally mean a reduced guest list, a shorter running time, and more structured activities. It's one thing to have guests jumping freely about the yard and another to allow this type of action in a home. Plan sit-down games, crafts and perhaps (Charles like this one) a visit from a children's entertainer. Also consider playing a video.

Some children attending the party will have visited your house prior to the celebration. A few of the kids will qualify as "regulars.." They've sat with you in the kitchen, spent hours playing in your daughter's room, roamed about the hallways and cellar participating in games of tag, and watched lots of video on your 157" wall-to-wall high definition screen television. Now, as party guests, they'll expect to have their "regular" access. But you will have to limit that access because if one child does a little playing in the back room, others rightfully will seek the same privilege.

Other guests are visiting for the first time and though they will start the afternoon feeling somewhat ill at ease - where did she say the bathroom was? - they'll soon relax and grow curious. They'll wonder what your son's room is like, what toys he has, and what kind of computer he uses. In short, they'd appreciate the grand tour. Explain that it has to wait until next time. This is not a good tour day.

Don't let the party take over your house. As soon as the guests have gathered, welcome them and let kids know your plan. Do this in a friendly but firm manner. "Because there are a lot of us in a small home, we can't have any running. And so we can keep everyone together for the games and the fun, I'm asking all the kids to stay here in the party room."

Help your birthday person to understand that even though she might want to open her room to guests, it's not a good idea because every toy, every game, every piece of craft material, every book and every puzzle piece will more than likely get examined, played with and possibly misplaced by one inquisitive child or another.

Other thoughts: If you live in a house, you might want to let your neighbors know you are going to need lots of parking for the guests. If you live in an apartment -- the folks below you might appreciate a heads up that you are having twelve six-year-olds over for a celebration.

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» Opening The Presents!!!!!

Some parents insist that the birthday child unwrap presents carefully -- to preserve the paper. Other parents are just as anxious as the birthday child and can hardly wait for the paper to be ripped off so they can see what was given.

Generally, someone receives the presents at the door and places them on a table, to be opened after the games are played and the cake is served. Children gather around the birthday child and watch with anticipation -- and fairly often with envy, too, as each gift is displayed.

CHARLES THE CLOWN has seen numerous cases of the "I can't wait until the end of the party to get to the presents ..." blues. It is easy to see why -- the gifts are sitting right there -- on the table -- ready to be opened. And the end of the party is so far away. Besides, if you listen really carefully, you can hear one of the gifts saying, "Open me NOW ... don't wait ... NOW!"

A reasonable alternative to the LONG wait is to open presents as the guests arrive. Kid shows up. "Hi, Jenna, welcome, oh ... you got me a Harry Potter book ... thank you ...." The gift should then immediately get passed to a parent who puts it away. Best not to allow them to be turned into play material for the party.

This system means there is no big deal focus on presents. Also, there is less comparing, less embarrassment, especially if duplication occurs.

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