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Happy Birthdays!

Kids, Parents and Parties

Party planning is in my blood. My mother was a mastermind who could bring any theme to life. Luau.

Hoedown. Olympics. When I turned five, she transformed our house into Oz, complete with a yellow brick road. My grandmother even joined in the festivities, sewing a Dorothy costume for me to wear. Greeting my guests with a fake Toto in my basket, I knew someday I too would plan lavish parties.

These days, it’s easy to go overboard with kids. My oldest daughter returned from a trip to the American Girl Store in New York City only to aspire to recreate the experience in our house for her birthday. The dining area offered table service for guests and their dolls. Friends took turns styling their dolls’ hair in the family room “salon,” choosing from an array of bows and matching tiaras on display. Rain meant the crafts relocated to the garage, but the paint-your-own wooden dolls were still a success.

When my younger daughter grew old enough to compare scrapbook pages, my brief effort toward simplicity was Thwarted; the family party route wasn’t going to cut it. So for her third birthday, we all became pawns in the Candyland game, leading the guests to the action with a trail of rainbow colored squares.

We decorated gingerbread men and played hot gumdrop. While the events never got old for my kids, after a few years of birthday planning, I found myself growing weary. Thanks to the Birthday Express and Oriental Trading catalogues, my home-grown efforts weren’t saving us money, and I found myself daydreaming about outsourcing their birthdays.

Liesel of Richmond says, “My kids always want at-home parties.” She keeps the cost low by getting most of the supplies from her own house, leaving food as the biggest expense. Now that her kids are older, she leaves the planning to them. “They are obsessed!

One year, it was Halloween in April. All the guests wore costumes and I wrangled neighbors into trick-or-treating,” Liesel adds. Another time, they hosted a Broadway show theme. Liesel explains, “There was a dress-up room, a craft Room. The kids worked in teams of five to write skits and then select costumes accordingly. When they were done, each group performed on a mock stage. And every child took home a pretend Oscar for a best of category.” But I was most impressed with the one she claimed was her best party yet – a Survivor party, complete with gummy worms hanging off fishing lines for the kids to eat with their hands tied behind their back.

This creative mother of two says the key is putting a new spin on an old favorite. Recently, they revised capture the flag for the Percy Jackson books, which was her child’s favorite series.

Local mom, Kristi, says her 13-year-old daughter was looking for “something different.” After having to postpone the birthday celebration twice due to snow, the kids finally hooked up at Short Pump for a mall scavenger hunt. Using the website, Kristi set up an afternoon of adventure for the girls.

Little did she know, however, that scavenger hunts had recently been banned from Short Pump on account of Trouble with teenagers and college-aged students. She explains, “I sent three of the nicest, best behaved girls into the mall and within five minutes we get a call. The mall cop had shut down the operation.” Despite the best of intentions, Kristi called it quits, simply passing out money for shopping. “It was a disaster! Still, it couldn’t have been a more memorable thirteenth birthday. Whoever thought they’d end up almost arrested by the mall cop?”

Clearly, sometimes birthdays don’t go as planned, which is why many parents I know are opting for family outings over parties with friends. A trip to Luray Caverns. A pony farm in Chincoteague.So many of my oldest daughter’s friends have been to Great Wolf Lodge in Williamsburg that she really wanted to celebrate her eighth birthday there.Never imagining she’d agree, I offered an overnight stay in lieu of a party with Friends, and much to her grandmother’s surprise, she said yes. After giving her the night to think about it, I made sure it was still what she wanted. “Mom, this is an opportunity of a lifetime.” How could I say no?

When the party supply catalogues arrived a week later, however, I could tell by the way she was staring at the tie-dye plates with the peace signs that she was having second thoughts. Sucker that I was, I reconsidered, too. For all my complaining, I couldn’t help wondering, ‘Had I abandoned the at-home birthday party too soon?’ It wouldn’t be long before my seven-year-old would be too cool to want to decorate with her mom and dress up with her friends.

In the weeks that followed, I found myself wondering if I should surprise my daughter by inviting some friends over. Maybe, just a quick craft and some cupcakes.After all, what’s a birthday without a party? Yet as the big day approached, all my daughter cared about was counting down to our departure for Great Wolf, and the only person seemingly missing the party was me. As I often have to remind myself with other parenting matters, this was her birthday, not mine, so I stopped second-guessing her decision and simply looked forward to the fun. In the end, I realized the best birthday gift is simply being present because, however you celebrate it, turning eight is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Victoria Winterhalter is a mother, teacher, reader, and writer on the education and environment beats for RFM. She has been with RFM since its founding in 2009 and has contributed photos and written numerous articles on education, parenting, and family travel.
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