The Truth About Birthday Parties

… From Parents (and Kids!) Who've Been There

By Carol Band

If you've ever lain awake at night worrying about your child's birthday party, you're not alone.

What if the kids hate the games you've planned? What if it rains? What if your child's best friend can't come? Planning a birthday party is stressful. Maybe that's why there are so many books and Web sites offering ideas for games, themes and decorations. Great stuff - but how do you know what will work?

If you want truly helpful hints, you have to talk to real parents about real parties. That's what we've done: From party themes to thank-you notes, here are answers to all of your birthday party questions, from a party pro and real "experts-in-the-know" - parents.

Question: 15 kids, is that too many?

You've probably heard the rule that you should invite as many kids to the party as there are candles on the cake. Ten friends for a 10-year-old; four friends for a 4-year-old. But not everyone follows this decree.

From the Party Pro …

The Perfect Party?

If you're planning a two-hour birthday party, but have no idea how to fill that time, check out "Birthday 101" for a time-tested schedule of activities, games, cake, ice cream and presents.

"Four kids! That's not a celebration, that's dinner with your family!" says Sharron Krull, party planner and author of That Was the Best Party Ever! How to Give Parties Your Kids Will Never Forget. Krull insists there are no hard-and-fast rules. Party budget, space constraints and your child's wishes all help determine the size of the guest list.

… And Parents in the Know

Charlotte Pierce's daughter had a fairy-themed indoor party for her sixth birthday. Pierce invited 18 kids to create fairy houses out of moss, bark, twigs and dried flowers. But the project and the invite list proved to be too much.

"Some of the kids were really high-energy and just wanted to run around. It was a huge mess," Pierce recalls. "The twigs collapsed, so I had to use a glue gun, and there was lots of waiting around. The houses were sweet, but I was a wreck and it was frustrating for the kids. Eighteen was way too many kids for such an involved project. Never again."

When Anne Murray's daughter, Kendra, wanted 15 friends at her eighth birthday party, the whole family got involved.

"We came up with the idea of splitting the guests into three groups that traveled through the house to various stations for games and activities," Murray says. "It took a lot of scheduling, but it worked really well. Her older brother manned the craft station, my husband ran the games station, and we were able to comfortably host the entire group."

Take-Away Tips

  • Invite as many children as you can comfortably host in your space. If there will be more than five or six, invite another parent to help or hire a teenager.

  • The more kids you invite, the more adult or teenage helpers you'll need to manage games, help with crafts and ensure that everything runs smoothly.

Question: Do I need to send invitations?

It's a legitimate question, particularly in an age of email, IM'ing and texting.

From the Party Pro …

Krull believes in the old-fashioned, mailed-out party invitation: "The invitation introduces your party. It's a chance to create excitement and build anticipation," she says.

… And Parents (and Kids) in the Know

Parents have mixed feelings about invitation alternatives. "My son once missed a birthday party because the invitation was a message left on our phone machine by the birthday child," says Emily Twadell, a mother of three.

"I like sending e-invites," says mom Denise Pons Leone of Internet services that allow you to custom-create party invitations with reply options. "You can see who has opened them, people can leave comments - it's fast and they are cute!"

Adam, age 12, likes a more personal approach: "A couple of years ago, one of my friends had a pirate party and his dad dressed up as Captain Hook and delivered the invitations, which were treasure maps in a bottle. It was cool and made me think that the party was going to be really fun."

Take-Away Tips

  • Mail out invitations about three weeks before the party, suggests Krull. Follow up with a phone call if you don't receive a reply.

  • If you opt for a small party, be discreet; never pass out invitations at school. If you're inviting nearly everyone in the preschool class, go the extra mile and invite the whole class.

Question: Do we need a theme?

Having a theme isn't necessary, but it makes planning - from invitations to decorations and games - easier because it provides a framework. Listen to your child and help select a theme that he's excited about.

From the Party Pros …

There's no shortage of books and Web sites on party theme ideas. Head to the bookstore or library for ideas from the likes of veteran party planning authors such as Krull, Penny Warner and Vicki Lansky. Search the Internet for party theme and planning sites, such as, which bills itself as "the world's largest collection of birthday party ideas."

… And Parents in the Know

With very young children, simplicity is the key to success.

"For my son's second birthday, I planned a circus party," says mom Karen Seligman. "Our extended family was coming with older cousins, so I rented a tent for the back yard and a cotton-candy machine. I hired face painters and a clown to do magic tricks. My son refused to have his face painted and then took one look at the clown and had a total meltdown. What was I thinking? I should have just had a few friends over for cupcakes and an hour in the sandbox."

Pons Leone opted for a much more basic theme for her own 2-year-old: "The party theme was 'Yellow.' Everyone dressed in yellow. The cake was yellow. We drew with yellow chalk on black paper and painted with yellow and read stories with the color yellow. It was a big hit and very easy to do."

Julie Anderson took her 5-year-old son and his birthday party guests on a tour of the local firehouse.

"It ate up a bunch of time to walk to the station, talk with the firemen and ring the bell in the truck," she says. "Then we went back to the house for games and a fire truck cake decorated with licorice hoses and pretzel ladders. The biggest hit was putting out votive candles with squirt guns."

Take-Away Tips

  • Remember, the party is for your child - to celebrate her birthday and her individuality. Make sure it matches her interests and her age. And don't consider any party a measure of your parenting abilities or talent.

  • You can't really overdo a theme, especially when your child is so excited about it. Involve your child in the planning and be creative together.

Question: Where should I have the party?

Inside your home? On the soccer field? At an indoor play space, roller rink or bowling alley?

From the Party Pro …

"Outside, outside, outside," says Krull. There's no rug to vacuum or upholstery to ruin. If the weather cooperates, an outdoor party is the least messy, most spacious place to celebrate.

What if your child is a February baby or the weather forecast calls for rain?

"A garage or family room will work just as well," says Krull. "Just make sure that there aren't televisions, video games or computers that will distract the guests."

And Parents in the Know

"For several years, we have hosted parties at the local park," says Laura Bergan, a mother of three. "I hire a teenager or counselor from my child's day camp to help run games. It's so easy."

Indoor parties can also be great, particularly with creative themes.

"My son went to a party that all the kids are raving about," says Lorraine Griffin, a mother of three. "It was a Nerf™ party. The guests brought their own Nerf™ guns and when they got to the party, they were given goggles and set up in teams. Their battles were restricted to the finished basement and they had an absolutely great time."

But indoor fetes can also easily fizzle.

"Every year, we are invited to a family birthday party for my niece," says Kevin Reeves, father of a 5-year-old boy. "We're obligated to go because it's family, but it is always crowded, the TV in the basement is tuned to football and the party seems like kind of an afterthought."

"I went to one party at a bowling alley where it was obvious that the parents just couldn't wait to leave," recalls Murray. "The guests were running all over the place, there was no engagement, no cheering - just bowling to get it over with."

Take-Away Tips

  • Party venues, such as bowling alleys, roller rinks or indoor play spaces, can be a godsend. Many offer staff who keep things running smoothly and handle the cleanup. But don't assume you can sit back and avoid too much involvement. The more enthusiasm you generate about the activities, the more the kids will be happy to participate.

  • o Choose a venue carefully. Match the place with your child's interests and make sure it's age-appropriate.

Question: How can I keep everybody happy?

An afternoon party can seem like an eternity if every minute is not planned ahead. Always have more activities than you will use. Divide the party into 15-minute increments. For preschoolers, a 90-minute party is plenty. For older kids, count on no more than two hours.

From the Party Pro …

"Keep it upbeat and fast-paced," advises Krull. Reward kids with treats or the chance to pick small prizes from a treasure chest every time they participate in a game or activity. It keeps them motivated and makes each event more enticing.

Know your audience, she adds. "A rambunctious group is not going to have the patience for a craft project involving tiny beads, and a group of shy kids might not want to take to the stage at an American Idol party."

… And Parents (and Kids) in the Know

Sharon Grossman, a mother of two, suggests both traditional and innovative games: "Our parties always included trying to eat a marshmallow off a licorice string," she says. "My kids are teenagers now, but the party guests from years ago still talk about that game."

"The coolest party I ever went to," says McCabe, 12, "was a huge treasure hunt with clues that took us all over town. We even had to go to the supermarket and ask for a clue at the express checkout. We were in teams with cell phones, so we could call for help if we needed to. It was fun."

"The best party we ever hosted was one where every activity involved throwing stuff," says Jennifer Colthart, a mother of two. "The boys threw water balloons at each other, wet sponges at my husband who stuck his head out from behind a shower curtain, and had squirt gun fights with red and blue water and white T-shirts. … Boys!"

Take-Away Tips

  • When kids have to wait in line to pin the patch on the pirate, you are asking for trouble. Instead, have a keep-'em-busy activity that they can do while they wait their turn. Or get them involved by making up cheers for other players.

Birthday 101

Here's a time-tested schedule for an almost two-hour party. If a game is going well, let it continue for a few extra minutes. Always stop a game and move on to the next one before kids begin to lose interest.

  • Guests arrive and are encouraged to work on an arts and crafts project - 20 minutes.

  • Once everyone has arrived, play a get-to-know-you activity - 15 minutes.

  • Follow with an active relay race or game - 15 minutes.

  • Sit-down game (Concentration, guessing games) - 15 minutes.

  • Another more active game (piρata, treasure hunt) - 15 minutes.

  • Cake and ice cream - 15 minutes.

  • Open presents - 15 minutes.

  • Distribute goody bags or party favors, welcome parents and wave goodbye until next year!

    - Carol Band

  • Question: How can I keep the gifts under control?

    For the birthday child, getting presents is an important part of the celebration. It's also important for the children who attend the party and have perhaps shopped for and helped to wrap the present. They want to see the birthday boy or girl open the gift and say, "How did you know I always wanted this? Thank you!"

    From the Party Pro …

    Krull suggests turning gift-opening time into a game that engages all of the children.

    "You can have all the guests sit in a circle with the presents behind their back, put on some theme-related music and pass around a theme-related object. When the music stops, the child holding the object hands their gift to the birthday child. Everyone waits until the gift is opened and the birthday child has said an appropriate 'thank you.' The game continues until all the presents are distributed."

    … And Parents in the Know

    "We've been to parties where the presents are all stashed in a plastic garbage bag and opened later," says Twadell. "I understand the logic, but it's kind of frustrating for the guests."

    Take-Away Tips

    o Practice polite gift-opening with your child before the party. Teach the child to thank the giver immediately and graciously, and to never disappoint the giver by saying things like, "Not another one! I already have this."

    Question: I hate goody bags. Is there an alternative to all that junk?

    As much as parents may loathe goody bags, kids look forward to them. But the concept has become a bit tired.

    "I like getting goody bags because it's a surprise and it's exciting to see what's going to be in it," says Julia Leone, 9. "But most of the time, it's just pencils and candy. It's kind of disappointing."

    From the Party Pro …

    Krull's party plans let kids fill their own goody bags with trinkets and candy as the party progresses. Participation in a game or craft could result in an addition to a goody bag, for instance.

    … And Parents in the Know

    Many parents are turning to the idea of one small guest gift that relates to the party theme instead of a bag of stickers and candy.

    One mom gave out CDs of Disney princess songs to guests at her daughter's princess-themed party. Other parents recommend doing an elaborate craft project during the course of the party - tie-dye T-shirts, plants in decorated pots or picture frames with a freshly printed digital or Polaroid photo of the guest - and sending it home as the party favor.

    Carol Band is a regular contributor to Dominion Parenting Media, a mother of three and a veteran birthday party planner.

    Resources: Books

    1. Birthday Party Games & Activities, by Penny Warner, Meadowbrook, 1993.

    2. That Was the Best Party Ever! How to Give Parties Your Kids Will Never Forget, by Sharron Krull, Play Power Publishing, 1995.

    3. The Ultimate Birthday Party Book: 50 Complete and Creative Themes to Make Your Kid's Special Day Fantastic, by Susan Baltrus, Cook Communications Ministries, 2002.

    Web Sites

    •  - This site offers a plethora of party ideas for kids of various ages, including parties based entirely around specific themes.