10 Commandments for the At-Home Birthday Party

There’s a reason why at-home birthday parties are going the way of the white rhinoceros: They are stressful! And why bother when the local laser tag place does it all for almost the same price? Well, 1) because I find, no matter how chaotic it is, your kids (and you) will get a special kind of high from doing it under your own roof and 2) Take it from me, you’ll forget all about that chaos the first time your almost 11-year-old requests “Nothing organized, Mom. Let’s just watch a movie.” (Translation: “I am no longer a little kid” and/or ” You are old.”) Herewith, the DALS ten commandments for throwing a minimum-stress, maximum-fun (for the kids anyway) at-home birthday party.

1. Thou Shalt Not freak out officially until two weeks before the party. If you’re like me, I get very ambitious about birthday parties months and months before we have to actually throw one. Eventually I find myself in the danger zone – the three or four weeks before the birthday when you know you have to start mobilizing, but you just don’t know where to start – and then panic. Over the years, though, I’ve figured out that if I can get two things checked off the list (send out invitation, order party favors online) two weeks before the date, then I can go back to pretending it’s not happening for at least another week.

2. Thou Shalt Not invite parents starting from age 5 and up. Parents need to be entertained, too, and having them around just adds unwanted stress, and more people asking for more glasses of water as far as I’m concerned. Plus, as much as they enjoy watching your kid pin the tail on the donkey’s nose while small-talking with all the parents they just saw at the earlier birthday party, most parents (me included) would rather use the two-hour free-babysitting time block for hitting the gym, running errands, reading the paper for the first time in a month, or just general chilling out.

3. Thou Shall let the kids make the invitation. I’ve been accused of micromanaging just about everything that happens under my roof, but generating the birthday party invitation is not one of them. I will certainly make sure it includes all the vitals (date, place, drop off and pick-up time – especially pick-up time! etc.) but the design and manufacturing of the invitation is totally up to the kids. When the girls were younger, they’d hand-write all the information in rainbow colored markers — maybe a heart or two around the border — and that was enough. But as they’ve gotten older they’ve drawn cartoons (for Phoebe’s pizza-movie party, she drew a slice of pizza watching a movie) and enlisted picmonkey (the world’s most imbecile-proof photo editing website) to add words on top of a favorite photo. Whatever they do, the best part is that it’s a) personal and b) one less thing for the parents to worry about. I usually scan and email the invitation, but there’s nothing wrong with mailing it the old fashioned way. A Sort-of Bonus: You can save the invitations as keepsakes so that later on they will make you weep.

4. Thou Shalt Not serve juice. Yes, juice-boxes are so easy to distribute, but they are sugar time bombs that might just tip the party over the fine line from fun to nightmare. Not to mention, you’ve probably got the sugar food-group covered already. Serve water instead.

5. Thou Shall set the party the day before (or earlier) It gets everyone excited for the party and is one huge check mark on the to-do list. (Click here for more information on the psychological benefits of this practice.)

6. Thou Shall hold the party at night if at all possible As soon as the girls were old enough, we started holding their parties in the early evening. We did this out of necessity — trying to nail down an hour on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon that works for a dozen soccer-playing lacrosse-playing, play-rehearsing tweens is an exercise in futility — but also because it feels a little extra special for a seven- or eight-year-old to have a party after the sun goes down.  (Not to mention, you can also justify a glass of wine – notice that’s singular, no kid needs to see you sloppy – to help get you through the proceedings.)

7. Thou Shall make a playlist Having a pre-approved soundtrack ready to go for Freeze Dance, Pass the Parcel, Hot Potato, or just general good energy vibing is crucial. The job usually falls under Andy’s purview, but includes a few songs that work with the theme (think James Bond Theme Song with Secret Agent Party) along with whatever your kids are into. Note: Though we are all for expanding kids’ repertoires beyond Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, a birthday party is not the time to see what kids think of that Ry Cooder Live album that got you through senior year in college. Plus: It’s hard to overstate how heart-swelling it can be (for me at least) to watch a bunch of girls singing the chorus of some terrible pop song on your living room floor.

8. Thou Shall try to think outside the pizza Box Everyone serves pizza – what the heck is wrong with pigs n’ blankets, veggie dumplings, or mini chicken pot pies from the freezer aisle? (If you want to talk homemade food for the birthday party, you might want to go to another blog.)

9.  Thou Shall send thank-you notes within three weeks of the party. As soon as the kids are old enough to write the words “THANK YOU,” they should be writing thank-you notes themselves. (The perfect way to use up that sweet box of notecards you bought for her birthday — mmmwaahhh) If you want to make it extra fun for them: Order a bunch of these.

10. Thou Shalt Not feel guilty about outsourcing any portion of party. It’s built into my maternal DNA to equate homemade with something greater, as though my daughter will somehow love me more if the crappy ice cream cake I barely cobble together will make her feel more well-loved than the 14-layer cake from the bakery that she has been asking for all year long.  Last year was the first time in a long time I outsourced almost all of Phoebe’s party – it was pizza and a movie. The sum total of my contribution was driving a pack of girls from the pizza place TO our house for the movie. How did she feel about? In her words, it was the best party she’d ever had.

Balloon photo by Aimee Claire for etsy.

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18 Comments

Liz

Thanks, Jenny! I had my first bout of being a “crazed, wants to make everything perfect and homemade” mom for my daughter’s 3rd birthday party this year. All went well, until I cut my hand open and ended up in surgery. Most people serve coffee to signal when a party is over. I sever an artery.

I will be using these rules next time around!

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Lex Apostata

As Ten Commandments lists go, this one is better than Harvey & The Moonglows’ “Ten Commandments of Love” but not quite as good as the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ten Crack Commandments.”

Biggie recommends cheddar, pasta, and steak.

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Mary

I love this post, and I love that my boys love their at-home parties. They get to go to lots of their friends’ parties held at bouncy-house places and miniature golf and whatever else, but they still love their smaller events at home. And even when I’m cleaning up the house and stressing out, I love them too. They choose a theme, decide on the games, help with decorations, maybe with a little coaching here and there….but they love getting involved and helping.

This list is great, although I’d personally add: “Thou Shalt Not Invite the Entire Class.” Maybe if you live in a mansion or have a summer party and a huge back yard you can manage this. But it’s not for me. The boys invite friends – the # has generally been in line with their age, although I think it’s going to start going down again now that my oldest is turning 8. That’s due to his preferences and not space/cost, although that’s certainly a consideration.

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Rosie

Another great list-thank you! After my last outsourced birthday party earlier in the year, I told my 6yr old that big themed birthday parties would now be held every OTHER year (the expense!) and alternate years would have a much smaller gathering at-home with just one or two friends. As soon as I uttered the words I regretted it immediately fearing my two small house and tendency to take on too much. Your list actually makes me think I wasn’t so crazy

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Tina

When I read things like this, written by carefree families with no life threatening food allergies, it brings up very strong feelings… so I have to add that children with serious food allergies may not be able to attend drop off parties without parents hovering in case they need medical intervention (mine’s 5, but I don’t expect she’ll be able to manage on her own for many years), and please PLEASE PLEASE try and advise parents of your menu (with specifics) in advance so that we can do the research necessary (reading labels, calling companies, planning alternative snacks, making cupcakes). Other people’s parties are the MOST stressful thing for us. I love when people serve pizza, as it’s somewhat likely to be peanut and treenut free. Planning our own parties involves the same prep, modelling the behaviour we need from other families, and figuring out how we can make it less about the food and more about inclusion and fun for all children. Add the pressure to be environmentally friendly (at least in our crowd, this is huge, no one wants dollar store toys and they sniff at paper plates) and affordable (a must), and OMG it’s nearly impossible. We’re urbanites in a small apartment, too – for all of these reasons, we’re happy to outsource parties to venues with bigger spaces, pizza parlours with peanut free offerings, and activities with a built-in favour (such as pottery painting, where the plate you made is your take-home). Exclude the food, not the child – and when the allergy mom sends you the inevitable long email full of questions before your party, have some sympathy. Thanks.

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jenny

@tina, wow, I’m very sorry about overlooking everything you say and so glad you weighed in with your suggestions. Everyone, please, take her advice to heart. And ignore what I said — nothing wrong with pizza for every single party forevermore.

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StartCloseIn

I love this! I don’t have kids, but I’ve recently started realizing that even for my own parties these rules are important. Yes, I sometimes make everything from scratch for small groups, but more and more I find that doing a few things by hand and cutting corners for the rest makes for a much more enjoyable party-at least for me! Especially when Trader’s has all those frozen apps!

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Awads

Birthdays are the times I wish we didn’t live in a small rowhouse (but i’m not interested in leaving the city!). One of our Thou Shalt Nots is “bring gifts”. We all have enough stuff and it takes the pressure off guests to not have to scramble to buy a present. Sometimes we (and plenty of other families) just use the local park and set out sports equipment. Next year, when my son is 8, I think we’ll just have a small party at the house with a few select friends. No laser tag. No Pump it Up. Yes, to pigs in a blanket!

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Christina

Love these kinds of posts on your blog (especially since I have an 11-yr old daughter). Coincidentally, we have a party planned for said daughter this Friday night and while I abided by most of these “commandments,” I’m kicking myself that I didn’t read this before, because I am doing a homemade meal (although I think I got the idea from your blog . . . Burrito bowls?). Lots of options, choose what you want, ahead of time prep. I so hope it goes well!

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Tina

Jenny, thank you for your comment. Your post clearly touched a nerve with me. I hope I didn’t sound too assertive – or too desperate. We find that most families are accommodating, but dealing with the few that aren’t can be devastating. Navigating the social aspects of food allergies can be a nightmare. I hope you don’t feel that I was picking on you, or your excellent post. I feel that I need to pick on parties, though, and the societal expectations that go with them. We had three 5 year old parties to navigate last weekend alone, so your time is impeccable. Thank you, again. Family dinner is vital to me because I have cook to make safe food for my child, but your books have taught me how to make it bearable (the occasional midnight cupcakes excepted).

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Andrea

Yep – I went from crazed ‘Let’s make sure my 2 year-old (with an infant brother) has the best party ever by inviting friends they will definitely not be hanging out with when they are 12, plus parents, plus siblings, plus bouncy castles, plus awesome food’ to ‘Mom, I just want to hang out with my friends. Jump on the trampoline, eat burgers, watch a movie….’. Don’t stress. Please. They don’t care if you stress.

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Heather

Great post and great comments from others about things to watch out for on food allergies. Our daughter had a pizza party and one of her friends is on a gluten-free diet. She was so happy when her gluten-free pizza looked like everyone else’s and it wasn’t pointed out as different and we had pancakes the next morning as it was a sleepover, and did gluten-free and regular pancakes. I also customize pancakes for people anyway as I’m the only one in my family that likes blueberry pancakes. Some people like chocolate chips in their pancakes. Cool thing is you put the batter on the griddle and add what you want in them quickly before it finishes cooking.

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A Life From Scratch

I mean, Tina’s concerns are valid but the drama is a bit over the top. ‘Carefree families?’ I mean perhaps yes, in terms of allergies – but there might be other issues and problems families are facing that in no way makes them ‘carefree.’ In fact I don’t know one actual ‘carefree’ family.

Anyway, my best friend deals with horrible allergies with her oldest and in no way has she ever lashed out like this about birthday parties. She doesn’t expect everyone else to conform to the needs of her son and instead packs food that he is able to eat. Of course I’m sensitive to it, and always have a whole pack of oreos on hand for him whenever he comes over (a safe dessert food). I’m not going to deprive my kid of his birthday cake but will be sure to acknowledge her sons needs on the side as well.

I’m sure it will get easier as it gets older and the child is able to navigate what is safe and what isn’t. Until then, yes – it seems as though 5 year old birthday parties are the most stressful thing for you.

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skromer

Wonderful tips!! At home birthday parties are really very stressful. If all the things are managed properly then it will be like full of fun and enjoyment but if something went wrong then it will be like messy and full of headache. Your tips are quite helpful but here I would like to add one more point that you should list and prioritize your work before you start because it’s the main reason for which people fails to organize their party in a well descent manner.
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Poptop Children Parties

Thanks for sharing!
I will surely use some of these ideas.
I think, it will be also great to make a movie themed party. It will be really inexpencive because you will require basic party suppliers 🙂
Would love to hear what do you think about my idea?

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