How Not to Raise Bridezilla: Tips on Preparing Kids for Their Birthday Party
Sometimes a birthday party can be a perfect storm of emotions. You spend weeks planning and preparing the perfect party. If you are super crazy, you may have even stayed up nights cutting out cupcake toppers—so you are operating on very little sleep. On the big day you are so excited to see your kid’s face as she has the most perfect party EVER. Instead you get a major meltdown and your little angel is screaming at the top of her lungs about how she wanted pink napkins not purple ones.
Not only are you disappointed, but you are totally humiliated in front of your family and friends. Instead of enjoying the party, you get to feel like “that mom” who has raised “that kid.” The fact that you have given blood, sweat and tears over this party only makes the insult feel even more personal. You find yourself wondering why in the world you did so much for that possessed little gremlin over there, and why she seems totally unable to appreciate it. That night you cry yourself to sleep as you wonder why you can’t have one of those wonderful looking parties on Pinterest. What went wrong?!?!?!?
It is really just a simple problem of expectations. If you can manage both your and your child’s expectations before the party, things will go so much better.
While still in college I went to a friend’s wedding. In the middle of her beautiful garden wedding, the family pig managed to get out of it’s pen and ran careening through wedding guests—sending people scurrying for safety. The pig then dove under the wedding cake table! It was one of the funniest things I have ever seen, but it could have been a disaster. Some women would have let it tarnish the whole wedding. But my wonderful friend wasn’t even fazed. She just offhandedly explained, “Oh, that’s just the family pig.” Like pigs hide under wedding cake tables alllllll the time.
Even though the wedding was absolutely gorgeous and otherwise perfect, my friend was not a perfectionist. She knew better than to expect a perfect wedding or to let a pig ruin her day.
So before a party, I always make sure to follow these simple tips. They help both me and my kids really enjoy the party the way parties are meant to be enjoyed. Your family and kids are probably different in many ways than mine, but this is what works well for me.
Plan the party for your child, not for yourself: You may want a huge party, but your kid might be terrified or uncomfortable with large gatherings. You might have always wanted a clown at your party, but they send your toddler into hysterics. You know your kid and their temperament. If something is going to stress them out, don’t do it—even if you really, really, really, really, really want to.
The same goes for the guest list. Kids are just like adults, some temperaments don’t mesh well with others. Adults generally (but not always) are mature enough to get along even when it is hard. But for kids at a party, you probably won’t be as lucky. When possible, try to invite people that will bring out the best in your kid.
Don’t make the party about your kid: Let your children know that the party is to entertain their friends; it is not for everybody to fawn all over them. Tell them that it is their job to make sure their friends are having a good time. It is never too early for your children to learn how to be a good host. It is also a great way to nip any feelings of entitlement in the bud.
Prep in secret: One of the best things I do is that I do all my party prep in secret. If I can pull it off, my kids don’t know when their party is until the day of! The build up for the big day can get pretty intense. I had a friend growing up who would make herself sick every year around Christmas because she just didn’t know what to do with the anticipation. She ended up not being able to enjoy her Christmases.
Although it can be tempting to talk to your kids about their up coming party, they will enjoy it more later if you don’t. I know that with my kids that if they have had too much time to build up expectations they are a tightly wound ball of stress by the time the party starts. It also gives them too much time to build up expectations and they end up with a beyond realistic idea of what their party will be like. Unless your child is good at handling anticipation and managing expectations, it is a good idea to keep the party prep on the down low.
The big talk: Right before the party I sit down with my child and explain that they will not get the first and best of everything. They will not get the first piece of cake, they will be expected to share, and they won’t always win every game. Later if they do get the first piece of cake or if they win a game, they are over the moon instead of being grumpy when something does not go their way.
And this totally works. During my son’s recent party he didn’t even get a turn to hit the piñata before another smaller child broke it open. I thought all the kids were going to get at least one swing at it, but I was wrong. I braced myself for the tantrum and was surprised when he didn’t say a word. It didn’t even occur to him that the birthday boy should be allowed to take at least one swing at his piñata. And in all honesty it was totally unfair and he had a right to be ticked! But he enjoyed his party a lot more because he wasn’t. I have learned that nothing kills happiness faster than feelings of entitlement.
I used to call myself a happy pessimist. I didn’t expect things to go my way or to always get what I wanted, and then I was ecstatic when I did! It is much better than always being ticked that the world didn’t even let you take a swing at your own piñata.
Identify expectations and consequences: Let your children know that just because it is their party does not mean that there will not be consequences for bad behavior. Let them know how they are to treat party guests. If necessary, role-play some possible scenarios. And let them know what will happen if they act out. Sometimes children think that they get a “get out of jail free card” because it is their birthday. This attitude can be a disaster waiting to happen!
Money, money, money: A fun party does not have to be an expensive party. Rather than pulling out the credit card, be creative. I have found that most kids enjoy well-thought out games a lot more than a bouncy house or a professional clown or other entertainer.
I also let my kids know that we are not spending a lot of money on the party. It is important for them to learn that you don’t have to spend tons to have a good time. And I want them to know that spending money on somebody is not how you show love.
One way that I help control costs is that most of my decorations or game prep can later be used as a toy. I rarely do anything that will be thrown away later. This way I can make a lot of the party part of my kid’s birthday present.
Decide what kind of party it will be: Is this a grown-up party where you will need to entertain guests, or is this a kid party where you can focus on interacting with your kids and their friends. It is impossible to do both and you will just stress yourself out.
When my kids are toddlers and preschoolers, I invite mostly family so it is pretty low key. There are usually more adults than kids so I don’t really have to worry about entertaining the kids with games. At these parties I have time to talk to other people while still spending time with my kids.
But as my kids get older, I invite more of their friends. At these parties I really enjoy getting involved with the games, so I try to find somebody who can help me keep the other adults happy or I invite people that love me enough that they don’t care if I ignore them. I love grown-up parties, but really don’t need my kid’s birthday party to be one. I love to take the time to just enjoy watching them enjoy everything.
Set a schedule: This is especially important for bigger parties. Kid parties really shouldn’t be longer than two hours or you are asking for trouble. But it can be easy to allow things to go too long. Pretty soon you are in a rush to open presents when the kids are already worn out. Opening presents with a roomful of strung out and tired kids is just asking for it. Set a schedule for when you will do the games, any eating, the cake, and the presents—and then stick to it! Plus families have a billion things to do on Saturday, it is a good idea to respect their family time.
Set boundaries for yourself: It can be so tempting to do everything you want to for a party, but it is utterly unrealistic. Few of us have the time to build a life-size reproduction of Rapunzel’s tree house in our backyard. If you push yourself too hard, you will be already stretched thin by the time the party rolls around. And if you are a stress case, chances are that your child will be too.
Whether or not you are a good parent has nothing to do with how many handmade goodies bags you put together. If you are going to do a big party, do it because you enjoy it. Once it stops being fun, then step back and realize that you have already done enough. Kids don’t have to have huge parties to grow up to be healthy adults. You don’t have to throw a huge party to prove your love. If you don’t push yourself to the brink, you won’t feel as resentful if things go badly as they so often do.
It helps to make a list of the things you want to do and then to identify the things that will most likely mean the most to your kid. Also look for those things that will give you the most bang for your buck. Then get rid of the rest and don’t look back!
Teach your kids gratitude: Kids should not feel like they “deserve” their birthday presents. Gifts should be seen as the act of generosity that they are. Before the party I make sure my kids understand that they are to graciously say thank you for each gift. After the party, my kids don’t get to keep their presents unless they write a thank you card.
Roll with it: No matter what happens at your party, don’t forget to keep your sense of humor. Even if your kid has a mega-meltdown, remember that it is not a personal reflection on you. Your kid is not rejecting your love or all the work you have put into the party. And most kids get strung out at parties, it does not mean you are a bad parent.
A kid is just a kid and sometimes the stimulation of the party is too much. Take your child aside for some downtime and let them recharge before they go back to the party. Also, your kids will take their cues from you. If they see you not stressing the small stuff, they won’t either.
Have fun: Most importantly have fun! One of my favorite things about parenting is the free pass that I get to act like a total goof ball in public. Take advantage of this time. Once your kids are teens, you will never be this cool or funny to them again.
This is your ticket to a second childhood—enjoy this opportunity to see the world anew all over again. Dance like a dork in the grocery store, sing Happy Birthday in a terribly bad operatic voice, and stick your spoon on your nose!