Aging Tactics : Planning Birthday Parties for Children Proves No Easy Fete

Maureen Brown is a writer and mother of four.

Each January, the children in our home commence their discussion on how they hope to celebrate their birthday in the coming year.

There are a few things experience has taught me: The amount of planning for a birthday party has no noticeable effect on the event itself. The most organized child's birthday party is still subject to disruption by one catalytic child. And the amount of crying of the birthday designate is inversely related to the age of said child.

When our children were young, I was able to successfully incorporate the birthday party into a family setting with close friends and grandparents. However, by age 4, all of our children were educated by their peers as to what constituted a "real birthday party."

Almost anything can go at a birthday party, but we try to get it started out right by never passing out invitations at school. All of our invitations are either mailed or extended by phone. Adults are able to understand the need for size limits on a birthday party, but for the child at school who does not receive an invitation, the rejection is acute.

At age 5, we invited party guests to bring their bikes and big wheels to our house. This was always a successful party because 5-year-olds are delighted to share the skill of riding a two-wheeler, and much of the "party energy" was depleted outside the house. If you don't have space at home, parks or school lots can also be a good arena for a bike rodeo.

At age 7, we were hosts to the popular bowling party. I have always held a place in my heart for the bowling lane managers who witnessed a group of 7-year-olds bouncing bowling balls in their establishments.

Leisure Time Sports has two bowling lanes in North County--North County Lanes in San Marcos and Carriage Lanes in Poway. For $7 a child, a guest may have two games of bowling, a hot dog and chips. Another special arrangement costs $1.95 a child per game. Most managers throw in bowling shoes free, according to Joyce Stemen of Leisure Time Sports. My experience is that bowling generates a hearty appetite. Bowling parties should be prearranged, and bumpers (to keep the ball heading toward the pins) may be requested at no additional charge.

By age 8, a treasure hunt in our neighborhood or park was sometimes a party pleaser. We would hide treasure maps and clues in specific areas and divide the party into two or three groups to go on a hunt. I always kept the words on the messages simple to accommodate the varying reading levels of the children. Our children have attended parties where "Capture the Flag" was the prevailing game. They always came home with a happy report.

One of our children's friends has a mother who has cleverly continued the pattern of party games into the early teens. This year's most popular game included giving each child a paper plate filled with whipped cream with a piece of bubble gum hidden in the mound. With arms behind their backs, at a certain signal, everyone attempted to find the gum in the cream and become the first one to blow a bubble.

There have been years when one child really did not wish to have a large birthday event, and we included that child's best friend in a special outing. This year, I am considering a fishing trip for one such 9-year-old.

Halgren's Oceanside Sportfishing offers fishing trips suitable for children. For $15 a half-day, the child under 16 (who does not require a license) may go out in the ocean on a boat and fish. A reel costs $7 to rent, and Halgren provides free live bait. You may bring a lunch or purchase food from the ship's galley.

Family-oriented restaurants, such as Chuck E. Cheese and McDonald's, are another possibility for the parent who wants to host a party outside the home.

At Chuck E. Cheese, which has locations in Mira Mesa and Escondido, a reservation is required to guarantee seating in the restaurant. The party is normally for a period of 1 1/2 hours. The $5.49 per child cost includes party hats, balloons, kiddie rides, games, a show and a hostess to coordinate the party, pizza and birthday cake. "At the end of the party, you can just walk out and we will clean up the mess," says Steve Blewitt, store manager at the Mira Mesa restaurant. Also offered is a 9 a.m. breakfast-style party for the same price with a menu of French toast sticks, bacon and sausage, and orange and apple juice.

McDonald's offers two party programs; the ice cream party for $3.25 a child, and the hamburger party for $3.99 a child. The ice cream party, which last about an hour, includes a coordinator, cake, ice cream and prizes. The hamburger party covers a hamburger, small fries, drink and cake and ice cream. The party is held in a designated party room, and the children can also play in the adjoining McDonald's playland, according to Eisha Davenport of McDonald's in Ramona.

Back briefly to the idea of an early-morning venture. We have had breakfast birthday parties at our house that were highly successful. I have often wondered if perhaps at an early hour our party guests arrived with quieter demeanors.

One year, our oldest daughter was part of a production that greatly limited her free time. She was most unhappy about having to postpone her party until later in the month. At the last minute, we called her friends and invited them to an early-morning surprise birthday party. At six o'clock, I drove through the neighborhood picking up the guests, who subsequently awakened her at seven o'clock. For the next 1 1/2 hours before school, they consumed waffles and juice, and, yes, even birthday cake, opened gifts, and then proceeded to school.

Naturally, the words "slumber party" eventually maneuvered their way into our children's vocabulary and we were forced to contend with these events.

In a sense, I parallel them to childbirth; painful, but easily forgotten with sufficient time. I held off hosting slumber birthday parties for as long as possible. With the second of our children, a child with a great energy level, I was able to host a modified slumber party where 9-year-old guests were summoned home at the "really late hour of 11 o'clock at night." The following year, however, he had a "real slumber party," and we all survived.

By age 14, I no longer host slumber parties. I have neither the energy, nor the wisdom, to be responsible in my home for teen-agers for this length of time. Adolescents, allowed to congregate in larger groups, with their newfound wisdom, have been known to host secondary parties during the night.

My youngest sister, a full-time professional with four children under age 6, considered a party this year for her 5-year-old that I believe is worthy of mention; the drive-through birthday party. Here's how she envisioned it: The birthday child and parent stand in front of the house with the cake and ice cream and party favors. The guest drives by, handing the birthday child the gift. Then the host dispenses cake, ice cream and party favor and everyone heads on home. No tears, no mess, no frayed nerves.

Wishful thinking.

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