Q. My daughter will be 6 this month, and I am at a loss for ideas for an at-home party for children used to the restaurant packaged parties.
I would like a party with the children really involved, but I don't like the "traditional" party games. Our party will include six or seven little girls from 5 to 7. Birthday parties, I find, reduce mothers to quivering insecurity.
A. And with good reason. No matter how hard a parent works to put on a birthday party, or how much the birthday girl looks forward to it, or how excited her guests are, or how wonderful the memories, you can bet that at some time during those two hours you are going to feel like the hostess at a very bad cocktail party.
A sense of doom is there from the beginning. The birthday girl opens a present, forgets her manners and says she already has two just like it (and if she doesn't say it, her best friend will). In the first half-hour there are silences as thick as fog and you wish they would Start Talking. And then they do.
The guests begin to push and shove. Drinks are spilled. Nasty things are said. At least one person cries. Someone looks at the table and says, "Yuck." You wind up wishing that they would just Shut Up. And of course they don't. Instead the talk gets wilder, louder, sillier, and you suddenly realize that they're having a good time.
And that's just the way it ought to be.
Children aren't born knowing how to go to parties, nor do they know how to show their appreciation. In fact it may be years before your daughter tells you how much she appreciates your effort. But she does. To her the party is a measure of your love -- a gift greater than the roller skates you wrap. This is why a home-grown party is almost always best.
It doesn't matter how hard a parent works to pay for a restaurant party. A 6-year-old can't translate a job downtown -- or the money it brings -- into love.
Much of the success of a home party is in the planning.
You'll be wise to:
* Put a $1 limit on any gift, to minimize their importance.
* Mail the invitations or call the children at home, so the ones not asked won't be so embarrassed.
* Give a prize -- instead of favors -- to everyone, for winning, for being the best sport, for trying hardest, whatever.
You'll want to talk about your reasons for these decisions with your child, to help her understand that a hostess is mostest when she cares about others. This will be part of the half-dozen conversations a day that your child wants about her party: what to wear, who to invite, what to play, what to eat. In the process you find out more about her than you ever thought was missing.
You'll discover what thrills her, embarrasses her, enchants her, frightens her and if you listen closely enough, you'll find why her uncertainties make sense, at least to her.
A birthday party, then, is a vehicle to bond closer with your child. The bonding will be all the tighter if you throw yourself into it.
Any party works better if it has a theme.
One enterprising couple wrote a scavenger hunt (in rhyme), which they read to the 6-year-olds, a bit at a time, with more clues at each stop around the house. It was a wild, repeat, wild success.
A pirate party, to the delight of 7- and 8-year-olds, called for homemade eye patches on elastic, an old sheet dyed red and torn into bandanas, blunt swords made out of old laths, pirate's map, treasure hunt -- for a chest filled with bags of gold-covered chocolate coins -- and games of walking the plank.
If you don't want to make props, ask guests to dress up as farmers or heroes or ballerinas; you make up their faces when they get there. The most ordinary games become marvelous when you're playing a part.
Have a friend dress up as a fortune teller with an upside-down goldfish bowl to predict amazing achievements for each child, this year and forever. There is no room for a misfortune teller at a child's party.
Since the focus of any birthday party is the cake and the presents, they should be saved until the second hour, with the birthday girl opening her gifts after she blows out the candles. This usually makes it too late for anyone to break a present, or for a guest to wonder if she likes it.
The cake can be a nifty part of your gift, if you forget the bakery wonders with their perfect roses and best wishes. You'll find it's a kick to surprise your child with a shape cake, to carry out the theme of the party or the present you give.
Cakes that usually don't work: animals or dolls because young children can't bear to eat arms and legs. Even the most peculiar, misshapen cake will be appreciated by your child, because it shows how much you care. These are the years you're making memories. The more you invest in them, the richer they will be.