Q. My little boy will be 4 in June, and all he talks about is his birthday party. He went to one last month and there's one every month until his. At one party there was a lot of candy; another was at a fast-food restaurant.
I only plan to have three other children to his party. What games should they play and what food should I serve?
Are there ways to have a party that won't end up with the children going wild?
A. You've already listed some of them.
* Invite only as many children as your child has years.
* Serve nutritious food so their stamina can keep pace with their excitement.
* Offer a limited amount of candy and other sweets, since sugar seems to make many children hyper.
* Give a birthday party outside whenever you possibly can.
* Give the kind of party that makes you the most comfortable, so you can accept the behavior better.
The last rule is probably the most important, and it's the same one that applies to every aspect of parenthood. You rear your child in your own style, not--if they don't feel right to you--according to the customs of your neighborhood or even your family or in-laws.
This doesn't mean you have to let your preferences become an issue between you and your child. When he wants to invite more children, you sympathize and tell him you're sorry he can't ask the whole world, and then switch to the positive: who will be coming, what favors you will buy and what color the cake will be.
Basically, your son just wants to talk about The Party, to dream about it, to imagine, for at this age (and for years after), most of the joy of a party--or holiday or vacation--is in the anticipation and the recollection, not the event itself. The more you talk about it and look forward to it, the happier he will be.
This is fortunate, since the parties themselves are usually fairly grim for the first half-hour (and often longer), which makes any parent feel about as successful as a hostess who just serves Perrier at a cocktail party.
The atmosphere is lighter if you have the games first: penny pitch, to see who can pitch closest to a target; clay play, to see who can make the funniest snake, the scariest beast, the tallest tower, or an old-fashioned game like pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. Games are seldom great successes, but they break the ice until the food is served. This is sure to mean some running, some embarrassment, some fussing and a lot of silliness, but perhaps not as much if you follow a few other steps.
A party usually works best if it has a theme that can be based on the present you give. If you give your 4-year-old a cash register, you can give him and each guest 10 pennies and set up a "store" for them to "buy" the treats--balloons, cookies, colored chalk, little magic tricks. Since you run the store, you can price them however you'd like.
Most 4's adore a fine wooden ship to sail on one of Washington's many ponds. If you give one (or even if you don't), you can have a pirate party, for which you can make eye patches, kerchiefs torn out of an old sheet and even swords made out of yardsticks and painted black. You even can cut and ice the cake to look like a ship (or cash register, train or farm yard) if that's what you say it is. Children believe anything, so long as you're solemn about it.
With or without a Spanish galleon, the children at a pirates' party will walk the plank you set just high enough to make a safe but scary jump; look for buried treasure from the map you help them read--and act like rowdy pirates.
* Pay a preteen to help you, if you think you'll need it, or ask your spouse, but don't accept help from another mother or you'll feel you have to entertain her as much as the children.
* Have your child hand out the favors as his company arrives--if he's going to open his presents then--or set them at each place at the table if he will be opening them when the cake is cut. Four-year-olds give better when they're getting.
* Have games that let every child go home with a prize.
* Limit the party to 2 hours.
Take the children home when it's over since parents seldom pick up from a party when they should.
No matter how hard you try, a child's birthday party will leave you and your child with a few regrets, but within weeks he'll just remember the good times and years later his parties will be the best that anyone ever had.
Q. Could you please recommend any books about traveling with infants? I will be taking a six-week, round-the-world trip this June to Spain, Italy, India, Thailand and Hong Kong with my 3-month-old daughter.
A. Take Your Baby and Go by Sheri Andrews, Judy Bordeaux and Vivian Vasquez has a nice approach to travel with a young child. It's full of practical advice, including a diagram--almost worth the price of the book--showing how to turn a pillowcase into a cloth sling that converts any straight chair into a highchair. Wednesday Press, Box 20636, Seattle 98102. $3.95.
Although this trio has confined traveling to North America, you can combine their advice with interesting, offbeat information in another Seattle book, Europe Through the Back Door by Rick Steves, $6.95, Back Door Press, 111 4th Ave. N., Edmonds, Wash. 98020.
And for parents who want to take their children to New York, consider A Kids' New York by Peter Lawrence (Avon, $6.95). It's a nifty compilation and covers any interests a child might have.
Questions may be sent to Parents' Almanac, Style Plus, The Washington Post. Worth Noting
Mark Kiefaber, co-author with Dr. Joseph Procaccini of the new book Parent Burnout (Doubleday, $15.95), will speak on symptoms and resolutions at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at St. Peter's Catholic Church, Olney. For more information, call Montgomery County CARE Center, 279-1555.