As soon as I get home, I'm going to call my sister Claire to tell her there's hope. I'm at a birthday party with a Thomas the Tank Engine theme. At the moment, grandma is out here with a pin-the-train-on-the-track game she made out of construction paper and then taped to the garage door. I love this party.

Here at this party there are no professional party planners shepherding kids to craft stations. There are no treasure-hunt maps leading them to a table with glitter and paint where they might create a work to be judged in a contest run by a real artist waiting in the kitchen. There are no professional clowns here, no professionally blown and arranged Mylar balloons, no rented giant trampoline shaped like a dinosaur.

There are cupcakes. That is to say, there is no fantastic cake featuring the digital-icing likeness of the birthday boy's face, and no actual fire engine with actual firefighters atop it to come in clinging and clanging to deliver not only the cake but also a surprise visit from an NFL star signing autographs.

I've been to all the kid parties that this party is not. Claire has been to even more.

"Just to confirm," I once said to Claire, "Mom never threw one of those giant shindigs for any of us, correct?"

"Correct," she said. "Something is happening with parents and birthday parties. Something big."

Claire and I often confess to feeling like strangers in a strange land when it comes to parenting. Her boys are 10 and 8, so she's ahead. My girls are 5 and 3. She warns me of things.

"Nip the birthday party thing in the bud early on," she once advised me. "Limit it to family and a few close friends, and you won't feel you have to compete."

Compete? I didn't get it. Then I went to a few birthday extravaganzas, one in a professionally designed haunted house, and another featuring professional ballerinas, and one that had many games and craft projects going on all at once beneath a wide-screen TV showing cartoons that some company had somehow digitally remastered to include the birthday girl in the cartoon. There were so many games and so many crafts that my daughter finally came to me and said, "Mom, I can't do any more. Can't we just -- stop?"

In an atmosphere like this, you feel like a fool having a simple cake-and-birthday-hat party for your kid. That is why I admire the parents in charge of this party, bucking the trend.

"Oh, don't you just love unstructured play?" says one of the mothers, referring to the fact that the kids are now swinging and sliding on a small metal swing set. Unstructured play. The fact that we now have a label for it -- play run by actual kids instead of grown-ups -- kind of cancels out the whole idea, I think. I want to point this out to someone. I need to talk to Claire.

Oh, look. This is cute. Grandpa has just stepped out into the yard with his overalls on and an engineer's cap. I think he's supposed to be a train conductor. "Who's ready for a ride on the caboose?" he says, disappearing into the garage and returning atop the family lawn tractor. The tractor has been fitted with blue cardboard sides, and if you look at it sideways, you can sort of make out that it's Thomas, of Tank Engine fame. Well, it's grandpa's version. It's pulling a garden cart wrapped in red plastic tablecloths and loaded with pillows.

"Toot, toot!" grandpa shouts over the engine. The kids are jumping excitedly. "Thomas is here!" shouts one. "Thomas is here!"

Moms and dads clap as the tractor roars off and the kids wave from inside the makeshift caboose. One of the fathers standing near me makes the point that this is really quite an educational activity, in that it's forcing the children to use their imaginations. Hmm. Educational? Oh, don't get me started. I've never really seen the problem with letting kids sometimes just have stupid fun.

The father continues his point, turning snide: "Because that sure doesn't look anything like the real Thomas."

I look at him. I want to defend grandpa's handiwork. I want to say, "Look here, buddy." I want to say, "It's people like you -- ." The more I think about it, the more I want to punch him in the nose.

Hmm. A parent wanting to fight another parent over the issue of kids' play. Now, see, this is not good. I need to go home.

When I get home, I call Claire. She says I should have punched him. But is violence really the answer? She says she doesn't know, she has to go, she has to take her son to yet another baseball practice. "FYI," she says. "Nip the sports thing in the bud."

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is