One of the things that I have always struggled with is the idea of children’s birthday parties.
When I was a child, my parents hosted birthday parties for me. I am certain that they were enjoyable, and that my mom handled them with ease. She doesn’t have the same anxiety that I do, and isn’t derailed by something as seemingly simple as gathering children together in one space for play and eating cake.
So when did things get weird? I suspect that a lot of it has to do with my desire to not hang out with people I don’t know. I’d classify the parents of all of my kids’ classmates as People I Don’t Know. And that sets my amygdala into massive panic mode. It may also have something to do with the fact that when my oldest was turning 8 (maybe? I can’t remember now), we invited his entire class over for a birthday party and no one came. Not one single child. He was devastated, I was devastated, and I may have vowed never to put any of my children through that again.
For many years, we simply celebrated with family members, and that worked…sort of. I can’t help but worry that I deprived them of some vital growth experience.
Fast forward quite a few years, and we now have kids with diagnoses, kids who struggle in loud places, kids who mostly do parallel play. Kids who aren’t developmentally on the same plane as their peers.
Last year, Wonder Boy was invited to a birthday party. It wasn’t his first invitation, but we felt like he was ready to give it a go. He handled it mostly well, and advocated for when he was ready to leave. But it was definitely clear to us that he stood apart from his classmates. While they all joked and laughed and played together, he sat there playing with Silly Putty and staring off across the room. They didn’t exactly exclude him, but no one tried to really include him much in the conversation. And that’s fine, they’re kids, and they haven’t really learned that skill at that age (they were four-going-on-five).
This year for WB’s birthday I decided that rather than attempt to plan a party which would make me ridiculously anxious (because let’s face it, it’s all about me), I would schedule a playdate with his closest friend. She happens to be at the age where he is developmentally, and it really works for both of them. She also has two older sibs, so Speedy has friends to play with as well. All of the kids get along really nicely, and we enjoy spending time with their parents. It’s a win-win for everyone.
Not long ago, WB and Speedy went to the youngest girl’s birthday party, and they did pretty well with the limited time and the very active play (at a place with a climbing structure and ball pit). While we weren’t ready to do that for WB, we appreciated seeing how well he did there. Her parents are smart- they provided pizza and cake, and the treat to go home with was a balloon with a bottle of bubbles attached. Simple, affordable, and not some tiny cheap toy that will become the source of sibling rivalry.
I like to provide a takeaway in each post, something which really shows what I learned and that you can use when you’re feeling frustrated or unsure of how to handle a situation.
My takeaway from the birthday party stuff is this: You know your children, and what will best meet their needs, but also don’t be afraid to give them the opportunity to surprise you. We know that WB can handle a standard birthday party, but we also know that he’s happiest at a playdate with fewer kids.
Besides, who really wants to assemble 25 goody bags?