Monday, June 29, 2015

Blowing off the birthday blowout

From Saturday's Briefing:

Katie, June 20, 2015
My all-time favorite birthday party was a decidedly 1970s affair.
The whole kindergarten class was invited to help me celebrate. We all piled in the back of my dad’s blue Ford pickup and traveled about a mile to a nearby park.
I wore a red-white-and-blue-striped halter top. We played tag and red rover.
We ate birthday cake served by my mom and aunt, both dressed as friendly, bell-bottomed clowns.
Simple. Cheerful. Festive.
How on earth, then, did I become the kind of mom who frets about pulling together a magazine-worthy birthday party year after year?
Tastefully coordinated invitations and paper goods. Precisely planned activities. Thoughtfully gathered party favors.
Lovely, yes, but kind of at risk of missing the point.
Children — my children, at least — mostly want to run around and have fun with their friends. They don’t require stenciled burlap banners or cupcakes on beribboned pedestals or Mason jars with chalkboard tags and chevron paper straws.
The past couple of years I’ve given Katie free rein on planning her own parties. Last week, we celebrated her 10th birthday exactly the way she wanted.
She invited her whole fourth-grade class plus lifelong and neighborhood friends to gather at the park down the street. She asked for donations to a local nonprofit that feeds children in need instead of gifts.
Decorations were spare: one of my kitchen tablecloths on a picnic table and a lollipop tree created by Katie (Styrofoam cone, spray-painted silver, punctuated with more than a hundred Dum-Dums, topped by swirly, sparkly ribbon).
Refreshments were minimal: bottles of water and a cooler full of Popsicles. And as many Dum-Dums as you wanted to pluck from the tree.
Activities were inexpensive or free: Katie and her friends played freeze tag and four square. They blew bubbles. They tramped all over the playground. They played bean-bag toss and basketball. (Red rover, sadly yet prudently, is no longer in fashion.)
For two full hours, there were kids everywhere. No one told them to line up or sit down or stand still. They just played, devoured Dum-Dums and ate Popsicles. A whole bunch of drippy Popsicles.
As kids left, they took home small bags packed by Katie — bouncy balls, colorful pencils and Ring Pops. After the last guest was picked up, we checked the park for litter, packed up the minivan and drove home.
I didn’t spend hours crafting invitations or decorating cupcakes. I didn’t write a giant check to a gymnastics center or art studio. I didn’t have to clean the house before and again after.
Did the lack of fuss and fanfare affect Katie? Not in the least.
Did she feel celebrated? Absolutely.
“It was one of my favorite parties ever,” she gushed later that day. “There were so many friends there, and we all got to spend time together, and we got to play whatever we wanted.”
Do I regret all those years of planning and executing over-the-top parties? No.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with intense planning and coordinating and celebrating. Those parties make up a fraction of the catalog of fond memories of being mom to Cooper and Katie.
But I’m happy to add to that catalog the memory of Katie planning her own party, of watching her friends pile on the curvy slide, of serving orange sherbet Push Pops.
Simple. Cheerful. Festive. The kind of party that sticks with you for a lifetime.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

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