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 email@example.com.
It's hit me over the past few days that Cooper has only four years left before college.
That's not a lot of time to fit in everything we still want/need to do.
Instead of moping about it, tonight I decided to do something. I taught Cooper how to make soup without a recipe.
With Cooper at my side, I gathered ingredients from the pantry and refrigerator. I chopped. I talked him through the sautéing, stirring, boiling, etc., and let him do that work.
The "recipe" as it was created:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small yellow onion, diced
12 baby carrots, sliced
Freshly ground black pepper
8 cups vegetable broth
1 large tomato, chopped
8 leaves fresh basil, chopped
1 can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 large package refrigerated cheese tortellini
4 oz. fresh spinach
Crushed red pepper
1. Heat olive oil.
2. Sauté onions for about five minutes.
3. Add carrots. Continue to sauté for another five minutes.
4. Add garlic powder and salt. (Lots of garlic, just a little salt)
5. Stir for 30 seconds.
6. Add broth, tomato and basil.
7. Bring to boil.
8. Add kidney beans.
9. Lower to simmer for 5 minutes.
10. Return to boil.
11. Add tortellini.
12. Cook for about 6 minutes.
13. Add spinach.
14. Cook for about 1 minute.
15. Add a little crushed red pepper
As he cooked, we brainstormed other options. We would have used fresh garlic, but I'm out. Green bell pepper would have been a good option. I wanted to serve with Parmesan, but we're out of that, too.
We talked about layering ingredients, about using what we have, about ways to make the whole soup more Tex-Mex, less Italian by changing a couple of veggies and spices. We talked about cooking with veggie broth instead of chicken because Katie is a vegetarian.
The results were delicious.
Learning how to create a meal from ingredients you have on hand is a skill that's taken me years to acquire. I don't expect my almost-14-year-old son will perfect it right away. But I don't want to waste the days of these next four years.
When wearing either one, my goal is to guide and nurture children toward independent adulthood, to help them learn and grow, to make sure they feel loved. And to make sure no one gets hurt in the process.
When I make decisions at school, I often draw from my mom hat. And now, after two years in the classroom, I find I’m wearing my teacher hat to help make decisions at home.
A few lessons I’ve learned this year in fourth grade:
Building relationships makes difficult work easier. Everyone makes mistakes. Helping children to identify their mistakes and to learn from them is easier when you’ve already spent plenty of time praising their work and effort.
When I conference with my fourth-grade writers, I try to open every discussion with positive feedback — strong word choice or excellent organization or exceptional idea development.
When we continue to dissect the work, I don’t overwhelm students with a long list of errors. I focus on one skill to address — use of commas or sensory detail or topic sentences. As the student progresses, we celebrate when writing goals are met.
Then we set new ones.
Do I do the same at home? Not consistently. I need to praise first, then help identify an area for improvement, then celebrate success. Over and over, with greater emphasis on praise and celebration.
Empower children to solve problems. I don’t mean math problems, though they need confidence to tackle those, too. I mean everyday problems.
If your pencil breaks, you don’t need to report it. You need either to find another pencil or sharpen the broken one.
If you can’t find your social studies packet from the day before, you don’t need to tell me. You need to look in your desk, in your backpack, in your binder, in your folders.
At school I’m reluctant to give answers or solve problems if my students can figure it out on their own. How will they learn if someone else continually takes care of it for them?
When I hear “Where are my sandals?” or “Is my practice jersey clean?” at home, now I’m more likely to ask more questions than provide answers.
Encourage children to stretch. This year we challenged all fourth-graders to read 40 books from various genres. (We borrowed the idea from reading guru and Dallas-area educator Donalyn Miller.)
Completing the challenge wasn’t a requirement. In fact, only about 10 percent of our students conquered it. But almost every student read more books this year than the year before, and they explored genres they might not otherwise pick up.
It’s a no-risk, high-reward exercise that can translate to home.
Try a new food. Walk a different route in the neighborhood. Befriend someone you’ve known for years but never really talked with.
Be a deliberate role model. When teaching reading, I’m coached to use specific phrases and to encourage my students to do the same.
For example, when teaching synthesis — one of the highest levels of thinking — I use phrases such as “At first I was thinking [fill in the blank], but now I realize [fill in the blank].”
After using these words over and over in a short lesson, I set my students free and asked them to read on their own and to write responses using the same phrases.
They did, which is not too remarkable given the structure of the lesson.
What’s more impressive is that two weeks later they continued to apply the synthesis skill, using the term itself and speaking to one another about their novels in terms of their growing thinking.
Children are constantly learning from their peers and from the adults placed in their lives. What kind of modeling do I offer at home? Are my phrases optimistic and joyful? Is my seemingly benign dose of sarcasm a little too much?
In a week, I’m officially removing my teacher hat for summer break. I plan to keep it nearby, though, poised to pull out strategies that help me be a better mom.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.