Here's some detritus from the 13-year-old's birthday party last night (and this morning). Note the knitting, which got me through 'till midnight, when I went to bed, even if they didn't. Also the movie, Aquamarine, which I heartily endorse for middle-school girl type audiences. Lovely, actually, for girls that age. The balloon pump, because waving at cars in the front yard with balloon hats was judged a fair substitute for waving at cars with (root)beer bottles in our hands. (We served Thomas Kemper -- it comes in brown bottles.) Of course, the gift bag, which almost certainly either contained lip gloss or one of those long but tight t-shirts. It was a good party.
It's now a few days later, and I realized, thinking over this party, that birthday parties rank up there with reading aloud in my book of essential parenting rituals.
Why I believe in birthday parties:
1. You get to meet your kid's friends. And their parents.
2. You see the whole group interacting together. If you're smart and stay close but out of the way, you get a glimpse of what your child is like when you're not around. You get to see who is kind, who is cool, who wields the social power.
3. You learn what normal (or a version of it) is for kids that are your child's age. For instance, games were planned at the party when she turned 12. They were verboten this year. Instead we had to buy commercial snack foods I've never before served in this house. This was essential. I did refuse to hand out Nerds. Nerds are tiny and go everywhere.
4. You get one more chance to demonstrate to your child how special they are and how much you love them. They may not show they've noticed, but they do.
5. Since we don't believe in over-spending, or one-up-manship for our kids' parties, you get to model a certain level of creativity and inexpensive fun for your kids and their friends. At our house, we have a reputation for pretty good parties. My favorite party resource is Family Fun - both the magazine (it costs less than $10 a year to subscribe) and the web site. These ideas work through about age 12 or 13.
6. You get another chance to reinforce good manners -- for your child at least. They get a party, collect presents, write THANK YOU NOTES!
And about presents -- I would love to forego them. I know a few kids (and parents) who've managed this. The best plans seem to involve choosing a charity, like an animal shelter, or a children's hospital, to collect gifts for. The one time I asked for no presents for my son's birthday, I felt like I made people pretty uncomfortable. I've resigned myself to giving modest gifts in hopes of having that modesty reciprocated. It's not that I don't believe in generosity. I do. It's just that there can be a kind of "arms race" in some circles -- both in the gifts for the birthday child and the party favors for guests. I've decided that my role is to de-escalate the competition. Often my party favors are a craft the kids make as part of our entertainment, or something like leis and hula skirts (Luau party, age 11 - very popular). This year we hit the dollar aisle in Target.