A few weekends ago, with my husband out of town, my dad kindly agreed to accompany me and my two daughters, ages 3 and 6, on a children’s birthday party tour that spanned Manhattan. It featured two separate pizza parties, cake (of course), lots of hyped up children, and hand sanitizer galore. Needless to say, it was eye opening for him.
Fall is prime birthday party season in the city. The kids are back in school, and everyone wants to invite their new friends to celebrate the milestone. As a parent of little ones, checking your inbox can feel like you’re playing a game of wack-a-mole with Paperless Post—as soon as you RSVP to one invitation, two more come in. Their social calendars are more active than my own, and with two children in this age range, I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to kids’ parties. One episode that immediately comes to mind involved a drunk magician. In between pulling a rabbit out of his hat and doing that trick with the never-ending scarves, he kept making comments under his breath about how he was in dire need of another beer. At the end of the party, he practically forced the father of the birthday girl to give a flattering video testimonial in the front yard.
Buzzed magicians aside, figuring out the children’s birthday party scene is no easy feat, and at times, can feel harder than trying to navigate a double stroller through Trader Joe’s. First there’s the fact that celebrating in New York City—where space is limited, prices are steep, and keeping up with the Kardashians (and their rainbow unicorn bashes) is practically a pastime—brings its own set of challenges. Then, there’s the gift giving and thank you notes to figure out. For example, is it thoughtful to put “No gifts please” on an invite or does that just create angst and confusion amongst guests and make it seem like you’re humble bragging about how you already have it all when really you just don’t have any closet space? To help figure it out, we’ve called upon a few experts and distilled a list of what we’ve found works and what doesn’t.
- Location, location, location. New York City isn’t exactly family friendly, and when it comes to children’s birthday parties, where to do it is often the hardest part of the equation. Don’t get me wrong, there are gymnastics studios galore, and a fair share of indoor places that offer a party in a box experience, where you pay a set fee for everything from the cake to the corralling of gifts. But these places often feel like birthday party factories, sterile and devoid of personality—and if I’m being honest, they’re where a parent’s simple dream of a relaxing Saturday afternoon goes to die. Plus, a week after attending a party at one of these places, inevitably someone in the family has either contracted strep throat or pink eye or both.
So what’s a party planning parent to do? Think outside of the box. Parties at inventive venues like Pip’s Island are guaranteed to be more memorable. At this performance art experience, kids move from room to room on an interactive journey through a magical island. They encounter Broadway caliber performers throughout their trip, and together they man a flying ship, design giant cakes, explore the sea, and fight off bad guys. What more could you ask for when you’re turning 7? At Taste Buds, in Soho, budding chefs get to practice their cooking skills; at Maman, cookie decorating is the main activity; and at Coolmess, kids get to make their own ice cream. The Craft Studio in Tribeca is another hit. There, everyone goes home with the tie-dyed t-shirt they made during the event—which is pretty much the best party favor ever.
It’s a numbers game. Unlike a lot of celebrations in life, more doesn’t necessarily translate into merrier for kids’ birthday parties. “I would say any number of children is okay as long as there is adequate parental supervision appropriate for their ages,” says Brooke Edwards of Big City Karaoke. She’s been in the entertainment business for 12 years, and from stage dives and coordinated flash mob dances to a prom-posal and push up contests, she’s seen it all and has a plea: “Please don’t send me thirty 5-year-olds while the parents are binge drinking in the back room. That will certainly make for a memorable party—but for the wrong reasons! I’ve had Bat Mitzvahs where fifty horny 13-year-olds are trying to type their own explicit song choices into my computer while I took a very necessary quick bathroom break. And, I’ve learned a rule of thumb over the years: With younger kids, the more parents that are around and engaged, the better. When it comes to tweens, one adult per 5 kids is ideal. For young teens, just the immediate birthday family should be enough. Older teens should be fine on their own or with just one parent hiding behind a plant so the birthday kid can still be ‘cool.’”
Go big or go home doesn’t apply here. “It’s important to have things for the kids to do, but don’t overdo it,” says Edwards. “I have worked some parties that are just crazy! It’s fine to have multiple stations, but don’t try to cram too many things into a two-hour party. Your kid’s 20 best friends are not going to have time to make glitter slime while they are getting their faces painted on the pony ride.” Instead, Edwards recommends picking two or three activities and keeping it simple. The kids will have a better time if they spend it together, doing the same activities and interacting with one other. “A party can be fun and successful without all the bells and whistles,” adds April Keough of Now Thatz Fun. “Have a plan, be flexible, and remember that kids love to make their own good time. Sometimes it’s nice to let them do just that!”
Plan with your kid. “The key ingredient is to have the kids in mind when planning things for them to do,” Keough explains. You know the drill: Let them pick the invites, choose a theme they’re into, and incorporate foods you both enjoy. “Kids like to have a good time, and get excited for parties—but are not always very predictable. Having some plan of what can keep them entertained is a great idea—but also be flexible! Kids don’t always respond the way you think they will—and that doesn’t mean a party won’t be a success.”
Curb partying parents. Parties should be designed so that the children—and the parents—enjoy themselves, but not in such a way that encourages the latter to go wild. Feel free to serve beer and wine—it can help parents that might not really know each other loosen up—but keep the offering limited so no one gets out of hand. “I once saw a parental party takeover,” Edwards laughs. “The parents were feeling kind of loose, and I suppose were bitten by the stage bug. Halfway through the party, the adults had commandeered the stage completely.”
To give or not to give? That is the question. The New York Times noticed the no-gifts-please trend back in 2007, but it remains hotly debated today. If you put “No gifts” on the invite are you a disrupter who values anti-consumerism and encourages more creative play amongst your enlightened offspring? Or are you that insufferable parent who’s trying to take away one of the small joys every child should get to experience: opening presents on their birthday? I used to be in the latter camp, but recently read a recap of a mother’s Twitter thread in which she dreaded receiving birthday invitations because she was broke and couldn’t afford to buy a gift for her children to give to the birthday boy or girl. It caused lots of anxiety in her house. “By writing ‘no gifts, please’ on your invites, people who can and want to give you something still will,” she explains. “But it gives an out to people who can’t.” Her message certainly puts things in perspective—saying “no gifts” just might be the gift that keeps giving.
Mind your manners, but don’t lose your mind in the process. When gifts are given, it’s important to teach your children the art of saying thank you and writing notes. But if one year you misplace your phone during the course of the festivities, and writing down who gave what during present opening becomes a disaster, don’t stress either. Move on, and as with all things kid’s birthday party related, simply swear to yourself you’ll do better next year.
Originally Appeared on Vogue