How to survive a children’ birthday party
Just pass the milk and biscuits, stay out of their way and be yourself, is Bob’s advice. Kids are simply people—even at a party
ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN
I’VE SEEN a lot of children’s birthday parties, as father, guest, chauffeur and back-yard observer. I’ve discovered that whenever parents find a kid’s party an ordeal it’s usually because of a fault in their own point of view. For example, many mothers arrange children’s parties as a dutiful payment of a debt to other mothers who gave parties. There’s nothing wrong with this in itself. But when children are just tied to balloons and regarded as small markers in a neighborhood good-sportsmanship contest, they’re not being taken seriously as people. And as soon as you forget that a child is a person, it’s like forgetting to look for little toy steam shovels before you sit down in an easy chair.
I knew a lovely, inexperienced, unmotherly looking young mother who just decided fatalistically that it was her turn to throw a party and put up with her share of noise, and who took a psychological skid on the simple fact that all children aren’t noisy. She gave a party for her daughter and, when the first guest scratched softly at the front door, just butted her cigarette as if driving in a thumbtack, exhaled so vigorously she lifted her bangs, and prepared for three hours of sheer bedlam. She was completely overlooking the fact that some children, particularly little girls in the lower age groups, get more solemn and sad-looking the more excited they get.
She began boisterously handing out balloons, candy, favors, and romping around with a big collie, and about threethirty began to realize that she was the only one making a noise. All the little girls stood around her lawn in little groups, clutching their prizes and looking sadly into one another’s faces from a distance of about three inches, as if they were trees. The woman, convinced that she was flopping as a hostess, nervously lit a cigarette and made a rather panicky attempt to get the party rolling again.
“Let’s all play a game,” she shouted gaily. “Let’s play T Know Where You Are.’ I am a piece of fudge and I am hidden somewhere. Now where am I?”
Everyone looked at her in silent fascination.
“Where am I?” the woman cried wildly.
Nobody said a word. Each kid’s emotional pattern was vibrating at high frequency, but to the woman it just looked as if they thought she’d gone nuts.
“Am I under a pot holder?” she suggested frantically.
The kids studied her from beneath contracted eyebrows.
The woman jammed her cigarette between her lips, lifted her arms suddenly in an abandoned gesture, letting her bracelets jangle down to her shoulders, and shouted around her cigarette:
“Am I inside a pot?”
In a few minutes the woman was just shouting, “I am a piece of fudge,” and by this time she was beginning to believe it and, as far as I know, she still does, because I left right after that feeling strangely depressed and haven’t seen her since.
This woman, with the best of intentions, had concentrated too much on the idea of giving a party because she thought it was her duty, and not enough on the fact that children are small adults with basically the same personalities they will take with them to their fiftieth wedding anniversaries. Children’s parties have to be planned with jusi as much thought and attention as adidt parties. A glib wholesale herding together of a lot of children for some ultimate adult purpose doesn’t particularly bofher the kids, but eventually it will bother the adults, as when they give parties for the subconscious purpose of easing their consciences. Few of us are as good to our children as we’d like to be, and a party seems a chance to make up for it all at once. It’s like suddenly trying to make up for being strict with a child’s diet by. letting him smoke a cigar.
A couple of weeks ago I took my daughter to a party given for the spindly little daughter of enlightened parents who had managed never to let her have candy, comics, frivolous clothes, carbonated drinks, or any books on any subject more exciting than Greek mythology. They’d done such a thorough job of it that they felt vaguely guilty about it and decided they could afford to let the bars down on her birthday and let her have one good fling. Halfway through the party she sat grappling to her bosom six Range Rider comic books, a box of bubble gum, a Debbie Reynolds cutout set, half a dozen chocolate bars and her first pair of nylon panties—her mind coming slowly unbuttoned.
When her father came over to and asked her whether she’d have Coca-Cola or an Orange Crush, only thing she could think of doing express her feelings adequately was stretch her thin neck like a fledgling about to lie fed, smile mysteriously, look toward some distant world with real gone look, and say:
Her father’s face darkened, but kept his voice down, gripped the arm other chair, leaned over and said:
“SHIRley. I asked you what, you would like—a Coca-Cola or an Orange Crush?”
The girl twisted around in all directions except the one her father was and said, ‘T-I-I-I think—”
Her father compressed his lips till was talking through a little hole about the size of a pea. “Now that you’ve thought," he said, “what—would—you— like?"
The father straightened up and walked away with a ghastly goodnatured smile on his face. The kid would probably be trying to make up her mind yet if her mother hadn’t come over, scrubbed her face briskly with wad of Kleenex, taken all her presents out of her lap, straightened her bow, slapped her leg, told her to behave herself, handed her a ginger ale and left the kid practically sighing with relief that she didn’t have to make any more decisions.
In other words, the same common sense should be applied to children’s parties as to any other parties. Everybody knows that unrestrained indulgence is not synonymous with joy, and the mistake this girl’s parents made was to regard their child as a normal human being with normal reactions up until the time of her party, when they figured all natural laws should be suspended from two-thirty until four o’clock.
“I’m not afraid of angels”
Some parents seem to figure that nature should not only be suspended at a child’s party, but be thrown into reverse. Some mothers, for instance, try to go back to their own childhood and have the party for themselves instead of the children. This often stems from a deep-lying desire to realize some girlhood dream of being a charming, gracious, story-book grownup.
One time I watched from a kitchen while the woman of the house opened the door to her daughter’s first guest, smiling like the good fairy and wearing a big star in her hair and carrying a wand, which she’d obviously always wanted to do. Out on the veranda stood a smartly dressed woman holding onto a thin excitable-looking little boy who took one breathless look at the Good Fairy and leaped in terror to his mother’s shoulder. His mother just put the kid down. When he said, “I want to go home,” and started off the veranda, she grabbed him and walked in the door with him, along with about six yards of carpet that he shoved along in front of his heels. She said she’d pick him up around four-thirty, looking as if she meant four-thirty some day next January.
The Good Fairy kept smiling but her eyes were now as cold as a good fairy who had stopped in at a girdle clearance, and they got colder when the kid refused to play anything, be polite or talk. He just went out to the back yard and started jumping up and down on a little wooden platform, staring into space and chanting something softly that sounded like, “I’m not afraid of angels.”
It was clear that what he was trying to do was jump high enough to figure out what had opened the door, and I blame the woman who was giving the party. One of the basic tenets of child psychology is to be natural with children and not to dramatize ourselves. This kid knew that mothers just don’t go around smiling like good fairies and wearing stars in thenhair, and to be suddenly confronted with one who did simply startled the whey out of him.
A lot of women, instead of pretending they’re good fairies, pretend the children are good fairies, or little goblins or something, creating a cute little world of make-believe in which they fondly believe children move and which they would like to get back into themselves. But it’s self-evident that children don’t think themselves cute; they think they are people. It’s adults who think children are cute. Kids are straining with all the force of the life process to get into the real world of things, possession and bargains. To try to arrest the process is what causes some children’s parties to get disorganized.
I was at one party where a woman in ballet slippers and long hair tried to get everyone playing a complicated game called The Witch’s Broom, which she obviously wanted to play and which nobody understood. It took her about ten minutes to explain it; then she sat down at the piano and played spooky music.
The only thing the children caught onto was a part of the game where the woman stopped the music, went into another room, pretending to ride a broom, and came back with a gift for one of the guests. From then on, as soon as she started to play spooky music all the kids got up and walked to the room where the presents were.
“Susan! SU-U-U-U-san!” the woman would cry to one of the guests over the witch music. “You’re not supposed to be in there. You’re the first goblin!” Susan, digging starry-eyed into the loot in the other room, would ignore her.
Finally the woman stopped the music, brought all the kids out of the other room and explained that she would get the presents. She arranged all the kids around the room in the alphabetic order of their names. Then she went back to the piano and, after the first chorus, cried over her shoulder, “What little goblin has a name that starts with B?”
There’d be a shuffle, as if all the kids were playing musical chairs, as they all changed places trying to get more profitable seats and tried to figure out how to change their names. None of them looked at one another during all this. They just flopped down in the wrong place, staring at a spot in the middle of the floor, blowing up balloons and cheating. It got so disorganized that the woman finally called for help to her husband, a big, shapeless, serubbed-looking chemist who came up from the cellar and stood watch while his wife played witchy music, picking the kids up and dropping them down in their proper places and looking as though he were dropping them down manholes.
The whole attitude of some parents of regarding a child’s party as something whimsical and detached from reality leads to a lot of unnecessary mental strain on the part of parents. They vaguely picture the whole event as a tiny opera, whereas a party is a vital and worldly event to a child. A child doesn’t go to a party to play cute games, but to engage in the hurlyburly of life and to take part in important social relationships. Children don’t step out of life at a party, but into it.
Yet I’ve seen parents become very disturbed because the children engaged in what, to them, was a normal interchange of ideas and gossip. I saw one father, who had made the mistake of coming home from work early for his daughter’s first big party, get so disturbed by taking everything the kids said seriously that within five minutes after the guests arrived he was out in the kitchen, pouring himself a beer in a state of mild shock.
"Don’t they ever think of anything but money?” he asked, looking, as if hypnotized, through the doorway at a group of guests who sat around in a chummy circle, watching the hostess open her presents.
“It cost a dollar ninety-eight,’’ one little boy said.
"My mother was going to get you a better one but she said you’d only break it anyway,’’ another youngster told the hostess.
She turned and looked at him, gave her head a little nod of complete approval, looked back at the gift he’d brought her, and said, "I’ve got another one just like it. Maybe I can sell this one. Thank you very much.”
“My Daddy forgot where he put that last night,” one little boy said, staring at the sewing set he’d brought. “He left it at work with some pots.”
The hostess looked at him with interest. "What kind of pots?” she asked.
“My mother said they were rumpots they have at the office, and he had to go back downtown for it. He tried to make everyone laugh when he came home.”
The hostess’ father at this point got up, quietly closed the kitchen door and just concentrated on his beer, which is really no way to escape a children’s party or any of life’s realities. The children weren’t being especially mercenary; they were just dealing the best they knew how with the real world of wealth and possession and were doing no more than an adult does when he trades a car or puts a product on the market. The fact that they didn’t pretend that their only concern was scrupulous ethics and the good of their fellow man was, in my opinion, a point in their favor and was a lot more honest than the way adults try to get something for nothing.
I think parents should keep this in mind when a child tries to get his or her guests to go home as soon as all the presents are opened. A lot of us often wish our guests would go home but just haven’t the courage to say it. It’s wrong to blame children for having the courage, and not only that, doing something about it. I knew one little boy with a head shaped like an onion who
had a wonderful way of accomplishing this. When he had all his presents and wanted to be alone to play with them, he just got up and announced that he was going to sing a song.
His mother said, “That’s a lovely idea, Ronny,” and beamed on him. He started to sing Silent Night in a quavering flat monotone, on a thin, almost inaudible note. Twenty-five minutes later he was still repeating it and showing signs of keeping it up until the next morning. Some of the kids laughed. His mother laughed. He laughed— then went right back to singing. The guests started to squirm, lie flat on the floor, start looking for their coats. Every five minutes somebody said, "I have to go to the bathroom.” They passed one another like complete strangers in the hall, going and coming. The boy started through the verses again, while his mother looked at him, biting her lip and wondering whether if she stopped him she would discourage him with music for life, and whether that would be such a bad idea.
Finally, without missing a verse, he gathered up all his toys, pulled a chair up to the television set, turned it on to a western program and sat there so close to the screen that he concealed a whole herd of cows—still singing Silent Night, with a background of gunfire.
His mother finally said, “I think Ronny is being selfish and spoiling everyone else’s fun. We’ll take a vote on what to do about him. All those who think he is a naughty boy hold up their hands.”
All of them held up their hands, even the ones who didn’t know what he’d been doing. Ronny turned the volume of the television up a bit and went on singing.
His mother shot a look at him that would have made Dale Evans rein in her horse, and said in a much louder voice: "ALL THOSE WHO ARE
GOING TO GO HOME IF RONNY DOESN’T BEHAVE HIMSELF HOLD UP THEIR HANDS.”
They all held up their hands and his mother had nothing left to do but to get their coats, which was just what Ronny wanted. In fact, the whole thing was a pretty good illustration of how parents make things tough for themselves at children’s birthday parties. This woman really expected her little boy to act the way she thought little boys should act, and they rarely do. But neither do adults often act the way they should act, especially at parties. There’s no reason to expect children to come any closer to the ideal than grownups. Deciding beforehand that they won’t is really the only way to survive children’s birthday parties, it