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Secrets to Party Success

Weeks (sometimes months) in advance, children begin anticipating their birthday parties... and many parents begin dreading them. What are the right number of guests, the most fun activities, the perfect cake? Here to help is Parenting's party guide  -- with kid-pleasing themes for every age, answers to sticky etiquette questions, the lowdown on loot bags, and more!

Planning together

A child's first birthday is a milestone mostly for parents; the tot of honor will be oblivious. So the party is all your call. Time it for when your child is apt to be cheerful  -- often late morning or after her nap. For a child 2 or older, the party theme, activities, and size should fit her age and temperament. If she's old enough, "start discussing options with her a month or two ahead of time," recommends Debbie Webb Blackburn, a clinical child psychologist and assistant clinical professor of psychology at the Medical College of Virginia and the mother of three. "Suggest she think about hobbies, heroes, and favorite games. Asking for input will make her feel important." (And, chances are, more cooperative.) You might also let your child pick out the invitations and decorations, even if they don't perfectly match your theme.

 

Tips to a successful day

Keep the party short. 1 ½ to 2 hours at most. A typical breakdown: 15 minutes for guests to arrive, an hour for eats and activities (or less for under 4 years old), 15 minutes to sing "Happy Birthday," and cut the cake. 

Give early arrivals something to do. They can chase bubbles or fling Frisbees outdoors, or use crayons, markers, and paper inside. Says Karen Wood, a Lafayette, CA, mom, "I put big mounds of Play-Doh on the kitchen table and let the kids go at it."

Plan more activities than you think you'll need, so you're not caught short. Try classic indoor games like musical chairs or Twister, or outdoor fun like relay races or leapfrog. "When the kids got a little restless during my son's third birthday party, I blasted some tunes on a boom box and got them dancing," remembers Dan Rowen, of East Hampton, NY.

Don't overthink the food. Kids eat less, and faster, than you might think. "They need to burn energy first, and then they'll sit and eat," says Scott Thompson, senior program director of the YMCA in Berkeley Heights, NJ, where he supervises sports parties. Serve nonmessy nibbles first  -- pretzels, Goldfish crackers, vegetable chips  -- and save the pizza and cake for the finale. 

Provide food for the adults too: minisandwiches, bagels, coffee (once kids are 5 or 6, grown-ups usually don't need to stay). Line up friends, grandparents, or teenagers to help with activities, serve food, and clean up.

Shop via the Web

If you can't find  -- or don't have the time to search out  -- decorations, paper goods, or goodie-bag stuff, you can probably track them down via catalog. 

Party politics

Common quandaries and savvy ways to deal with them:

How many guests to invite. The classic formula is one guest for every year of the child's age, but some party places require a minimum number of guests, and you may have to factor in cousins and neighbors. Your child's temperament is key: A large party can be exhilarating or overwhelming.

Whether to reciprocate all invitations. It's usually impossible. Try to invite kids your child often plays with and reciprocate the last few months' invitations. "If she's not blatantly leaving someone out, don't worry," says Judith Re, an author and etiquette expert in New York and Boston.

What about invitees who haven't RSVP'd? If you need a final head count for favors or food, call them a day or so after the RSVP date, says Re.

The birthday child is in meltdown. Pull him aside for a little walk and talk, says Re, and give him a hug or a lick of frosting. If a guest is acting up, Nan Potter, a mother of two in New York City, uses this tactic: "Quietly put your hand on his shoulder and nicely say, 'We don't do things like that here.' Then shift gears and say something like, 'Who's ready to bash the pinata?'"

To open or not to open gifts. Reasons against: the birthday child saying "Yuck, what's this!?" or ripping open gifts so fast parents don't know who gave what; or guests getting the "gimmes." But gift opening can be fun for kids 6 or older. "Many children help pick out a present and they're excited to see it opened," says Sandy Miller, a party planner in Doylestown, PA.

Take the cake

Forget about fancy batters, fillings, and frostings. Choose crowd-pleasing chocolate or vanilla and invest your energy in decorating  -- but don't worry about it. "Kids appreciate anything colorful and fun," says Lisa Sofer, president of New York Cake & Baking Distributors. Her tips:

Put basic baking pans to imaginative use. For the younger crowd, build a wiggly caterpillar by using two bundt pans. Slice the baked circles in half and alternate them, up and down, for the S-curves of the critter. Or construct a choo-choo train by baking in miniloaf pans; place them in a row (use cookies for wheels). Arrange cupcakes on a large tray into a shape  -- the number 2 for a second birthday or a cheery face, using different-colored frosting for each feature. Instead of icing the cake sides (often tricky), just march tall wafer cookies all the way around.

Use cookie cutters as stencils. Spread frosting on a plate, press cookie cutter into frosting, and stamp design on the cake. Color in the shape with frosting in a pastry bag or store-bought frosting tubes.

Invite party-goers who are 4 and up to help decorate. Set out bowls of food-colored frosting and toppings  -- M&Ms, shake-on sugars, candy hearts, gummy worms, mini-marshmallows  -- and let them go to town.

Goodie, goodie

Giving departing guests take-home trinkets has become de rigueur, but there's no need to spend a lot on goodie bags. A cross-country sampling confirms that most run about $4 to $6 apiece."Fit the loot to the age of the kids and, if possible, the theme of the party," says Godwyn Morris, owner of My Favorite Place, a party space and toy store in Manhattan. Her guidelines:

For the youngest party-goers (ages 2 to 3), stick to one or two nice "B" things: bubbles, bath toys, balls, and books (the chubby kind  -- items they can get their small hands around.

4 to 8-year-old kids prefer quantity over quality. A typical bag of trinkets, says Morris, might include four or five of the following: stickers, clay, mini-puzzles, sidewalk chalk, whistles, water squirters, bracelets, rings (for both boys and girls).

For older kids, it's back to one or two bigger items, like a set of markers or a small stuffed animal. Let the birthday child choose favors for her friends.

Instead of bags, try colorful plastic beach pails, small wooden berry boxes, or Chinese take-out cartons, any of which can be lined with bright tissue paper and bedecked with stickers or ribbons  -- a fun project for the birthday child.

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