Celebrating your child’s birthday your way
From jelly and ice cream and pass the parcel to party buses and cakes shaped like pirate ships, there are so many different ways to celebrate your child's birthday.
At My First Five Years, it quickly became apparent that children's parties are a hot topic when we starting talking about them, as we shared stories of party experiences with our own children and family members. We shared those moments of alarm when your child requests that thirty class members come round for a Spiderman house party, or asks for a chocolate birthday cake in the shape of Concorde! One particular incident that sticks in my mind is a team member recounting the emergency rescue of her five-year-old sister from a party bus!
The party circuit
We realise there is a growing market around children’s parties which can result in a weight of consumer pressure being felt by parents. This market has expanded from the traditional base (familiar in my childhood days) of a birthday party held in the home with perhaps a game of ‘Pass the parcel’ and some jelly and ice-cream!
Parents today often feel the pressure to spend time researching the optimum party, encountering a dizzying array of brands, claims, features and prices. Some companies also enlist our youngest children in their marketing efforts, targeting children directly to mobilise their ‘pestering power,’ (which we all know is a super power!)
As children grow older, birthday parties might become hotly anticipated events, discussed at length in the playground, where the threat of a revoked invitation hangs over a friendship.
Nobody is completely immune to the social, emotional and market forces, parents included, but at My First Five Years we recognise that the choices and decisions you make around birthday celebrations offer some inherent opportunities for learning with your child, along with devising and imbedding some shared family values.
We’ve put on our party thinking hats and gathered our My First Five Years five top tips to help you navigate those early birthday celebrations.
1. Participation is not mandatory
At first, you may feel overwhelmed. As your child’s social world expands, there may be a lot of party invitations from family, your own friends' children and children from groups you attend. If your child starts school they might even be invited to the birthdays of every child in the class, resulting in some weekends involving multiple parties. You and your child may feel the pressure to participate and reciprocate. It’s a natural feeling to want to be a ‘part’ of the ‘party’ and as parents we are keen for our children to develop their own friendships and to feel included in a social group.
We suggest however, that it is empowering to consider your child at the centre of your party-planning decisions. Start by reflecting on how they act in social events or situations and if they are usually shy, reserved, quiet, scared, get upset, or demonstrate overwhelming feelings and behaviours, then ask yourself, is a party the best idea for my child? If they are able, talk to them about it, ask them what they would like to do. Authentic conversations around your own preferences and feelings can offer the opportunity for honest collaboration with your child when deciding how many parties to attend and whether to host you own birthday party. Trust your instincts and your child’s instincts when deciding whether a particular party is right for you. Realising that friendships are forged and nurtured in many ways is an important part of social and emotional development.
This approach supports your child to gain self-confidence and realise that it’s ok to take time to make the right decision for themselves, and to pay attention to how they are feeling and also to reinforce that they know what suits them best.
This can help them to gain an early understanding of setting their own boundaries. Sometimes looking outward to keep others happy is not the right approach, rather looking inward to find our own preferences is important. This is a huge component of building self-awareness and self-trust which of course forms part of our My Five Years Social and Emotional stream of development.
2. There is no right or wrong way to behave at a party.
When attending a party, it is helpful to trust your knowledge of your child and their style of approaching new situations and new people. For example, you might take your three-year-old to a birthday party where they hide behind you and don’t want to go and play with the other children. This is perfectly understandable, for some children the transition to the new environment and social situation may be overwhelming. It may be helpful to stand on the edge of the party for a minute and do a stock take, as you help them map who they know. Being cautious may often turn out to be a sensible approach!
By reassuring your child and allowing them the time to decide whether (or not) to join in you are demonstrating that you trust and respect their feelings and wishes, and so they learn that it’s okay to feel this way. Respecting your child’s feelings in this way supports your child to recognise and accept that their feelings are valid. Many adults find these social situations hard and may themselves not like being the centre of attention, or mixing with new people in a large gathering. Empathising and explaining this to your child, rather than attempting to ‘jolly’ your child along or ‘convince them out’ of their feelings supports your child to trust their instincts and tolerate the widest range of emotions.
Your child may feel more confident if they know what to expect. Sharing the detail of the party routine may help, talking about what will happen, step by step. Perhaps also discussing in advance who will be attending, what the environment will be like, or describing what to expect with different types of entertainment can be helpful. In fact, all the things we ourselves would probably like to know before accepting an invite. It may be helpful to give your child a further sense of control by suggesting that they are able to decide how long they will stay and when it feels right to leave.
We believe that confidence comes from knowing how you feel, accepting those feelings as valid while being curious about your internal experience. Children who are hesitant are paying attention to their body’s cues, which is another big component of knowing yourself and trusting yourself and your feelings.
3. Plan your party with your child and family
When thinking about your own child’s birthday party, again place your child and family at the centre of your plan. As parents we are the architects of our children’s lives and we try to build a structure for those we love by what we choose to do together and how we do it. Use your unique knowledge of your child to devise a plan which will suit them and your family best.
It may feel hard not to ‘compare’ your party plan or celebration with others, especially if they are bigger and more extravagant. Hold in mind that it really doesn’t matter if the birthday party is at a park, sitting around your own dining table or in a soft play centre, try to keep the focus grounded in the important aspects of sharing a special time with friends and most importantly ensuring your child feels loved and cared for.
4. Don’t be afraid to do things differently
The Oxford Dictionary definition of party is:
“A social event at which a group of people meet to talk, eat, drink, dance, etc., often in order to celebrate a special occasion.”
If you ask a group of adults what kind of birthday party they prefer, you can guarantee that you would encounter answers ranging from "I don’t like parties" to "I love to dance all night to 80s music" to "I like to go for a good walk and then have a meal with a couple of friends." It’s helpful to bear in mind that we all have personal preferences when thinking about how to celebrate a special occasion.
For your baby, a first birthday celebration might involve a simple celebration with immediate family or a short party with just a few guests, or it might be an extravagant party for you to celebrate surviving your first year of parenthood!
As your child grows, it is great to involve them in decisions and organisation. Discuss whether they would like to have a birthday party and if so, what they would like their party to be like, for example you might say, “I’m thinking hard about your birthday, you have great ideas, I wonder what you might like to do?” Your child may enjoy planning the details, such as making lists of guests and designing invitations.
As parents we might need to shift and change our own expectations as we let our child take the lead. By collaborating together and allowing your child to make choices around who to invite, how long the party should be or where the party could be held, we are building their self-confidence and self-belief.
5. Enjoy the small moments
Remember, it’s often the little things that make the day more special than any ordinary day. There may be the small moments which stand out when you both look back. Memories and relationships are often built in these pauses, the incidental moments when nothing much is going on, perhaps waking up to a balloon hanging on the bedroom door, a special breakfast hot chocolate or a family rendition of ‘happy birthday!’
At My First Five Years our principles guide us and are interwoven with our 6 streams of learning. To find out more take a look at our My First Five Years app.