Happy Birthday, Baby!

When my daughter Mamie turned one, her daddy baked her a big birthday cake smothered in white icing and fancy flowers. He knelt with it on the floor as Mamie, wide-eyed, toddled over to see it. But just as she reached the cake, Mamie lost her balance and sat down—plop!— in the middle of her first birthday cake! Today, Mamie is 10, and this story is part of her birthday lore, retold and enjoyed each year. This story reminds us not to design our children’s passages with too fine a brush, but rather to relish their defining touches. Young children respond with all their hearts—and bodies—when those they love create a special day just for them. Our role is to remember that whether our child is turning 1 or 10, she is a participant in her party—a lively and active contributor.

It’s not uncommon to be surprised by your children’s party behavior, but you needn’t be dismayed. For example, you can be open to the possibility that your son may want to pull out all his “old” toys rather than play with his new gifts. It’s okay. He’ll do that later. Or that your daughter may not be “the hostess with the mostest,” choosing to play awhile on her own or in another room during the party. And finally, while you remind your children to say “Thank you” for each gift they receive, they are very excited, and sometimes you may need to do it for them. As long as other children’s feelings are not hurt and as long as tantrums, if they occur, are short-lived, all is fine. It is their birthday, after all! Here are a few additional ways you can add to your child’s birthday party enjoyment—and, of course, to your own!

First birthday highlights:

Wrappings to play with—lots of crinkly paper free of small tags or trinkets—and time to explore them

Boxes with secure lids to take off and put back on

Music and singing—tunes your baby knows

An easy, relaxed tone—few guests and a short timetable

Second birthday highlights:

Active gifts like a ball or push-and-pull toys, and lots of room to move

No fancy outfits

Time to play with one gift before opening another— some can be saved for tomorrow

A cake with candles to blow out (you can help)

Third birthday highlights:

An activity to work on, like a new puzzle, a matching game, or a construction set

Sharing the above activity with you

No fancy outfits

A few friends and their parents

Cake with candles to blow out (all on their own)

Fourth birthday highlights:

A party with all the trimmings: party favors, games, and balloons

An active setting in which children can channel their excitement into running, jumping, and moderate risk taking

No fancy outfits; no scary characters or themes

Easy, everybody-wins activities, such as musical “freeze” games or cupcake decorating

A minimum of transitions (for example: arrivals and play, cake and gift opening, a few games or craft activities, more play, and good-byes)

A first opportunity
for some parents to drop off their children, returning later to pick
them up

A note on sharing:
Child development experts tell us that the notion of sharing begins to
gel around age four. This means we can put the word sharing on the back
shelf during early birthdays. To avoid hurt feelings, some families
postpone gift opening until after the guests have left. Others offer a
“real” gift to each child in attendance—something similar to what the
birthday child is receiving, such as a puzzle, a truck, or a doll. As
this would be in lieu of a party bag, and as you’ve invited only a few
children, the expense should be manageable.

A suggestion on
filming and picture taking: Try to integrate your photo ops into the
flow of activities, opting for the candid over the posed. Too many “look
into the camera” moments interrupt the party’s flow and children’s
spontaneous participation.

Finally, take time to share an
after-party moment. Pour yourself a glass of wine, cuddle with your
youngster, and remind him or her what a wonderful day the both of you
have had and how much you love him or her.

Elaine Winter is Director of Discovery
Programs, a popular Upper West Side children’s enrichment center. She
was formerly Lower School Head at The Little Red School House, a
private, progressive school in the West Villa