I still remember my 8th birthday party in the 1970s. It was a fancy dress party, and there wasn't a bought or hired outfit in sight. All the mums had made the outfits themselves, or raided the cupboards for tea towels, sandals and wooden spoons. There was a Queen of Hearts, a monk, Andy Pandy, a Red Indian, and a scarecrow amongst the impressive line up. Parents had really made an effort and they enjoyed seeing the costumes as much as the kids did. The party was held at home and we played Pass the Parcel, Musical Chairs and the Memory Game. We ate home-made cakes and sandwiches, crisps, cheese and pineapple on sticks and drank lemonade. There was no magician, no disco and no party bags. Everyone had a great time and went home with a delicious piece of home-made birthday cake.
Thirty years later, and it was my turn to do the parties for my children. The bottom line is, kids don't care how much you spend on a party. All they care about on party day is seeing their friends and opening presents. They won't care or notice if you've hired the best or second best clown in town, or if your cupcakes are from Harrods or Asda, as long as they taste good.
There hasn't been so much an element of competition amongst my fellow schoolgate parents, but the challenge of doing something different from the last party. If you went to a laser game party last month, your child doesn't want to do the same thing for their party this month. Parents have done the bowling thing, the Wacky Warehouse mayhem, the Sealife Centre, discos, cinema trips and Maccy D's. One mum hired a beautician for her daughter's 7th birthday party. The girls sat down to have their hair and make up done and their nails painted. No running around, no musical bumps and no passing the parcel in case it ruined the French Manicure, which of course had to come off again before they were back to primary school. I'm glad we weren't invited to that one as I don't think I'd have allowed my 7 year old to go. There's plenty of time for nail painting when they hit teenagehood. It just felt a bit lazy to me, and heaven knows how they will top that for her 8th and 9th birthdays. I think we've been to only three parties at home where the parents provided all the food and entertainment themselves. And they really were the most memorable.
When my children were younger, our old house was too small and in too much dis-repair to be a safe option for a kids party, so I borrowed a relative's house for the day. We went retro and did the cheesy pineapple thing and sausages on sticks stuck into a tinfoiled half grapefruit - and laughed when we saw the children's faces - as many had never seen anything like it before. They wolfed down the home-made flapjacks and milkshakes, and any and all fussiness the odd child usually displayed about food, disappeared. Even the carrot and celery sticks were scoffed.
We did the old fashioned games which went down a storm and were a novelty for almost all of them. We also left them to themselves for breaks between games. We watched them socialising, gossiping, and playing spontaneously. At one point they were all on the floor with paper and crayons that they'd found in the kitchen and happily just drew and played at being fashion designers for half an hour. It was a reminder that children do not have to be supervised and cajoled every minute of the day. It's healthy for them to be left to their own devices, to use their imaginations and even, in fact, to be bored. If they are with friends then they'll love just being together outside of school and while they're all dressed up. You can spend a fortune on a party, but most children wouldn't care or notice.
I have to admit that I did try the 'bowling party' and the Wacky Warehouse gigs for a couple of years to try and do something different. Yes, the children really enjoyed it, which is what counts. But oh my goodness, the stress. You'd think paying someone else to do your party for you would be easier, but I found the anxiety of chasing everyone for their pre-ordered party food, counting heads on arrivals and departures, sorting out mistakes made by the venue and caterers - 'I ordered 20 chicken nuggets and NO beefburgers and you've given us 10 pizzas!', making sure you have enough goody bags and they're all filled properly and handed out, and sorting out the generous pile of gifts to keep in a safe place during the session, was all a bit crazy, and far more hassle than doing a DIY party at home and clearing up the mess myself. It was an intense, fraught few hours that despite the kids enjoying, was pretty much forgotten about by the evening.
And who ever really uses what's in a goody bag? You can spend a small fortune on balloons, plastic games, Claire's accessories and trivia to put in the goody bag. I have to admit some of ours have still been lying around unopened months later. The gooey slab of supermarket birthday cake never seems to get eaten either.
Competitive birthday party mums are missing the point of their kids' parties. If you're going to try and out-do your parenting colleagues, the objective, surely is to give a memorable party. In my experience, less is more, and the best parties are always and have always been the ones that the children are still talking about when they go back to school on the Monday. For us, those parties have been the ones where the children have visited each others homes, with balloons tied to the gate and a 'Happy Birthday' poster on the door, and have enjoyed having time together in a familiar environment with some fun food and good old party games. You can't beat good old 'Pass the Parcel'.