November 04, 2013

Nine Easy Steps for a Successful Child's Birthday Party

This past weekend, I hosted a birthday party for my daughter's 9th birthday. Since moving to Texas, we have outsourced our children's birthdays to bounce places and play areas. This is always fun and easy, but often really expensive. This year, we decided to keep it in house. My daughter wanted a tea party with a real tea set and finger foods and fancy clothes and crafts. Every day closer to the event, she had more ideas and suggestions.

By the weekend before, I was a wreck. I'm about as crafty as a raw potato, how could I possibly do a real tea party? What on earth would I serve? What could I find for them to do? I had visions of bored little faces staring up at me quietly, looking around with disdain. I pictured my daughter crying in disappointment that all her friends had such an awful time. I borrowed things, I trolled Pinterest like a madwoman, I lost sleep and spent too much money. Here's what I learned and what I will now, hopefully, remember for next time.

1) Once the day arrives, they don't care. They really don't. You said, "party time!", they said, "yay!" and then you gave them sugar. Beyond that, it's all a blur, a backdrop against which they smear frosting and echo their high-pitched giggles.

2) See step 1.

3) You don't need "activities", not really. You need two bags of balloons. Blow them all up until you pass out, recover, and then do the next bag. Disperse said balloons across the room. That's it. That right there provides infinite activities all of which are a variation of "bounce, scream and pop". If you turn on some music, you have freeze dance (involving kicking balloons). If you give them markers, which I don't recommend, you have art (involving scribbling balloons and drawing on their own faces). If you do nothing whatsoever, you have screaming, laughing, running, volleyball-ing, tackle football-ing and general euphoric mayhem. Which leads to step 4.

4) You are not in control. Nothing you do, nothing you've planned, matters. Once more than four children have gathered in a room full of balloons and the promise of sugar, there exists not even the illusion of adult superiority. They are in charge. They own you. Submit.

5) They aren't hungry. Or, to be specific, they aren't hungry for anything INTERESTING (like all the infamous "finger foods" my daughter requested). Pizza, plain jelly sandwiches and, if you want to go all out, a basic fruit plate, some carrots and ranch-- these things will satisfy the masses with a minimum of dried out leftovers.

6) Cupcakes are better (i.e. less messy) than cakes. Cakes are prettier than cupcakes. Either way, they will only eat (or, in recent events, smear over their entire faces) the frosting. One mom I know just serves cupcake liners full of frosting. You decide.

7) Ask for no presents. Seriously. One of the best things we've ever done is request that, instead of gifts, people bring a small donation for a local charity. Take your pick: food pantry, shelter, Goodwill, animal rescue, whatever interests your child. The end result is an impressive display of giving and an impressive lack of excess. It's a good idea to open any family gifts after the party has ended, making the most of the lingering energy and still making your child feel special (which they are!). Settle down, kick some balloons out of the way and open presents from Grandma and Mom and Dad. Later, when you take the items to be donated, make sure your child goes, too. Gratitude is a gift in and of itself.

8) This step is for you, the parent, and must be executed with discretion. It is, however, absolutely non-negotiable. It is a successful party must. Open a bottle of wine before the 1st child arrives. Set it off to the side next to a fresh wine glass, away from prying eyes and curious fingers. As the door closes behind the last child to leave, fill the glass and drink it down as quickly as your nerves demand. Repeat as necessary.

9) Party bags, the two-edged sword of modern day birthday parties. If you don't want to do them, don't, but also don't be surprised if you hear about it from the children and even from a few less-than-tactful parents. If you do want to do them, do not, I repeat do NOT, fill them with candy. Or glitter. Or markers. Or glitter. You will invite the wrath of every single parent and create a pay-it-forward chain of party bag horror. They'll send your kids home with candy and glitter and markers and bubble gum. Then someone else will send the kids home with candy and glitter and espresso. Next thing you know your kid will come home with a glitter-covered puppy wearing a bubble-gum collar toting a barrel of chocolate-covered espresso beans around its neck. Stop the madness! Give out toy rings, bouncy balls and maybe something that lights up when you shake it. And, of course, balloons.

You've got extra.

November 16, 2012

You'll be grateful... and you'll like it!

Anna’s 8th birthday was a few weeks ago and, boy howdy, did she make out like a bandit. She received several gift cards, games, books, clothes and a brand new bike, not to mention a fun outsourced birthday party at a local bounce house place. The bike, actually, was sort of a necessity—she’d reached the point of ridiculousness on her little girl bike with her knees practically bopping her in the chin.

That was at the beginning of the month, a few short days after a Halloween extravaganza of new costumes and insane amounts of candy. Then there were the exciting trips to the bookstore to use the gift cards resulting in MORE presents, followed immediately by the book fair at school.
Oh, the book fair.
In general I try to get rid of those monthly Scholastic flyers as soon as they reach my doorstep, but their school promotes non-stop, building up excitement and expectation for weeks ahead of time. I understand it’s to raise money for the classroom but to be honest, their school is not lacking in funds. Calling the PTA zealous doesn’t quite cover it.
After some discussion, we agreed to go. I took all the kids to the weekend hours with these rules: They could each pick ONE book, any book, as long as it was less than $15 dollars (Scholastic books are notoriously expensive).
Silvia picked out a book of Christmas stories and Anna got a biography on Taylor Swift (oh, my!). We paid and trooped home happily, mission accomplished.
The following morning, though, all hell broke loose.
“MOM! You forgot my book fair money! Today’s my class visit day, I have to have the money in this envelope!”.  Anna impatiently waved the plastic baggy and class form for cash-carrying.
Confused, I reminded her we’d done the book fair YESTERDAY.
“But... but... it’s class day! I want to get a book! Everyone will be getting a book! IT’S CLASS DAY AND I WANT ANOTHER BOOK!”.  Then the crying and wailing started.

I ignored her. I had breakfasts to make and two other kids to get ready for the day. She just got louder.

Finally, unable to tune her out anymore, I loudly declared that there was no way on Earth she’d be getting anything at all and if she didn’t get it together immediately she’d be losing her book from the weekend as well. I sent her off to wash her face and took some deep breaths. Her theatrics continued, though, and we actually ended up missing the bus.

I was so upset, y’all. Seriously, not even so much mad as upset. Disappointed, not just in her, but in myself. Where have I gone wrong that my daughter so easily forgets everything she’s been given in her life?
And so was the Gratitude Project born. When Anna got home, I cancelled her playdate. Then, after homework, we made a list of everything she’d gotten in the last two weeks (mostly birthday presents) and I sent her over the house to fetch it all as a visual reminder. THEN she sat down and wrote out a thank you note for every single thing (something she was supposed to have done already, anyway. Oops.). THEN I sent her upstairs with this directive.
Write a letter telling us what you are grateful for in your life and what that means. I was clear that she was not to scribble out something generic in five seconds. She had to really THINK about it and go deep.
After about half an hour, here is what she came up with.

I will admit that the last part had me a little misty. Afterwards, Anna was in a very good mood, kind to her siblings and sweet to me. At bedtime, she gave me an extra special hug and whispered in my ear, “I’m sorry I had a big tantrum this morning, Mom. I love you”, which left me feeling very grateful and blessed, too.
(The next day, Silvia came off the bus with a list from the book fair people after HER class day. They’d made her write out a receipt for the things SHE wanted, titles and prices, to “Take home and give to your Mommy so she can get you JUST what you want and send the money with you tomorrow!”. Wouldn’t if be nice if the school reinforced the right messages we’re trying to teach them at home? Grrr. In Silvia’s defense, she only cried a little and then agreed we should put it on her Christmas or birthday wish list for a later date. Delaying gratification is hard at any age, so I was pretty proud of my little five-year-old.)
After all this, I am reminded to stop and think about all our own blessings. We are healthy and we have good insurance in case that changes. Even if this house does feel too small sometimes, we DO have it over our heads. Kurt, though it demands long hours, has a good job that supports us. When there is a family emergency, we are able to respond and be there to support our loved ones. I have no illusions about the the privileged life we enjoy. I don’t think we have to be ashamed of it, but I don’t want to forget, or let my kids forget, how lucky we are, either.
So the Gratitude Project continues, for parents and children alike. We will build on it more and more as they grow... which could mean a lot more letters to look forward to in the future. Hopefully not all of them will be coerced!

November 14, 2012

I have a little princess and it’s fine by me

My children are laughing. Hands clasped together, they whirl around in a loopy circle, chanting, “Ring around the rosie, pockets full of posies, ashes, ashes, we ALL… FALL… DOWWWWWN!”. With a crash they tumble to the floor in a fit of giggles.

Do I pull them on my lap, cuddle them close and explain how the rhyme is about gathering bodies during the Black Plague? Do I caress their soft hair and say the posies were for covering those dead eyes before burning them on the pyre?
No, of course not. Their game is innocent fun. There’s no need to attribute to it more meaning than it deserves.
I feel the same way about all the fuss surrounding the so-called “Princess Syndrome” stalking and undermining our impressionable young girls in today’s society (as if princess play was something NEW to this generation). There are many treatise on the topic, erudite explanations of how Cinderella is bringing down girls’ self-esteem, trapping them in a victim mentality, leaving them desperate for a Handsome Prince to come save them, eating away at their individuality and sense of self-worth, destroying all the ground gained by the feminist revolution. It sends them back to the kitchen with their aprons and coifed up-do’s to prepare balanced meals for Mr. Man-of-the-House.  
My five-year-old daughter loves princesses and fairies. Her Halloween costumes have included Rapunzel, Tinkerbell and the (self-titled) Pink Princess. Her dress-up box is full of various crowns and wands. Her favorite books are fairy tales and her favorite toys are princess figurines and dolls. She will wander around happily for hours, talking quietly to herself as she builds and creates her own adventures within those imaginary realms. Her older sister is into all that, too, but she’s moving on now to an obsession with fantasy novels and all things Taylor Swift related.
(No one seems worried about my son and his pirate-and-robot fetish, though we were applauded as good parents when we allowed him to delve into HIS princess phase. As if we could have stopped him, the little man was very firm in his need for a crown.)
They all also love outer space and playing with a circuit board set to make lights shine in the dark. They will sit at any given moment to read just about anything. My children in general are well-rounded from the delicate curves of their cheeks to the books they pick at the library, all balanced out with incessant potty jokes. (Pretty sure Cinderella never giggled over farts).  
Attributing that much effect to a story or game is just ridiculous. It’s not about the stories. It’s about what they take away from it. Quite frankly, if your daughter’s most influential role model is a fairy tale character, then you have WAY bigger problems than the proliferation of Disney movies and pink toys.
Balancing fantasy with reality is part of growing up; something learned from experience and observation of real life role models, of which my children have many. Let them play now and believe in happy endings, let them feel pretty and unique and adventurous and special—which they are. If a princess dress helps them feel that way now, it’s fine by me.
I am far more concerned about bullying and the future of their reproductive rights and teaching them gratitude instead of entitlement in a society of greed and selfishness. I send them out in spite of all that every day, wondering just a little bit if they will be okay, if someone will hurt them, if this could be the last time I see those faces because the world doesn’t feel safe anymore, if it ever did.
Faced with all that, a love of all things pink and sparkly doesn’t seem like a real game changer. I am just as worried about my daughters being scarred by princess play as I am about Ring Around the Rosie—not at all. I believe in the beauty of innocence. Let them dance with it while they can. They have time enough to learn about loss, to find out that a kiss cannot heal someone, no matter how full of love it is. Eventually they’ll see that bad guys sometimes win and handsome faces don’t guarantee gracious hearts. When that happens, I will be there to help them through it just as much as I am here now to play a part in their fairy tale games, put pink clips in their hair and admire their fancy costumes. There are all kinds of magic in this world. Leaving the door open to it doesn’t have to mean you’re inviting in disaster.

June 01, 2012

87 days of summer. Yes, I counted. Didn’t you?

I have been baking all week. Cookies, cookies everywhere and not a one to eat (except for the ones we sneaked, of course). Between Silvia’s three preschool teachers and Anna’s two teachers and bus driver, I’ve been up to my elbows in butter, flour, eggs and chips.

The first batch was fun. Silvia giggled as she sat up on the counter; breaking eggs, pouring flour everywhere and stealing chocolate chips straight from the dough. Jack toddled around, weaving in and out between my feet reaching up to her for his share of the chocolate. We ate a few from the first batch while they were still too hot, undeterred even as we winced and complained from our singed fingers and tongues. 

The second batch, she sat and watched a show, occasionally wandering over to see if they were done yet. Jack napped. Anna moaned and pouted, saying she didn’t WANT to make cookies right now and she’d do it LATER, Mooooo-ooooom.

The third batch, I bought some dough from the grocery store, squishing it up in a bowl so it wouldn’t look so perfectly portioned. I tossed some extra chips in to give it a homemade panache and baked them by myself while the kids ignored me.

Strangely, though, they all managed to show up when that first timer went off. Hmmm.

It was all for a good cause, though. Today is the last day of school. For the next three months, I will not have to physically manhandle my eldest out of the top-bunk at 6 AM, pushing her blindly towards the bathroom in her zombie-like stupor. There will be no backpacks coming home crammed full of every piece of paper my child might have touched or breathed on during the day. No homework or packed peanut-free lunches, no Spirit Days, no complex balancing of various projects, events and “donations” (I can’t believe how often we end up sending a check to school).

It seems a fair trade-off for the drawbacks of summer. We’ll swelter in the Texas heat, flounder about for indoor entertainment (there’s only so much time you can spend gluing things to paper or running around the tiny mall play area). I’ll be pelted with “I’m bored!” to the point I’ll run out of chores to retaliate with. The girls will argue and fight and be best friends all at the same time. I will rinse out swim suits until they become faded and see-through. Jack with have tantrums. Of course, Jack would have tantrums anyway because he’s just about two and cannot function without at least one full-on meltdown per day. Everything will be filled with sand (if you don’t have kids, you don’t know about sand. If you do, you feel my scratchy, incessant pain).

But as nervous as it all makes me, I have to say I’m still kind of excited. There’s just something so cool about Summer Vacation. Maybe it’s a hold over from my own school days, I don’t know. Maybe it’s just anticipation for all the fresh mohitos in my near-future.

Either way, good or bad, summer is here and we’re going all in to make it fun and busy and worth the memories. But I’m not making any more cookies. That is off the table ‘til Christmas.

(Oh, and hello blog-verse. If you’re still interested and reading… I’m back.)

April 02, 2012


I’ve been writing this blog, on and off, for years. I’m not a steady-as-she-goes kind of girl. It’s either all words, all the time or a blank screen with that annoying pulsing line at the top of the page, taunting me for my lack of output.

Right now, I’m being taunted. There’s a lot in my head, a lot going on, much ado and plenty of whatnot. But writing this blog isn’t the catharsis it has sometimes been. To be blunt, it is just not fun anymore, my friends. I’m not feelin’ it. Some of what I’ve written here is good. I have that in me. But these days it’s 80% filler and that’s no good at all.

So, in the continuing interest of living intentionally, I’m taking a blog break. Oh, not a writing break. I write all the time. But thinking about how I “should” write online, like it’s some sort of duty, another scribbled chore on my list, that’s taking all the charm out of the act. There’s a really fabulous freedom to writing when it is just for you, just because you thought it and liked that thought and wanted to think it a little bit more and see where it goes. Maybe it’ll take me out into the big wide world or maybe it could take me deeper inside where I haven’t seen myself before.

But I’ll never get anywhere if I don’t follow those trails of thinks and wonderings, those musings. And, for the moment at least, this is not the place they’re leading me. I’m sure I’ll be back from time to time, to say hello or reminisce about posts past. That’s the great thing about the internet: it will always remember everything you’ve ever said (cue the creepy music). Here’s hopin’ I come back with something to say!