Birthday Parties 101—or is that 911?

The birthday party is a parent’s annual opportunity to make a child’s dreams come true. For some it’s simple—park, cake, kids—and for others it’s an unstoppable journey into debt and anxiety. From casual picnics to lavish hotel overnights, Marin County parents know how to host a party, and in most cases it takes a few attempts to get it right.

Amy Galusha, a mother of three in Novato, not only is a veteran kids’ party planner, but as a marriage and family counselor, she possesses a trained insight into why some parents tend to overindulge and how to slowly, graciously step back from the ledge. “We all begin with honest intentions to create a special day,” says Galusha, “and often end up on the couch with a pile of wrapping paper, a large credit card bill and an overwhelmed child.” For Galusha, it was the Wizard of Oz party she hosted for her three-year-old twins that gave her pause. “We had decorated the house, each girl had her Dorothy dress and matching shoes, there were two separate cakes from Sweet Things and enough food and drinks for extended family, siblings and parents of the guests.”

In Marin County, as in many other communities known for tendencies toward overindulgence—birthday parties can be over the top—a circus tent with a petting zoo for tots and for the older kids a limo ride to a five-star hotel. Lynn Reynolds’s induction into this world came via an invitation for her four-year-old daughter from a boy at her preschool. Reynolds noted the embossed airplane, felt the heft of the paper and promptly forgot about the party until a Ralph Lauren jean jacket emblazoned with an airplane was left in her daughter’s cubby, along with a handwritten note saying, “Sorry you missed the party.” 

“I was shocked, and embarrassed for not RSVPing or showing up—it was preschool, I didn’t take it too seriously,” she says. “But a jean jacket…did all the parents do this?”  Her fears were solidified by the next event titled “Come to our enchanted forest.” This family had hired Sophie Stress Free Soirees—the Stanlee Gatti of the prepubescent set—and had transformed their modest backyard into a fantasy forest with huge butterflies and recordings of monkeys and rain forest birds. Each child left with a certificate stating that a donation had been made in his/her name to save the rain forest, and a cupcake.

When it came to hosting a princess party for her daughter, Reynolds (on a budget) talked a friend into dressing down a sexy-angel Halloween costume, adding a princess-like hat and showing up with a guitar to sing. “It was a disaster,” recalls Reynolds. “My friend was quickly offended by the lack of enthusiasm from her audience and the mood soured.” The guests, being four and not in total control of their emotions, fought over the unicorn statues used for cake decoration. To settle the question of who got to take one home (saving one for the birthday girl), Reynolds staged an impromptu talent show, with the winners taking the unicorns. “What was I thinking?” she recalls. “Some of the girls left in tears; my daughter cried. But by Monday, the party had been forgotten. Too much drama.”

Just up Highway 101, Corte Madera’s Nancy Slattery was learning a similar lesson at daughter Tatum’s third birthday party. Re-creating Alice in Wonderland at their home, the Slatterys dressed the part of tea party staff.  Bill wore a tux, while Nancy donned a fancy apron and put a big bow in her hair. They rented tables and had Monopoly money as props. “Besides our ridiculous outfits in 100-degree heat,” she recalls, “our biggest mistake was inviting way too many kids. They turned on us. They picked up the Monopoly money and used it for tips they’d say, ‘Get me more this… get me that!’” Nancy recalls. “Bill and I turned into full servants, sweating and stressing and making sure everyone was having a good time!” Her lessons: too many kids, and the four-hour duration of the party was two too many. A few weeks later, Tatum was invited to a “fishing” party, where the guests fished for prizes and brought home a goldfish in a bowl. “Everyone’s fish died that night, and I remember talking to the other moms about how to deal with death. It was horrible.” Does Tatum, now well into her teens, remember any of this? No.  

By far the easiest parties for the Reynolds have been either at local parks or a gym. She’s used three of the nearby gymnastics venues as well as the Mill Valley Community Center for a hula-karate party. “These places give you a slot of time to come in and decorate, have fun and leave,” she says. Regardless of the mess, it’s not at your house; even when one of the dads, looking for attention, pushed a guest’s face into the cake, it just didn’t matter. “Luckily, she laughed, and so did her mother when she picked her up,” says Reynolds. 

For some kids, it’s the anticipation of next year’s party that can work them into a frenzy. “After going to so many lavish parties, both of my girls spend hours planning their next one, including who is on the invite list and who isn’t,” says Reynolds. “This makes me crazy.”

When you need to scale down, Galusha suggests addressing the change and keeping a positive perspective. (Imagine how you might feel if your friends took you to dinner every year for your birthday, then suddenly cut you off.) “More than anything, children will pick up on your attitude,” she says. “Allow your child to be a part of the decision-making process, within your boundaries.” For example: “This year we are having a family celebration.  How would you like to decorate?” These days, the Galushas have toned down the celebrations, giving each girl an option. One daughter had a sleepover in the backyard, and the other chose to go to the beach with three friends. Easy.

“Another way to take the focus off glitz is to tie in tradition. Children love ritual, and birthdays are no different,” says Galusha. “Things will change from year to year, but your family customs can weave a common thread. Most important, take time to celebrate the life of your child. Tell her stories about the day she was born, how you cherish her, why the world is a better place with her in it.”

 Click here for a list of great birthday party venues.