We have had an active summer of birthday parties in the shop, which is a bit unusual, but I’m blaming global warming. Summer is usually not our busy party season — when school is out, there is less pressure for parents to throw “everyone in class is invited” celebrations, and therefore less reason to take the party offsite to a place like 4 Kids. A couple of friends in the backyard, at the movies or the local bowling alley or manicure shop will suffice to celebrate most of those June and July birthdays. For larger crowds, there’s the splash park and the local community center pool, complete with water slides and a lazy river, and our local parks rent out the shelter houses inexpensively. Added to the many and varied travel schedules of families, and our store party room is usually a little more available this time of year.
This summer, however, has been HOT. The temps rose on Memorial Day weekend and have stayed up, our humidity is high for Indiana standards, and many days the cement on the pool deck is just too warm for little feet by midday. The addition of three big chain preschool/daycare centers in the neighborhood, all hosting all-day summer programs, has added to the friend groups of lots of preschoolers with working parents, and suddenly we’re ordering cupcakes every weekend and blowing up balloons on Saturday mornings right after the farmer’s market. Most of these parties have been for three year olds — which (almost) totally makes up for lost weekend afternoons off for me, and that’s my very, very favorite age to celebrate with.
Three is a big birthday — kids of that age anticipate the day for weeks, even if they are not exactly clear on the concept of a calendar. “When is your ACTUAL birthday?” I asked one young friend as he arrived for his party.
“ACTUALLY, Mrs. Cynthia, this is my party. I will get presents.”
“Yes, it’s your BIRTHDAY party, right?”
“No, it’s a present party with cake. Are you being there?”
“Yes, I will be here at your birthday party. Are you excited? I am!”
“Happy birthday! Would you like some of the cake? I don’t have to share my presents, though.”
Three year olds tend to really identify with party themes, have few (usually “adult” inspired) nonsensical notions about gender stereotypes and truly get behind an afternoon of pretend. Parents sometimes want to offer more than one theme to be more “inclusive” of boys at a girl’s party, or vice versa — they often ask if a princess party should be a “princess and pirate” theme, for example. Typically, this just means that EVERY child will wear a tiara and an eyepatch, and we need enough swords for every treat bag. My favorite party themes are those that simply combine the two or three favorite things of the birthday child. We’ve hosted an “Orange Kitty Princess with Wings” celebration, a “Fairy Firefighter” bash, and more than one “Every Color Balloon Party but Mostly Yellow.”
Last weekend I was fortunate to attend a Unicorn Birthday for one young friend, complete with horns, adorable cupcakes from local Vanilla Bean Bakery, and a lot of neighing.
Parents usually stay for three year old parties, which is a good thing (for trips to the bathroom) and sometimes not (they are big, loud, take up a lot of room, and bring large cups of coffee that they leave precariously EVERYWHERE.) Grandparents often make an appearance, if they live close enough or make a special trip, and that’s usually a very, very good thing. Grandmas are well versed in the intricacies of “Duck, Duck Goose” with very young children who need a lighter touch on the “rules,” and I have yet to meet a Grandpa who will not wear any party hat, regardless of theme, fit, or color of his outfit.
The biggest value that we offer in store birthday parties, I believe, is the simplicity of it all. Yes, we plan and coordinate, order the decorations and fill the treat bags, and launch parachutes and open crafts, read stories and keep gift lists, but mostly we get out of the way of pretend, and jump right into play. We get messy, we sing and dance, we sit on the floor and we act like princesses or race car drivers or “animal rescuers but not for mean animals, only the ones that need a hug.” We don’t have loud music or flashing lights or screens of any kind, and there’s no part of the event that doesn’t welcome little brothers and sisters, silly aunts and teenage boy cousins, parents and stepparents and extra adults that are just special to the birthday child. We model to busy parents that TIME, that most precious of gifts, is exactly what their child wants more than anything. And while it may come with glitter and balloons at our place, at home it just comes with love, and doesn’t ever need wrapping.