Children like to help plan their own parties

Children's parties have always been a family affair for us. However, we moved into a neighborhood where elaborate parties (even for agest two, three, four, or five) were the norm.

At first I resisted giving my children parties, afraid of comparisons with parties with hired clowns and magicians. Reluctantly, I gave in. I've learned a lot in the process by talking to teachers, other parents, by reading party books from the public library, and by asking my own children about activities they enjoyed or disliked at parties they attended (An hour of outdoor games in raw weather was not a favorite).

Here are some ideas for those who have joined the party-giving club.

First, involve your child in the planning -- who to invite and what games to play. Take him to the store to pick out his own paperwear. Having special cups , plates, napkins, and perhaps a tablecloth makes your child feel that the party is really his. Balloons and streamers create a festive atmosphere.

Second, have a special cake. There is nothing wrong with baking it at home. A beloved baby sitter baked out first party cake, and my son was very excited to see his name written in the icing.

The parent should decide on how many children may be invited. Large numbers at any age can become wild or unmanageable, or else become passive spectators of movies or other entertainment. One girl invited her entire class plus two neighborhood girls, of which my daughter was one, for a total of 20. A few days later she asked Virgene (my daughter) why she hadn't come to her party! One assumes there were so many friends she didn't notice who was there.

We have found that eight, including the host and sibling, works well for age five or under, and for a 7-year-old party we held the number to 10. If the children play a lot with neighborhood youngsters of a similar age, it might be a good idea to invite them so as to avoid hurt feelings.

One feature I have never liked was the big pile of presents to open at the end of the party. At small gatherings this might invite comparisons of presents , while at a huge double party (35 guests for two brothers), wrappings were torn off and presents tossed in a mound. The boys had no idea who had given what.

A solution that seems to work well for various ages is to open the present when the guest arrives, give a special thank you right then, and then tuck the present out of sight in another room.

Having another adult is a must. Hold the party on the weekend if that is the only time your spouse, a friend, or teen-ager can help.

My husband and I gave careful thought to the parties for our four-year-old daughter and for our seven-year-old son. The first 30 minutes of the two hours for each party was allotted to greeting guests, opening the presents, showing the guest the hosts' room (kids are always curious), playing with the home toys, and decorating party bags.

Decorating party bags is a wonderful artistic project for the children. Names are written on bags in advance to save time and confusion. Kids pick various seals and stickers, and use them with their own crayon or pencil drawings on a brown paper bag.

While I was fixing a simple lunch, my husband announced the winners of the party bag decoration contest: most creative, funniest, best use of stickers, most colorful, etc. Having a box of inexpensive small toys and candies for winners to pick from gave each child a choice, and since several other games were played, it was easy to award many prizes so that each child won at least one time.

Other ideas? Bingo! A smash hit for six- and seven-year-olds. For younger ones, really good stories, read to them as they sit around the reader, often helping turn the page. Singing funny songs can work well. And we had music playing for almost the entire parties: classical, jazz, and Christmas music for a December party.

Planning ahead cannot be emphasized enough. And the party can be discussed later at a family dinner. This helps in planning next year's party, and it helps children evaluate and think critically.

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