My sons' celebrations are no cakewalk

I am convinced that the part of my parental mind that is supposed to put together a child's birthday party does not, in fact, exist.

After adopting my son Alyosha at the age of 7 almost nine years ago, I began to observe, with awe and reverence, other parents who arranged their children's birthday events with aplomb, grace, and efficiency. They actually seemed to enjoy the preparations, treating them as the suspenseful buildup to a thrilling climax.

For me it was different. When I finally got Alyosha's eighth birthday celebration off the ground, one child after the other had cause to be upset: If it wasn't a pizza without the expected pepperonis, then he had failed to shatter the piñata; I had neglected to buy orange soda; only one boy was able to find any of the 300 pennies I had hidden for the coin hunt; and another child was mortified when he realized he had left my son's gift at home. By party's end, I was the only one who wasn't crying.

The next year, I thought I finally had everything licked. The weather was agreeable, so the party could be held outdoors. The numbers were right: nine little boys, all about the same age. Nine personal pizzas had been ordered, and the store-bought cake was sitting under its plastic dome on the kitchen table, its blue icing glowing under the fluorescent light. To top it off, I had bought, of all things, yet another piñata.

As the kids arrived, I momentarily felt the cold chill of terror as past experience whispered to me. This time, I assured myself, would be different. There were pepperonis, there was orange soda, I had hidden 500 pennies, and, last but not least, I had packed the piñata with enough goodies to fill an elephant's stomach.

One of the tricks to making these things work, I was convinced, was being careful to ensure that the birthday boy was spotlighted at every opportunity. Kids spend most of the year going to other kids' parties, at which they're often miserable.

I remember one such nadir, when Alyosha came home looking positively forlorn. "Did you have fun?" I asked him. He nodded. "Did you play games?" Again, he assented. Then he burst into tears, the message being, "Why couldn't it have been my party?"

Once all the kids had arrived, I corralled them into a game of catch. One by one I sent them out to receive wide passes of a Nerf football. Every kid managed to catch the ball – except for my gymnast/karate expert/soccer-playing son, who accused me of trying to embarrass him by throwing it too hard. Alyosha dropped to the ground, folded his arms, and sulked.

Off to the penny hunt. I watched as the horde swept over the lawn, hooting with avaricious glee. I was amazed at how expert some of the boys were at rooting out the coins, while others couldn't tell pennies from pebbles.

One little boy, Chris, grew more sullen every time one of the others whooped with success. When his lip began to quiver I interceded; but as I led him to one of the hidden coins, another boy swooped in and snapped it up. Claiming he had been cheated, Chris stormed off for home.

The piñata was a near disaster. The trick here was to make sure each boy made at least marginal contact with the papier-mâché donkey before letting the birthday boy shatter it. Alyosha got off the inaugural swing, all right, and made contact to boot, but the second boy swung faster than I could hoist the thing, and the piñata burst prematurely, spraying the yard with candy and trinkets. My son stood fast and shed gentle tears as his buddies gathered the prizes.

Such experiences have brought me to philosophize about the nature of kids' parties and reassess my role in them. Sometimes I wonder if, at root, they are good things. They encourage children to develop great appetites, and so are poor preparation for a life in which we can't have everything we want. But short of moving to a log cabin in the wilderness, there is no escaping the expectations this phenomenon heaps on the family. And the idea of celebrating with modesty and simplicity seems to border on the un-American.

Alyosha is now 16, and his childhood parties are a thing of the past, allowing me to put a pleasant gloss on all those pounds of cake consumed, all those half-eaten pizzas, all those shattered piñatas, all those tears.

The thing is, I recently adopted a second son, a 5-year-old from Ukraine named Anton. After having raised Alyosha, I felt tried and true, experienced, wise, ready for anything. How then could I have forgotten about the parental sinecure of the birthday party – the one thing I am now convinced I will never get right?

In a quiet moment I pulled Alyosha aside and made the following proposition: How would it be if just he, I, and his new little brother had a quiet celebration for Anton, a "special birthday," perhaps involving a canoe ride on the river?

My son's face registered vicarious dread. "You mean" he gulped, "Anton won't have a party?"

Oh, my; brothers for only a few months, and already they've closed ranks. "Only kidding," I retreated, smiling in silly embarrassment.

Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it; but those who remember it don't necessarily fare any better.

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