I've always regarded children's birthday parties with a little trepidation. With choreographed theme parties, home-delivered bouncy castles, and gift bags for every child (and sibling) now the status quo, it is hard to feel good about just grilling hot dogs at the neighborhood park.
For my son's sixth birthday, I wanted to return to the simplicity I witnessed in the 3-inch-square sepia photographs from my 1970s childhood when parties consisted of nothing more than good friends, a swing set, cake, and funny hats. Shouldn't that be enough?
I was starting to feel empowered about my decision until I got the weather forecast. Rain, rain, and more rain.
Once I was forced to move the venue inside it was clear I'd have to organize a few party games to keep the 13 children from running feral between noon and 2 p.m., the time frame I'd wisely put on the invitations.
When my father-in-law suggested musical chairs, I thought it was perfect. The game was fun and interactive – a classic. I used to love musical chairs as a child and wondered why nobody played anymore. The reasons become painfully clear as soon as I started explaining the rules of the game to the children perched expectantly on the circle of chairs.
From the moment the game begins, one child is out of a chair and thus when the music stops, out of the game, and the rejection systematically continues during each round until the last child sitting on a chair is declared the victor.
In this era of no scoreboards, where everyone wins, everyone gets a trophy, and everybody is a star, musical chairs suddenly seemed Darwinian and downright cruel.
Before I could figure out how to stop, or soften, the game, my husband had flicked on the stereo giving the children their marching orders. As they gleefully skipped around the chairs my mind raced with all the possible repercussions: temper tantrums, tears, hurt feelings, angry mothers...
The music stopped abruptly. All the children scrambled to find a chair and all the parents collectively held their breath waiting to see how the loser would handle their fate. The first child without a chair was clearly bummed, but he was still smiling as he left the game, as was every subsequent child when they lost their turn.
At the end of the game, all the kids clamored to play again. The parents seemed relieved. Over cake, many of us agreed that the game offered an important lesson and lamented that letting children lose had become taboo.
One parent described another birthday party where musical chairs was played, but the parents never took away the chairs, allowing the children to just go round and round endlessly.
How can that be fun or beneficial? Games like musical chairs and tag – which has actually been barred in some schools – allow children to practice winning and losing, as well as negotiating, problem solving, and interacting with their peers without parental intervention.
If we take away all the obstacles for children, and prime them only for success, how will they ever be able to survive in the real world where they have a lot more to lose than a chair at a party?
Nobody wants their child to feel pain or rejection. However, it is our job as parents to teach them how to cope with and overcome failure – a fundamental part of life – not avoid it. The best place to start learning this lesson is at a party in the company of friends and parents who will soon be passing out cake and goody bags to take home.
After the party, my son admitted that he was very sad when he lost his round. "Mommy, I had to scrunch up my face really tight to keep the tears from coming out."
I started to feel sad, and a little bit guilty, until his next comment: "Can we play musical chairs again at dinner tonight?"
Brooke Williams is a freelance writer.
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