Don’t Let the Party Eclipse the Celebration

How To Keep Your Child Front and Center When Planning a Special Event

By Erin Mahoney Harris

Party!As a parent, it’s easy to get carried away when it comes to party planning – be it for a baby’s first birthday, or a coming-of-age event such as a quinceañera, Sweet 16 or Bar/Bat Mitzvah. One-upmanship can run rampant, particularly among families with enough disposable income to throw over-the-top celebrations. But does this benefit our children, or would they be just as pleased with a birthday cake, some candles to blow out, and the company of their closest friends and relatives?

Talk to your son or daughter ahead of time about what matters most to him or her, and you can plan an event that will honor your child without breaking the bank…or costing you your sanity.

Don’t Get Carried Away

The costs associated with elaborate celebrations are more than financial. When it comes to making arrangements for food, decorations, entertainment and party favors, busy parents can easily bite off more than they can chew, creating a stressful environment for everyone in the family. And the last thing a parent wants is for a child to feel that he or she is the cause of conflict and distress. So keep the focus on your child, and don’t allow yourself to become overwhelmed by inconsequential party planning details.

“At a kid’s birthday party, it’s easy to overdo it with entertainers, bouncy houses, face painting, glitter tattoos – you name it,” says event planner Jessica Jonas, co-founder of Momcierge LA. Parents may go overboard on activities and entertainment because they’re trying to cater to multiple age groups, or provide stuff to do that will appeal to girls and boys. Thoughtful as this may be, it isn’t always necessary.

Instead of trying to keep every individual guest entertained, Jonas suggests tailoring the event – whether it’s a birthday party or a Bar/Bat Mitzvah – to your child’s interests. “I think the best way to honor a child at their celebration is to really zero in on their personality, hobbies, etc. It could be something as simple as a their favorite food or dessert, a choreographed dance number or a video/slide show with special moments from their life,” she says.

One year for her daughter Lauren’s birthday, Pasadena mom Christina Sparrow had the guests decorate magnetic photo frames as party favors. “We then took pictures of each guest with Lauren, and sent every guest home with a framed photo of themselves celebrating with her,” she says.

Food offers another opportunity to personalize the event. Don’t be shy about turning to close friends and family to contribute. When someone asks the question, “Can I help?” take that person at face value and say yes! Do you have a close family friend who is an incredible baker? Assign him or her the birthday cake. Does your son or daughter crave grandma’s mac and cheese? Ask her to prepare a couple of pans for the party. Good cooks typically enjoy feeding people, and being such an integral part of your child’s celebration will make it worth the effort. And if your child loves to cook as much as he or she likes to eat, make food preparation an interactive part of the event – think make-your-own-pizza stations, or cupcake and cookie decorating for younger kids.

Customize a Coming-of-Age Event

If you take the time and effort to customize a celebration to your son’s or daughter’s particular interests and passions, you needn’t worry so much about checking every box on the traditional party planning list. This is particularly important when it comes to planning a major coming-of-age event such as a quinceañera, Sweet 16 or Bar/Bat Mitzvah.

Fifteen- and sixteen-year-old girls have strong opinions about what they do and don’t like, so this landmark birthday celebration is by no means a one-size-fits-all proposition. If your daughter loves music and dancing, hire a DJ and provide a list of her favorite songs to inspire her and her friends on the dance floor. For a big occasion such as a quinceañera, she could even choose a very special “entrance song” to make her grand debut at the party. But if she’s shy about the spotlight, that may be the absolute last thing she wants. If your daughter is a cinephile, plan an outdoor movie screening of one of her favorite films – you can rent a popcorn machine and a big inflatable screen to complete the experience. If she loves the outdoors, she may want to forego a party altogether and instead go camping with her friends.

For a religious celebration such as a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Temple Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica emphasizes that “The most important thing to remember in order to have the right perspective on the celebration is that this young adult became a Bar/Bat mitzvah, a son/daughter of our ethical and moral mandates for acting in the world. That’s a great reason for a party!”

As far as tailoring the celebration to the individual, Comess-Daniels has some excellent suggestions, including using the celebrant’s interests and passions for the basis of doing tzedakah, or righteous giving to create justice. “The Bar/Bat mitzvah could ask people to bring books, etc., to the celebration to be given away. Let’s say the Bar/Bat mitzvah is into surfing. Giving away surfboards and wetsuits may be impractical, but donations to Heal the Bay would be a great substitute.”

To further emphasize the significance and spiritual nature of the event, Comess-Daniels has another idea. “I really like the tradition of lighting 13 candles in honor of family and friends. When the Bar/Bat mitzvah does this, saying something appropriate before each person is brought forward to help light a candle (or honoring those who are no longer present physically, but certainly are in other ways), it helps the young adult feel the gifts of family, love and support she or he has been given through this process…and the promise of those gifts continuing into the future.”

When In Doubt, Keep It Simple

For some kids, a family trip to a theme park, mini-golf outing with a best friend, or even a play date at the park with Popsicles are good stand-ins for a traditional party.

Every year, Santa Monica parent Stephanie Green faces the challenge of celebrating her son Gavin’s birthday, which not only falls during summer vacation – allowing for no classroom celebration – but also during the week of July 4th, meaning many friends are traveling with their families. But Green takes a practical approach, noting “This usually presents us with choices rather than limitations. If he had his birthday during the school year, there would be more pressure to invite his class over for a party or rent out a space, which can get very high-maintenance and expensive. We can instead take advantage of the flexibility of summer and pick a favorite place to go, such as Disneyland, Legoland, or some other fun place that may be special to him.”

Choosing to take a family trip doesn’t mean a child can’t have the best of both worlds. Even though Gavin went to Legoland this summer, he also wanted to see his friends on his birthday, so Green invited them to a local park. “I bought ice cream bars and water, and brought a couple of soccer balls, and he and his friends ran around for hours. I can’t imagine they would have had a better time anywhere else, and it was basically free. Plus, a lot of parents came to enjoy the two hours of park time, and we all hung out and caught up since we hadn’t seen each other in the weeks that had past since school had let out for the summer. It was relaxed and easy.”

It was also a perfect way to celebrate her son.

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