Every year, come May and June, I ask myself an unsettling question: What the heck am I going to do for my sons’ birthday parties this year?
And every year, I come up with an initial fantasy that immediately gets shot to hell. This year it was this:  an elegant, dress-up dinner party for Owen and a handful of his friends. Shirley Temples in plastic champagne flutes. Steak and french fries. Profiteroles for dessert.
My husband laughed long and loudly over this.

So instead, I came up with a list of criteria, a game plan, focusing on what the boys want:

1.Each boy chooses his own theme. Even if it seems crazy. Even if I came up with what I thought was the greatest idea ever. Even if it’s not my taste. One year it was a Hungry Like the Werewolf party, because my son liked Duran Duran and….werewolves. Another year, he insisted on dressing up like a sting ray. (This costume does not exist any where in a child’s size. Trust me.)

2.They choose the cake.  In our case, it’s usually doughnuts.  I’m not sure why. I like to put thought into the party but I don’t want it to feel overproduced or go over budget. I like to do a simple birthday that is reminiscent of the backyard parties of my childhood…not my wedding. Unfortunately, this is challenging in NYC, as we lack the yard. I’m learning, slowly, that smaller parties are better–even though it’s more my inclination to include everyone my sons have ever known.

3.”Conquer the goody bag.  Don’t let it conquer you,” is what I tell myself. The goody bag freaks me out. You buy two or three tiny things, multiply by fifteen, and you’ve already spent the equivalent of a pair of Acne Jeans. And the response often is that crushing, whining, “This is all we get?” I try to think of something high concept, low budget. Last year, my youngest son’s goody bags were Make Your Own Sock Puppets. Super cheap and super fun.

This year, Owen is obsessed with geography. He spends hours pouring over flags of other countries, as well as the globe he got for Christmas. He nixed a lot of ideas and games I thought of—at nine, my son is more self-conscious; he didn’t want anything too planned or organized. No pretend passports. No traveling games. I had suggested featuring one country…let’s do China! How about Egypt?  Nope.  At first, I was stumped. It’s hard not to do what you think would be cool.
I googled “flags of the world” and found an inexpensive miniature flag distributor. I cleared a shelf of all vases and candles and lined them up. I also bought toothpick flags of the world to decorate the doughnuts.
On the balloon website, I saw that they had balloons printed like globes. A huge chunk of the party was devoted to each child bopping another child’s head with them. When this got a little rough, my babysitter organized an impromptu game of musical chairs. (I feel if I had suggested it, my son would have thought it too geeky.) But she rocked it and they loved it.
For food, we kept it simple and healthy:  pizza, veggies, fruit, popcorn. We had cheese, charcuterie, wine and One Girl cookies for any adults that wanted to stay.
For the goody bag, I remembered that I had once gone to this shop, Shi-Eurasia, on the Lower East Side that specialized in groceries from around the world for hungry, homesick ex-pats. I stuffed bags (from Paper Presentation) with crackers, biscuits and candy from around the world. I splurged on a marble that was painted like the earth and gave it more importance by putting it into its own bag.  And I found fancy stickers that featured countries of the world—the kind meant for scrapbooking. The kids were excited to see which country they had gotten and of course, raided the goody bags for the country they coveted.
It was fun and easy to plan, inexpensive, and totally what he wanted.
Another year down. I’m excited (and nervous) to see what next year brings.


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Comments (2)


  1. That looks like the best party EVER! My childhood dream (secretly still is my dream) was/is to become a translator and travel the world somehow.

  2. Possibly my most favorite sentence ever:
    “I like to do a simple birthday that is reminiscent of the backyard parties of my childhood…not my wedding.”


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