How to throw a birthday party

Seriously, Sam? 10 Simple Rules to Throw Your Child a Birthday Party that Doesn’t Suck

Seriously, Sam? is a monthly column that takes a lighter look at suburban life.  This month, Sam gives us some advice on how to throw a children’s birthday party that doesn’t suck!

Have you ever had your best intentions go so catastrophically wrong that you were determined to use your hideous failure as a cautionary tale? That was me, last May, when I threw my daughter the most over-the-top and horrible birthday party ever. In my defense, I have always been a birthday and a party person. Also, I am an obsessive, spreadsheet-making, anticipate-and-account-for-every-deviation-from-the-course, detail-oriented planner. My kids have had almost all of their birthdays at home, with themes ranging from Arts-and-Crafts to Transformers, home-spun activities (make-your own glitter globe,) themed food (paint-palettes of condiments,) and favors decidedly not from Party City (individually bedazzled bags of art supplies with hand-painted smocks, anyone?) I spend every party running, screaming, sweating and ridiculing my husband for not reading my mind when I need help, until the final 10 minutes; then I bring out my homemade, theme-appropriate cake, place it in front of my overwhelmed and exhausted child, and smile for the photo that will forever capture my Really Great Party.

Shockingly, my daughter is not a big party kind of girl. She is happiest when things are simple, calm and under control. Still, for her 9th birthday last year, when she was vacillating between a trip to the American Girl store or a sleepover, I convinced her to combine both — a two-day birthday extravaganza. Nine is definitely old enough to learn that life isn’t just about you, right?

Maybe, but in case it isn’t, here are some rules to help you do better than me:

#1: Your child actually knows who she wants to invite to her party

My daughter’s guest list was three people. I convinced her that she should invite all of the girls in her class. Plus, her best friend from baby-hood. Plus, someone’s younger sister. What might have been a manageable group of four, mild-mannered 9-year-olds, became an unruly mob. And that was before Cake Wars.

#2: If you are not vegan, kosher or vegetarian, let the burden to feed those who are rest on their mothers

My daughter’s dinner request was pizza. But one girl was gluten, dairy-free and kosher, and one hated pizza; so, I also served pasta (regular and gluten-free,) a cornucopia of toppings, and a make-your-own salad bar (you know, to be healthy.) When my husband suggested that I was making things too complicated, I angrily took a break from the stress of making sauces and chopping veggies to yell that it was fine. And it kind of was, until my mom “helped” and put butter on all the gluten-free pasta, which was for the dairy-free child and we had nothing else in the house for her but chicken nuggets (which were labeled GF but not Parve.) We lied about their blessedness and forced her to eat them. Next time, if they don’t eat pizza, they can bring their own dinner or starve.

#3: Let Latecomers Be Late

One of my best friends worried that her daughter would be 1.5 hrs late for the party. I assured her we would wait to eat until they arrived. When we had burned through all of my pre-dinner activities (girl and doll t-shirt decorating, instant cameras and props for a “photo booth,”) and they still weren’t there, I sent the girls outside.

The dogs followed.

The girls opened the gate to our busy street.

The dogs escaped.

One girl started screaming and running after the dogs.

The other girls did too (as girls do.)

I ran screaming after the girls, who were almost in the street, and the terrified dogs who were running to be anywhere but chased by eight hysterical girls.

The dogs and girls came back, but my daughter didn’t recover.

The panic that her 9th birthday was almost ‘the day her dogs got run over’ turned her into a demon-spawn who gurgled as I served her pizza: “GO AWAY. You aren’t invited to this party.” On the plus side, I gave her the greatest gift of all: years of ammunition for therapy.

Rule #4: Control the sugar

Cake Wars rocked. But it also gave 10 sugar freaks unregulated access to every confection on the planet. Right before bed. Next time, I’ll try something that might cause less hyperactivity, like an espresso bar. Or crystal meth.

Rules #5-7: For the true masochist who throws a Slumber Party

#5: Do not agree to let girls try their first sleep-over at your party, and definitely do not invite their mothers to also spend the night

I really did this. I actually thought it would be easier for two of my friends’ daughters, who had never slept out before, to have their moms there. Ok, I might have anticipated that having some, but not all, mothers at the party would set off a wave of inconsolable homesickness. I can see now that I was also deluded to believe that all the girls would be asleep, and we moms would be having a celebratory glass of wine, by 10:30. What actually happened is that we spent until 2am soothing other people’s hysterical children, at which point I popped a Xanax and passed out. (In case you are wondering about my husband, he was asleep with my son and a white noise machine in our bedroom.)

#6: Do not assume that you, and you alone, will be able to get 10 girls to sleep even if, in the past, you have been a special classroom guest and successfully lulled them to near slumber with meditation and relaxation

Not only did I let them overdose on sugar and invite just enough mothers to make everyone homesick, I also turned my daughter’s room into one big bed, a.k.a., trampoline park. Still, I was shocked when my meditation exercise didn’t work. Know what did? Yelling.

#7: Make sure your child has someplace else in the house to sleep…just in case

To make matters worse, my overtired and sugar-crashing daughter was now whipped into a hysterical frenzy and wanted to sleep alone. Unfortunately, I had filled all the empty beds with other moms and crying girls. She ordered me to send everyone home. It was midnight. So, I did the obvious: swaddled her in a blanket and shushed in her ear until she stopped writhing and passed out.

Rule #8: If you are ambitious enough to include a second event after the sleep-over, make it quick

The girls were miraculously all smiles the next morning as we piled into the “party bus” to head to American Girl Place. Other than the panic that I would lose these hyper-consumer frenzied girls as they ran around the store, it was great. All the girls were loading back into the grimy van (oops, party bus) with individually chosen party favors (e.g., fake iPhone kits ($55), pet + carrier sets ($65)) and dolls with freshly styled hair ($60 each) by 11:00. I had been smart enough to plan to send everyone home before lunch!

Unfortunately, we hit bumper-to-bumper traffic and the air conditioning failed (on the first 80-degree/100% humidity day of the summer.) The girls hadn’t eaten.

When we finally arrived at 1:30, I had to order pizza (again) to appease the Gremlins, and my daughter was so miserable that she hid in her bedroom until everyone left.

Rule #9: Forget rule #8 because you should never have a second event

Rule #10: K.I.S.S.

The following day, when I dared to ask my daughter about the party, she timidly grimaced.

“Eh. Cake Wars and American Girl, thumbs up. The rest, thumbs dooooown.”

“Too much, huh?”

“You get crazy mom. You are all excited and shrieking and ahhhhhhh.”

“Right. So, you want me to do less?”


“Ok. How about we come up with a code for when I am going overboard?”

She nodded enthusiastically, thought for a moment and, grinning, said “K.I.S.S.”


“Yeah, Keep It Simple…Sam.”

At least I get one point for her not calling me stupid, right?

About Samantha Woodruff

Samantha Woodruff holds a BA from Wesleyan University and an MBA from NYU’s Stern School of Business. She spent most of her career at Viacom’s MTV Networks, where she oversaw Strategy, Business Development and Consumer Research for Nickelodeon and a host of other brands.

After becoming a mom and moving to the suburbs of Manhattan, Sam left corporate America and made being a mom to her 7 and 9 year old kids her full-time job. In her free moments, Sam teaches yoga and takes classes at The Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence. She is working on her first novel and writing essays that take a lighter look at the life of a former type-A executive turned suburban mom. Her work has been featured in Read650 and she contributes a monthly column, Seriously, Sam? to Suburbs 101.

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