How To Survive a Children’s Birthday Party

Photo by Libby Molyneaux

The Sugar Police, the PC Mommies, the piñata issue — it can be confounding. And since when are limos necessary for turning 6?

PART ONE: Manners

There’s a mother of a 3-year-old boy with a message to all you parents who receive timely invitations to children’s birthday parties: “WHY THE %#@* [she bleeps herself when her kid’s in the room] DON’T YOU PEOPLE EVER RSVP? WHY IS THAT SO HARD?!!!!”

This Mother Against Rude People (MARP) is a nice, sane, generous, funny person, really, and her little boy — we’ll call him Der Kommissar — is a charmer. I met her in Lamaze class, so I don’t know what kind of a person she was before Der Kommissar came into her life, but I can tell you she’s a wonderful, devoted mother, the kind of down-on-the-floor mom who makes play dough from scratch, and gets excited about whipping up green eggs and ham with her son helping. There’s nothing high-strung about her. It’s just that, like all new parents, she’s learning that the social obligations that come with motherhood open your eyes to a whole new set of people and cultural habits. And children’s birthday parties are one of those events where we find ourselves in the homes of people we’d otherwise never interact with, playing under their rules ... rules that have changed since we were kids.

The RSVP issue is only part of MARP’s continuing observational tirades on today’s social norms. Recently, she came home from a birthday party for the kid of one of her “Mommy and Me” classmates and called me, deploring, “When did we as a society decide that it’s not okay to open presents at a child’s birthday party? Who exactly made that decision?”

It’s true. You notice all the time that the presents are collected, whisked away and never mentioned again. “And the thing is,” she continued, “the higher up the Hollywood echelon you go, the more prevalent it is. Der Kommissar and I made a special trip to buy Dickie something cool. We picked out the gift and we made a card together and were looking forward to seeing Dickie’s face when he opened it. I wanted to teach Der Kommissar about giving and how it’s not his day to receive presents. Then when it’s his birthday, he’ll understand.”

Der Kommissar probably won’t be scarred by this oversight, but she has a good point. Some of the self-proclaimed expert mommies argue that opening presents in front of the guests can make people feel uncomfortable if some gifts are cheaper than others. But ask any kid to name his favorite present, and the price tag will have nothing to do with it.

And remember the thank-you notes our mothers used to make us write? Apparently, they’ve also gone the way of the curtsy. “I never get thank-you notes,” MARP told me, overlooking the card I sent her. “How do you know if they even opened the present? Did they like it? I’ll never know.”

A small tragedy, but it’s still kinda sad.

PART TWO: Simon Says, “Avoid Overkill”

“When children show up for a birthday party at another child’s house, the thing they are most interested in is seeing what toys the other kids have,” says Chrissy O’Grady, who runs the Reptile Family. She’s seen plenty of kiddie parties in her 18 years of bringing snakes, tortoises and other scaly pals to parties. “I’ve seen parties with us, a magician, a bounce house as big as some people’s real houses and more. The kids just get overstimulated,” she says on the phone, possibly while fondling a boa constrictor. “People need to ask themselves, is the party for you or your child? Parents need to let the kids make the decisions. Children don’t get to make that many decisions at this stage of their life. That’s why we always let them choose if they want to touch the reptiles.” She goes on, “There was this boy, the son of a well-known actress. He wanted a reptile party and hamburgers. His mother refused because she’s a vegetarian and a member of PETA.” More proof that PETA members don’t want us to have fun — damned PETA poopers.

Dan Jordan, a.k.a. Dan the Magic Man, has performed his feats of wonder at more than 1,000 birthday parties and has noticed that parents often try to outdo each other, especially when it comes to the food. “A lot of kids just want hot dogs,” he says. “And as a performer I have to make sure I’m not too close to the moon bounce, where the kids get distracted, or by the food, where the adults gather to talk.”

Then there was the Harry Potter theme party, complete with fog machine and hired actors dressed as lead characters roaming the grounds. This was for a 4-year-old. “The kids were scared,” reported MARP.

Fear of clowns has been known to have its genesis at toddler parties. And anyone under 5 probably won’t remember the magician you hired. Even professional clowns will warn you away from hiring them for parties for kids under about 5. As Boofy Jo posted on “I am a professional clown and have been performing for 10 years. I always try to discourage parents of small children from booking me at a birthday party. Up until they are around 4 or 5, the party is mainly for the adults anyway. I have twin boys who will be 2 in August. I think that I will go the old Peter Piper pizza route.”

PART 3: Simon says, “Oriental Trading Company”

You can’t tell a parent to “keep it simple” when it comes to their little darling’s big day. And when the theme is Thomas the Tank and you discover Web sites that offer everything from Thomas bubbles to underwear, it’s easy to go overboard. The best way to keep costs under control is to get a copy of the Oriental Trading Company’s catalog. The bargains are a party thrower’s wet diaper: 12 miniature Dinosaur Craft Kits for $3.95! A dozen smiley-face punch balls for $4.95!

For us “older parents” (not as old as Beverly D’Angelo but older than Catherine Zeta-Jones), it’s amazing how the party-planning business has changed since we were kids. MARP called the other day to report, “I just ordered balloons from Party America, and you know what they asked me?” If you’re insane? I didn’t say. “They asked me if I wanted to pay extra for ‘uplift.’ ” Me: “What’s uplift?” MARP: “I have no idea. I told him no thanks.”

Piñatas are another current source of debate — one that ends when someone mentions the 8-year-old kid who died when struck by a blindfolded birthday boy with a wayward stick. The PC moms are usually against them entirely: The small toys inside are choking hazards, and giving kids handfuls of candy is tantamount to passing out balloons with heroin. You can compromise with the so-called pull-string piñatas, a safe version in which strings are attached to the opening, but to be safer still, fill the piñata with granola bars and subscription cards to Mother Jones.

The pages of L.A. Parent and Family Magazine have loads of party-entertainer listings. The aforementioned Reptile Family shows up in safari suits with baskets of snakes and turtles and delivers a ton of squeals from the kids — and grownups — for $200. And we can vouch for the magical shenanigans of Mr. Jordan (, who makes it a point to have the birthday kid be the star of the show.

The beautiful thing about throwing a child a birthday party is that you’ll have no trouble knowing whether or not it was a success. Unlike adults, kids don’t fake their good times. All you have to do is look around.

And if anybody knows what “uplift” is, please let me know.

Reptile Family, (805) 498-8788,

Oriental Trading Company, (800) 875-8480,

Dan the Magic Man,

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