When your kids had only three or four candles atop their birthday cakes, planning their party was easy. There was an abundance of choices ? everything from magicians, to puppet shows, to Cinderella characters who swept into your living room, waved their magic wands, and transfixed a roomful of guests, Now that your little ones have reached, or are heading toward, those pre-teen and adolescent years, however, party planning takes on a whole different hue. Nine- to 12-year-olds (and their older, more sophisticated siblings) have very definite ideas about how to celebrate their birthdays. Your youngster's choices will be influenced by several factors ? including what kind of parties their friends are having and their overall developmental level and degree of maturity.
According to Susan Havens and Valerie Monroe, authors of "City Kids", parents must consider several basic issues while tying to plan a successful party. Who is your child, and what will make her happy? Who are your child's friends? And, perhaps most importantly, what are you willing and able to handle? The last question forces you to look realistically at your resources ? including the size of your budget and the amount of space you have available if the party is to be held at home.
What are the trends in parties as we near the year 2000? Bob Yorburg of Wizard Productions, a party-planning organization in Manhattan, says: "We have seen many exciting new party ideas in the past five years ? virtual reality activities, laser games, and the growth of huge entertainment complexes. But we find there is always demand for the tried-and-true favorites ? a good stage show, jugglers and clowns, face painters and balloon sculptors."
According to Denise Lifeson, a children's entertainer and party performer based in Queens, parents today invest heavily in children's parties and are often willing to spend whatever it takes to ensure that their children have a unique, successful party. Arlene Capulong, a party planner at Birthdayland Express in Bayside, Queens, reports that she sees a return to more intimate parties, with many parents incorporating skill-based activities such as painting, ceramics and other art projects into the theme of the party.
PARTIES FOR PRE-TEENS (ages 9-12)
This is an active, exciting age for kids, who try to emulate their older siblings in some ways but are still childlike in others. Pre-teens have a variety of interests and hobbies and enjoy doing activities that help them to attain a sense of mastery. Cecilia Barry, a Long Island school psychologist and mother of three girls, says that often youngsters of this age "cling to vestiges of childhood before their leap into the great unknown of adolescence." Many pre-teen girls still enjoy having themed parties, where characters such as Pooh and Elmo are used for party decorations and favors. Some of the favorite parties for girls of this age include:
Craft parties: Doll-making, jewelry design, ceramics, chocolate molding and all kinds of structured craft activities. May be held at home or at a crafts studio or Y. Gymnastic, skating and pool parties: Held at gymnastics centers, where the girls are instructed in the use of equipment such as hoops, balance beams and trampolines; at community or backyard pools; or at ice-skating or roller rinks. "Glamour Girl" or "Day of Beauty" parties: These are held either at home (in which a make-up/hair consultant is present) or in a beauty salon. Girls get their hair and nails done, and may experiment with make-up application or a variety of skin-care products. Sleepovers: Usually begin after dinner, although sometimes they are held after an afternoon at the movies or a sporting or gymnastics event. May include anywhere from three to as many as 10 or 12 girls. Some parties are loosely structured, with perhaps some rented videos being the only "planned activity". Others include some craft projects or organized games. Refreshments are an integral part of the party, with pizza, make-your-own taco food bars, chip 'n dip and nachos being favorite foods. Instead of (or in addition to) a birthday cake, many sleepovers include a make-your-own sundae bar, and of course, bagels, cereal and plenty of orange juice, essential for the morning after. Specialty parties: Aerobics party held at a dance studio, murder mystery, "bake-your-own goodies" party held at a bakery, or parties held at a comedy club that caters to this age group. Parties at video arcades or technologically-advanced entertainment complexes: These offer laser games and other virtual reality activities. Parties for nine- to 12-year-old boys tend to center on sports-related themes, where coaches lead the party guests through a variety of games and activities, or "laser park" type entertainment centers or video arcades. Since this tends to be a high-energy, boisterous age, most parties are held outside the home in some type of rented facility. Some of the most popular parties for pre-teen boys today include: Sports parties: Everything from basketball, miniature golf and soccer, to roller hockey and bowling. These can be held in a specialty facility (like a bowling alley or roller rink), but are increasingly held at large, multi-sports complexes where party guests can participate in a number of different activities. Many facilities provide instruction and organized games, such as relay races and obstacle courses, as well as allowing time for "free play". Some of the traditional activities such as bowling may have a "new wave" twist created by the addition of extras such as "glow in the dark" pins and balls, laser lights, or disco music playing in the background. Several specialized facilities offer rock climbing with instruction on both indoor and outdoor climbing walls. Karate and tae kwon do parties are also popular with this age group, Hi-tech parties where activities include laser tag, hyperspace simulators, virtual reality games such as virtual skiing or motorcycle racing, and video games such as Nintendo 64 and Sega Genesis, as well as the more classic arcade games such as pinball and skeeball. v. Magic shows with a twist, such as the one done by "Dr. Blood, created in the laboratory of Silly Billy", which incorporates all the "gross, yucky stuff that boys of this age love." Specialty parties might include a tip to the New York Skyride (in the Empire State Building); a performance by a ventriloquist who gears his act to the pre-teen group; or an interactive, hi-tech party at a computer center.
PARTIES FOR TEENAGERS (ages 12-16)
"Birthday parties for teenagers? My daughter laughed when I suggested one for her 14th birthday, rolled her eyes, and said, 'Ma, really, do you think I'm a child?'" I heard variations of this comment over and over again, spoken by frustrated mothers who missed the days when a birthday party was eagerly anticipated months before the big event. Now, many teens are happy to forego parties until the big Sweet Sixteen gala, which often resembles a mini version of a wedding (with the price tag not lagging far behind); Jewish boys and girls may have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah party ? a time of religious celebration as well as a great party event. But at other than those times, birthday parties for teens tend to be low-key and casual; many teens will take several friends to a movie, play or sporting event, and then perhaps out for dinner or a pizza afterwards.
Still, in certain neighborhoods, and depending on the mores of the peer group, there are teenagers who still want to mark their birthdays with an organized celebration. Alice James, of Forest Hills, says her daughter Karen wanted a party when she turned 14. It was held in a local Italian restaurant, and after dinner the guests played Bingo. According to Alice: "I was afraid the kids would think it was stupid, but they actually loved it and kept begging for 'one more game!' We didn't stop until we ran out of prizes."
For 12- to 16-year-old boys, some variations on sports parties may still be popular, especially the ones that require a level of skill and dexterity. Some boys of this age will also have parties at hi-tech entertainment palaces, although by age 14, most boys will eschew parties of any sort except, perhaps, teen dance parties, karaoke events, or attendance at a sporting event.
Some teenage girls are definitely into large birthday parties, as long as they get to invite boys, and plenty of them! Jennifer Auld, a 15-year-old student at Bowne High School in Flushing, comments, "All my friends have big parties when it's their birthday. You invite maybe 30 or 40 kids, put on a bunch of CDs, and dance all night! We stuff our faces with nachos, pizza, chips, and usually there's an ice-cream cake for dessert." Jennifer says that make-over parties (where girls do one another's hair, make-up and nails) are still popular with some of her friends as well. At these parties, there are rarely decorations (except perhaps a birthday banner), and the gift of choice is usually money, often a crisp $20 bill.
Several 12- and 13-year-olds who have gone to co-ed birthday parties told me about games that are played at these events. One, called 'Truth or Dare', requires guests to answer a series of personal, potentially embarrassing questions, and to "pay a consequence" if the rest of the party attendees decide they have not answered honestly. Another game, similar to the younger child's version of 'Hot Potato', has all the guests standing in a circle, passing a piece of paper from one mouth to another. And if the mouth standing next to you belongs to a cute guy, well, all the better!
Marlene Hogan, a Long Island mom whose two sons are 13 and 19, says, nostalgically, "I miss the days of big birthday parties and Carvel Cakes with Sesame Street characters on them. I look at my two strapping boys, who are turning into young men, and I wonder, 'Where did the time go?'"
And ultimately, that is what birthdays ? and birthday parties ? are all about.