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.
PARTIES FOR PRE-TEEN GIRLS (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.
Party planner Linda Kaye, owner of Linda Kaye's Party Makers in Manhattan, which serves the tri-state area, has a plethora of party suggestions. Kaye is a mother of a grown son and daughter and a grandmother to four, giving her much personal as well as professional party planning experience.
"Tween girls have very definite ideas about what they want for a party," Kaye says. “It’s important though—and this is also true for the parents of teens—for the parents to work with their daughters and offer direction.”
Sometimes the perfect party may be just having a few friends over for a sleepover, Kaye says, which is always popular among tweens. “Pair a sleepover with a fun activity, such as having the girls make their own mystery movie, and you’ve got the makings of a fun and creative party.” A home spa party is another option, or you can try setting up a spa party at your local salon, so the kids can enjoy amenities you may not have on hand at home.
On the more lavish side, party ideas for tween girls can include those at a theater or dance studio. “The backstage experience can be really exciting, and usually a production’s public relations department can arrange for a small group of about five or six to meet the cast afterwards,” she says. Also, if there is a birthday in November or December, parents can arrange for a special dance class with the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall, she says.
Some other 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 local 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 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: Zumba or other dance class 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 FOR PRE-TEEN BOYS (ages 9-12)
Parties for 9- 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:
Action-themed parties: “Boys like adventure and team playing,” Kaye says. “Anything from a scavenger hunt at home or through the city is fun.” Visiting a museum or some kind of science activity are always options, as well as going bowling or to a sports game, she adds.
Sports parties: Everything from basketball to miniature golf, soccer, 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.
"Hi-tech" parties: Activities may include laser tag, hyperspace simulators, and virtual reality games such as virtual skiing or motorcycle racing.
A magician or appropriate arts and crafts activities, either at or outside the home, are also good options for tween boys and girls. Trend-wise, Kaye says that karaoke parties for both tweens and teens usually meet with success. “Many kids prefer going outside the home for parties as opposed to having them at home,” she says. But if you do host a party in your home, Kaye suggests inviting a friend or two over to help you chaperone.
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 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.
Independence and Individuality
Liza Burby, former publisher of Long Island Parent magazine, a Long Island resident, and mom to two grown daughters, says parties for this age range don’t have to be elaborate, but it’s key to keep in mind that teen girls and boys want their own autonomy. “Teens want the freedom to make their own plans. However, it’s important for the parents to help with budgeting and decision-making. As a parent, you don’t want to be intrusive, yet you need to draw a line at a certain point.”
Burby says that attending a movie as part of a birthday always appeals to both tweens and teens. “The theme of the party really depends upon the child and his or her preferences,” she says. “For example, my older daughter always liked very girly parties, and my younger daughter preferred something science-themed.”
Mixing Girls and Boys
Some aspects of party planning involve tact and negotiation among parents, children—especially teens—and their peers. Bernadette Montalvo, a Long Island resident and mom to two girls ages 9 and 13, says that mixing boys and girls, especially in the teen years, requires adequate supervision. “It’s important to keep plenty of parents around and make sure you have distractions for the kids. Games and dancing are always good ideas, especially for tweens.”
Burby says her daughters had mixed gender parties as they got older, but there were clear boundaries in place. “I would frequently check on them, say, if they were watching a movie [downstairs],” she says. “They knew if I flicked the light once that I’d be coming down. I gave them leeway and trusted them, although they knew I was a presence.”
A Note on Social Media
Burby says she believes girls use social media as “social currency” more than boys do, in terms of who is invited to a party and who is not. “Tweens tend to do it to feel grown up,” she says. “I think parents should make their children aware that publicizing a party on Facebook or Twitter, for example, can have some people feeling left out.” If a tween or teen wants to invite friends online, Burby says, the parents should still get in touch.
Montalvo says she has used Facebook invites for her children’s parties in the past, and she suggests setting privacy controls on who can see the event page. She also suggests speaking to your children about how they feel if they don’t get invited to a party. “I have told my kids that they can't be invited every time, so if they aren’t invited to a party it doesn’t seem like much of a blow to them,” she says.
Setting Ground Rules
Keeping a party within certain parameters is key to its success. “Parents very often doubt themselves and their instincts when it comes to setting boundaries for their children,” says Nicholas Strouse, LCSW, director and clinician at Westport Family Counseling in Connecticut. “It’s vital for parents to be models for their kids for healthy boundaries. For example, if parents draw the line at their kids advertising a party on Facebook, that’s okay. Arguing with a child in the end won’t be as destructive as throwing the wrong kind of party because uninvited guests show up.”
For teens, Kaye says, a non-intrusive way to ensure that no alcohol or illegal substances make their way into a party is to have a “clever coat check.” “The parent can take coats, bags, and backpacks, bring them to an inaccessible place, and give the kids matching cards to claim their items when they leave,” she says. They might even have a contest at the end where one of the guests can claim a prize while getting his or her belongings.
Kate Vivanco, Ed.M., LCSW, says it is imperative for parents to first pick out the positives when their kids share party ideas. “It’s also very important for parents to go over with their kids how they will handle certain situations if they come up,” she says. “For example, if anyone acts up or brings alcohol or drugs, their parents will be called and they will be asked to leave.” Vivanco said that with teens, situations can get out of control rather quickly. “That’s why I emphasize letting your children know that responsible adults will be at the party and that it’s non-negotiable,” she says.
A birthday party, above all, is an opportunity for both teens and tweens to have fun. “It’s so important for kids, in middle or high school, to be kids and enjoy themselves,” Burby says. “It’s okay even for high school kids to have that mix of ‘little kid’ fun and sophistication at their parties. After all, it’s a relatively small window of time before they become full-fledged adults.”