My Four-Year-Old Hated His Birthday Party – And So Did I

June is my favorite and busiest time of the year because it’s when both of my kids were born and it’s when we throw each one a party. This year was particularly meaningful as my baby boy was turning four – a momentous birthday because, in my mind, it marks the transition from clumsy toddler to “big kid.” So I got it in my head that this birthday had to be extra special, the one he’d never forget.

In the past, my child’s birthday parties were mostly backyard affairs consisting of close family and friends, a couple of balloons and a cake. So, on the occasion of his fourth birthday, I was torn over who to invite and what type of activity or venue to book. My son’s in preschool but he also has friends outside of his class. I asked some other parents what they did for their children’s birthday parties and I got a whole slew of answers. Some told their children they could choose a small number of friends, some kept it to just family, some made only boy or girl parties. But the advice I liked best, at the time, was to just ask my son who he wanted to invite. So I did.

My son is sweet, gentle and friendly, and he wants to make people happy. I didn’t consider this before asking him the question that would become the biggest stress of my life since his non-sleeping infancy. “I want all of my friends to come because I love them all,” was his response.

My heart swelled with pride that my darling boy hadn’t yet fallen into the party power game that most kids seem to play. Birthday parties are instruments of control, especially at preschool. I was thrilled that he had no interest in the cruel teasing words, “You can’t come to my birthday party. You’re not my friend.” Once my initial reaction of motherly pride quickly wore off, however, I was in deep trouble.

If we were to invite all of his preschool friends, all of his friends outside school, and our friends’ kids, we would be throwing the biggest birthday party ever. I hate to admit it, but that’s exactly what we did. Where do you throw a party that huge? In an indoor play gym, of course. Those fantastic, gigantic rooms filled with slides, ball pits and  trampolines. My kids and I have always had the best time at these indoor playgrounds when it’s too hot or too cold to be outdoors. So I knew I’d found the perfect venue.

For months, I made lists, endless phone calls and shopping trips. I wrote invitations not once, but twice, because one of the kids in my son’s preschool class got so excited over his Lightning McQueen invitation that he ripped open everyone else’s, too. And then mixed them all up. When we started getting the responses, we were stunned that almost everyone said yes. All 25 kids were coming. And with each of those 25 kids would be at least one parent. “No problem,” I thought. “The more the merrier.” How utterly wrong I was.

On the day of his party, I was excited but also nervous and stressed. (Whenever I plan a party, I nearly break out in hives worrying that I’ve forgotten something and hoping that everyone has a good time.) This year, I’d outdone myself. My boy was getting exactly what he wanted. The massive Spiderman cake, enough pepperoni pizza to feed the more than 60 people who were coming, Cars-themed cups, plates and napkins, and enough crap to ensure a very hyper group of children. It was going to be the best party ever!

After about 30 minutes of 25 children and their parents – along with our family and friends – all stuffed into a massive concrete room filled with treacherous bouncy castles, neck-breaking slides and deadly ball pits, I heard crying. And then more crying. And some screams. My son, his sweaty red face covered in orange Cheetos dust, was bawling because some kid or another had landed on his head, stepped on his hand and pushed him down. And he wanted to go home.

I thought I was doing a good thing by bringing together all of the kids and parents from his preschool. I thought that I was making my son a day he would remember. But when he’d stopped crying long enough to talk, I asked him if he liked his birthday party. The answer broke my heart: “No, I don’t like this party. There are too many people.”

The parents and kids who attended my party fiasco have all told me how great it was. And everyone certainly seemed to enjoy themselves. Except for the most important person there: my son. I have a learned a few valuable parenting lessons. Never ask your child who they want to invite to their party, never try to make the biggest party ever and never ever cram that many children into one hot, over-stimulating room.

I wish I’d been someone who innately knew to keep kids’ parties low-key. There’s an old saying that the child’s age should correspond to the number of kids in attendance. Four would have been lovely. Next year, we’ll do something small and intimate that he will remember forever: maybe five friends, a movie, tubs of popcorn and not a trampoline or ball pit in sight.

(Photo: Jupiterimages)

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