When the last of my children hit their middle school years, I figured my time as a birthday party host — and guest — had wound down to a much-anticipated end. Wrong. As a grandmother and a great-aunt, I’m very much in demand, and this may have more to do with where I live than any particular Martha Stewart skills.
If you have a backyard pool, a few floating toys, a couple of Styrofoam noodles and a year’s supply of sunblock, as I do, your house is prime party real estate, especially during the warm months — which, in Miami, is pretty much year-round.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying this by way of complaint. I love the chaos of a gaggle of 5-year-olds, the smell of coconut lotion and the squeals of kids jumping into cool water on a hot summer day. Few images are as endearing as a baby, in a flouncy swimsuit and a wide-brimmed hat, dipping her toes for the first time by the pool steps.
But my interest in kiddie birthdays tends to the anthropological and gastronomical. B-day bashes, and the attending hoopla, keep me current. They provide a window to the ever-evolving business of children’s entertainment — and expectations.
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Like so many other things in our lives, kids’ birthday parties have grown elaborate. They’re hardly the slapdash effort of my early parenting years. Today’s celebrations are thoroughly planned and superbly choreographed. Few details are left to chance.
I’ve hosted parties that have been catered, and attended one where you could eat as much cotton candy as you wanted. (I did.) At another child shindig, a fabulous food truck was the main attraction, and well worth the investment of a Saturday afternoon. I’m not sure how this fare went over with the children, but it was a hit with the grownups, and maybe they’re the ones who really count.
It wasn’t always like this. In my first go-round of kiddie birthdays, I preferred the low-key and the easy. So did most parents I knew. A home-baked cake with sprinkles was the norm, though I always splurged with one from a Cuban bakery. Kids played pin the tail on the donkey or ripped open a piñata. And if you had a pool as we did, children marinated in the chlorinated water until their fingers and toes looked like prunes. I can still hear the call and response of their favorite game: Marco! . . . Polo!
But that’s all so 20th century.
In this era of global commerce and two-day shipping, birthday parties demand razzle-dazzle. They require creativity and flair, a talent for scouting out the next big theme. No sweat for the young mothers I know, who are very much up to the challenge. I’m constantly amazed at what they pull together: the clever games, the candy stations and table center arrangements, the paid party entertainment that ranges from puppet shows to petting zoos.
I think the upgrade in kids’ parties has everything to do with the democratizing effects of the Internet. Today’s parents have access to Pinterest. They have Etsy. They have Facebook and Amazon and Google and Zulily. YouTube videos aren’t the only things that go viral. So do party ideas that are easy to copy.
Some might lament the passing of old-time birthday parties, and there is something to be said about the simplicity of such social gatherings. But you won’t find a protest in this space. As a grandparent on the birthday party circuit, I’m not responsible for planning or paying. My job is to provide the pool and the appetite. So I say, party on!