It’s your child’s birthday and you love planning parties. Your house is decked out in decorations themed around your child’s current obsession. You’ve even specially ordered your child a shirt that matches the theme. The house looks great, and your guests start arriving. Some of them you haven’t seen in months, and it’s so good to see them again!
It’s time for cake! You bring a gorgeously decorated cake into the kitchen with lit candles and you put it in front of your child. Everyone begins to loudly and excitedly sing Happy Birthday.
Oh no…you see “that” look on your child’s face.
They sink down in their chair, and before you know it, they are hiding under the table. You coax them out and say, “That’s okay. Cake can wait.”
You move onto presents. First, you have to find the optimal present opening spot in your living room, somewhere everyone can see your child opening their gifts. Your child begins to unwrap the first gift. They look at it, make a face, drop it on the floor and start crying. They refuse to say, “thank you” and you can feel yourself turning red from embarrassment, while promising party guests that you have taught your child manners.
Does this sound at all familiar? Let’s flip this story to the perspective of the child.
You wake up from your nap, and your house looks different. There are balloons, food, and other decorations everywhere, and it’s a lot of new sensory information for your brain to take in.
Normally after nap you’d get to watch Mickey Mouse and have a snack, but not today.
Your parents are hurriedly decorating and cleaning. Your mom shoves a shirt over your head. It’s scratchy and it doesn’t have a dump truck on it, which is a first-level offense in your book. People start coming in through the front door. There are a lot of adults you don’t recognize.
Everyone stares at you as your mom puts a flaming cake right in your face. You know what you’re supposed to do. Just blow out the candles. But everyone is singing so loudly and it hurts your ears. You just want to hide, so you crawl under the table.
Your mom coaxes you out before you’re ready to move on.
She sits you on the uncomfortable fireplace hearth and surrounds you with brightly colored packages. Again, everyone is looking at you. Your mom hands you the first gift. You know that what you really really want for your birthday is a fishing pole. There is one somewhere in that pile, but it’s not the first gift.
Instead you open a game you’ve never seen before. All you know about that game is that it’s definitely NOT a fishing pole. You throw the game, begin to cry, and you refuse to say thank you. Your mom begins to make excuses for your behavior and you hear every single word of what is being said. “He’s shy.” “He might have performance anxiety.” “I don’t know why he acts this way.”
This is an actual account of one of my son’s birthday parties. When the guests left, I was so embarrassed by my son’s behavior towards people who had carefully picked out gifts for him and carved out time in their weekend to come and celebrate. The screaming toddler wasn’t mentioned in all the Pinterest posts I had pinned.
That’s when I realized that just because I like planning parties, didn’t mean my son liked being the center of attention at a party he didn’t ask for.
One year later, we set ourselves up for a successful party. We invited friends over and had fun party snacks and cake, but we didn’t sing Happy Birthday. No one cared. We played fun games and the kids got good and dirty playing in our yard. We had even more time for the kids to play because we didn’t open presents. Again, no one cared. We opened presents after the party was over. He loved every gift and we sent photos and thank you notes to friends. No one cared that we didn’t open gifts at the party, because they know my son. They know what he likes and doesn’t like, and they love him. They wanted him to have a fun day, just like I did. They were there to celebrate him, and give him a day of what he wanted to do, not force him into following social norms.
If you have found your child in tears and yourself embarrassed after your child’s birthday parties, go back and analyze what happened. Find what didn’t work, and change it!