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Party animus

I was supremely tickled by Lynn's comment the other day, when she mentioned a book called Your Four-Year-Old: Wild and Wonderful.  See, I happen to have that book.  It's part of a set, one that was given to me by my sister-in-law when Ben was born.  It is hard not to suspect that there was some disagreeable motive behind the gift; this is, after all, the woman who said, when I mentioned I'd had a hard time emotionally during Charlie's first several months, "Yes, I could tell you had difficulty bonding with him."  Not what I said, but okay!  Thanks for the eight printed volumes of confidence in our parenting!

But whatever her intent, I actually had the books for years 3 and 4 on my desk when I read Lynn's comment.  I had consulted them because in each there's a whole chapter devoted to a difficult issue, one that stumps me utterly.  But then I realized I need not confront this problem alone.  I could ask my friends inside the computer!  After all, you've helped me through so many tough times already; I have every reason to trust in your collective experience, wisdom, and exquisite sensitivity.

So I humbly ask your advice: What the hell am I going to do about Charlie's fourth birthday party?  You know, the celebration of the milestone upon which he abruptly begins being wild and wonderful (and apparently, according to the cover photo, liberally coated in Cheeto powder)…


…and ceases to be the unfathomable chimera who has plagued our last 365 days:


(Friend or enemy.  Honestly.  How much can the authors possibly know about child development when it is clear to even the layperson that an innocent three-year-old cannot be anyone's enemy?  Now if they'd said unstoppable arch-nemesis, perhaps.  Three-Year-Old: Threat or Menace?  Three-Year-Old: Satan's Fresh-Faced Li'l Buddy.  Three-Year-Old: Sleep with One Eye Open If You Want to Wake Up with Both Kidneys.  Fine.  But friend or enemy?  Please.  On my enemies list, Charlie doesn't even break the top ten.  Rest easy, Ming Ming.  Your spot at the top is unchallenged.)

Anyway,  I've never thrown a party for Charlie before.  Because his birthday falls so close to Thanksgiving — and indeed on the holiday itself this year — we've been able to avoid it thus far.  But I think he's old enough now to enjoy and appreciate a party (where by "appreciate" I mean "notice it's occurring" and not the more mature "feel gratitude towards those who've offered it").

Here is the problem: The only successful parties I have ever thrown have involved hard liquor, group sex, or both.  Obviously I need your help.

How many children to invite?  Is it awful not to include all the kids in his day care group?  Do I need a theme, beyond "eat junk and wreck things"?  What about "let's all be quiet and play like we're mimes"?  How long should the party last?  Is half an hour adequate?  What time of day is best?  Games?  Do I need games?  If so, do you think they'd like bridge?  Am I obliged to provide anything to eat beyond a communal buttercream lick set in the center of the floor?  And!  The goody bag!  Which I hate with such passion, in fact, that I'm going to go ahead and give The Jackass Who Invented Goody Bags a spot on my enemies list.  (Ming Ming better watch her downy back.)  Do I have to provide one at all?  If so, do I have to send the guests home with a sack full of plasticky crap, or can I just let each kid choose something from the silverware drawer?  And presents — oh, God, presents.  I've read so much conflicting advice on presents — open at the party; don't open at the party; request that no gifts be brought; what are you, some kind of crazy person who hates children and is crazy? — that I am profoundly flummoxed.  Maybe I'll avoid the issue entirely and tell people it's a wake.

Really obviously I need your help.

Please tell me everything I need to know about throwing a birthday party for a four-year-old.  I want it to be wild and wonderful, just as I'm told he will be, as soon as he stops being my implacable, invincible foe.