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Hosting a birthday party for your beloved child sounds like straightforward fun, right? But, before you realise it, you’ve got yourself into a party predicament. Here are solutions to three party puzzles.

We asked three child development experts to share their views on birthday party issues such as whether to throw your multiples a birthday party each, when to start throwing your little darling a proper party, and whether it’s really such a good idea to jump on the fairy or pirate party bandwagon.

Find ideas for birthday parties here

Twin Problems

“I’m never sure whether I should be throwing them individual parties. I  always land up doing one big bash, even though I suspect it may be better for them as individuals to host a party on their own,” confides Sue, mother of eight-year-old twins. These bashes also pose something of a problem for guests, who are never sure what the correct protocol is when it comes to giving gifts to twins. Should they both get the same gift? If I give them different gifts, will one be more popular, leaving the other child feeling cheated?

What the expert says

Educational psychologist Melanie Hartgill says: “Each child is entitled to individual attention and acknowledgment on their birthday to ensure that they develop as individuals. You will never alter the unique bond that twins have, but they should be respected as individuals, nevertheless.”

Hartgill says it’s far easier for parents to host one party for multiples, because it cuts down on costs and planning. “Research suggests that this is fine for young children, but from the age of five or so, it may be necessary to consider including individual elements within the party,” she advises. “They will likely have different friends from school and may have different interests that could dictate the specific theme.”

If you do have one party, individualise the day for each child by ensuring they each have their own cake, blow out their own candles and make their own wishes, and  also have Happy Birthday sung to them separately, suggests Hartgill.  “For very young children, you could have one cake and individual candles,” she adds.

What about gifts

And as for the gifting dilemma? “Of course, this depends very much on the personalities involved.  Gifts should always be individual unless they are from a family member or close friends and the gift is significant, like a sand pit or a Wendy house for both of them.  Generally, it is easier to give children under the age of five the same or very similar gifts, like a doll each, that they can swap and share.

Read more about how to host a birthday party at home

When is it party time?

“We spent a fortune on Matt’s first birthday party and afterwards I wondered if we had been mad to do it,” admits his father, Neil. He wasn’t the only one wondering that. Those of us who watched the one-year-old’s meltdown a mere hour into proceedings, were not nearly as surprised as his parents.

What the expert says

Counselling psychologist Ingrid Ahlert says that parents who throw extravagant shindigs for children too young to comprehend that their toes are part of their own bodies are not uncommon.

“Many parents feel the pressure from family and friends to throw a perfect, original and enriching party, and some see the party as a reflection on themselves. They imagine that a flashy party will be an indication of what caring parents they are,” she observes.  “They extend themselves further than they really wish to, and may also use the birthday party to compensate for feelings of guilt about not spending enough time with their children.

“Children younger than three will hardly remember the commercial aspect of how their party was planned and celebrated. They just need a colourful cake, bunting and streamers to get excited and raise their spirits. A toddler will be very happy to simply play with gift-wrapping paper. Large crowds and loud music will only be upsetting for your child and definitely won’t entertain him or her,” she explains. “Parties for one-year-olds are realistically simply a party for the adults.”

Keep it simple and sensible

But parents can still use the first birthday as an occasion to mark the year, just do it sensibly. “Make sure you plan the party between your child’s nap times and don’t upset your child’s routine. Keep the party under an hour and a half because one-year-old children get overstimulated and cranky very quickly. Be flexible: there will be tears and unscheduled rests, and you will have to go with the flow.

Only invite relatives, the most special friends and a maximum of three other babies. Keep it at a manageable size because you will also still have to care for your little one,” says Ahlert.

Fancy that

“I’m dashing off to the costume-hire place. Another damn fairy party. I could have bought three by now with what I’ve paid in hiring costs,” laments Jen. “What happened to imagination and open fancy dress and making t yourself?”

She has a point, I mostly only see dozens of similarly attired pirates or pink, sequin-bespangled fairies all jostling to get at the cake in the neighbourhood park, and I can’t help wondering whether these children are missing out.

What the expert says

Play therapist and psychometrist Helene van Niekerk says: “With dress-up parties it is important that parents involve their children in the decision-making,” she says. “Parents should not decide what costume a child must wear, but rather let the child decide who they want to ‘be’. This gives children a sense of control and teaches them to take responsibility for the decisions they make.

“Giving choices also facilitates the development of the child’s own identity. If a child finds it difficult to make a decision, a parent can make suggestions or give the child options, but it’s really beneficial to give children the opportunity to make their own final choice.”

Make it yourself

Van Niekerk also says that making a costume with the child from oddments around the house is a great way to involve them and a fun way to spend time together. “The end product might not be perfect, but will give you and your child a sense of achievement and pride. The process of spending time with your child and creating something with him or her is more important than the finished product,” she advises.

But that’s not to say that themed parties are “bad”, and nor is it to say that hiring a costume from a professional rental company is detrimental. It’s more a case of them being wasted opportunities for parent-child bonding and creative expression.

“Parents can use the chosen dress-up character as a tool to help the child discover more about him or herself,” adds Helene. “For example, if your boy chooses to be Spider-Man, you could ask him what characteristics of Spider-Man he finds appealing. If he says he likes the fact that Spider-Man helps other people, you could ask him if he also likes to help people. You could also engage in a conversation while your child is wearing the costume to encourage imaginary play and their expression of wishes or ideas.”

Laura Twiggs