Follow this advice to throw a party — without letting it throw you!
It's your child's party, not yours. The best way to make your child's birthday party a success is to let the guest of honor help plan the festivities. Even the youngest children express preferences that can guide you toward a theme — the one-year-old who loves to bark like a dog will giggle at a puppy party, the truck-loving two-year-old will be geared up for a transportation party. Older children will have definite ideas about what they want to see at their party. And while you shouldn't let them make all the decisions, consulting your child will make the process more enjoyable for all. Older children may have as much fun writing the invitations and planning the menu as they do at the big event itself.
Invite the right number of guests. The old rule of thumb is that the number of guests should equal the age of the child (a four-year-old, for example, would invite four children). Like most old rules, there's some truth to this advice. Young children in particular are hard to organize and can get overwhelmed easily so it's best to keep the number of guests small. Just because Megan and Ryan invited your child to their party doesn't mean you have to invite them to yours. If you're concerned about reciprocating, set up separate play dates rather than trying to invite over every child in the class for cake and games.
Keep 'em busy. There's no force more destructive than a pack of unoccupied children. Channel their boundless energy (before they destroy your house) into appropriate activities. It's better to prepare more activities than you think you need so you won't be left with idle kids running around your living room. Planning more than you need also allows you to move on from an activity that the children don't like or can't handle. If, however, the guests like a particular activity more than you expected, by all means let them keep playing it (the point is for them to have fun rather than to get through an order of ceremonies).
Start with a low-key game that kids can play as they arrive and get comfortable with one another. Some will come early, others late — so it's best to keep the initial activities open ended. If you have chosen a theme, consider beginning with a dress-up box (anything from princess scarves to superhero capes will work). Move on to more organized games and activities and then serve food to help the guests wind down. Be sure to leave time at the end to say thank-you and pass out party favors (if you decide to offer them).
Plan age-appropriate activities. Remember your audience. You might think a clown or a magician will delight any crowd but your toddler may not agree. Kids under four may be frightened or just plain bored by costumed performers.
Sometimes old-fashioned games work best for the youngest children. Pin the Tail on the Donkey and Simon Says sound uninspired, but four-year olds may be discovering them for the first time. You can always give these old favorites a new twist by making them fit your theme: Pin the Eye Patch on the Pirate will be a hit with the right audience. Throw in a treasure hunt and you've got a pirate party. Older children will be ready for simple crafts like making pirate hats or treasure boxes.
Make a kid-friendly menu. If you've followed all of this advice and still hear a few whines at the party, you'll know it's time to eat! Cakes are usually the centerpiece of the birthday table, but you should have other provisions available. Young children may shriek with glee at the site of cake but, once it's served, may remember that they don't like chocolate. Be sure to have a few flavors of ice cream to satisfy picky eaters.
If you want to serve a small meal, keep the offerings simple. As with all aspects of the party, your job isn't to impress other parents but to delight your child and his guests. Familiar snacks like pizza or sandwiches work well. If these seem too mundane for your fiesta, jazz them up by using cookie cutters to make star-shaped sandwiches or heart-shaped pizza. If parents are dropping off children at the party, be sure you know about any food allergies. It's best to avoid anything with nuts (including peanut butter sandwiches) because so many children are allergic to them.