Birthday Parties, Paris Style

This is going to sound awful, but I have long felt that kids’ birthday parties are an especially acute form of torture.

Not our own kids’ parties, of course, but other peoples’ kids’ parties.

Exceptions to this rule include: 1) If the birthday boy or girl is a relative. 2) If the birthday kid’s parents are already your friends. 3) Actually, that’s it. Just two exceptions.

C’mon, admit it. You know I’m right.

The absolute worst are the “daycare friends” parties when the children are very young, like two, three and sometimes even four. They are too young to interact successfully and the parents (who are virtual strangers) spend the whole agonizing time trying to get the kids to “play together” and act like they have any idea what’s going on. Meanwhile, we’re left grasping for conversation, invariably falling back on scintillating questions like, “How old is he?” and “When are you due?”

These parties lead to helicopter parenting at its worst as we hover over our offspring for some conversational relief. We anxiously await the arrival of cake and secretly hope there will be enough for us to have a slice before we can leave and actually enjoy the what’s left of the weekend.

Why do these parties always require parents to stay for the duration? Don’t we trust one another to look after our child for an hour or two?

No? Didn’t think so.

In France, however — as with so many aspects of parenting — they do birthday parties differently. And on this one, they’ve got it figured out.

Here’s how to throw a birthday party for the under-six set, a la francaise.

Pas de parents: Parents are not expected to stay, nor are you invited to. You arrive at the designated hour — invariably at the child’s home — and drop off your little one. This is true whether you “know” the parents or not. You might exchange brief pleasantries with the parents whose names you may (or more likely may not) know. “La maman de Cole” or Luc or Pierre, usually suffices. (More on that later)

Number of guests = Number of years: A French parent would not dream of inviting a dozen three-year-olds to their child’s party. First of all, it would be too much to handle, resulting in a need to include parents (see rule above). I’ve been told that French parents often limit the number of guests to the number of birthdays. Not all parents stick to this but it’s a reasonable goal.

Hire an Entertainer! As a mother who has tried to “entertain” groups of preschool party-goers, (“Are these kids having any fun?” “Honey, where’s the camera?” “Why is Cole crying?” “Should I get out some more games??”), I have a particular fondness for this tradition. Why should we go nuts trying to entertain kids (and their parents) when you can hire a professional, costumed animateur to do it for you? For about 150 euro, a chevalier, princess or pirate will come to your home and guide your child and her pals through three hours of dancing, treasure hunting, face-painting, pinata whacking and gift opening. By the end, it’s actually the kids who are exhausted. Imagine!

Wear costumes: Costumes at French birthday parties are de rigeur. The child chooses his or her theme and guests arrive bedecked and ready to celebrate. It sets a festive tone and gets some extra mileage out of the duds in the dress-up bin. I once ferried Cole to a friend’s home for a pirate-theme party only to be greeted at the door by his slightly sauced maman sporting an eye patch and a hearty glass of chardonnay. (For this one, I ignored the rules and stayed awhile..)

Open les cadeaux: I’m not sure when this tradition went out in the States. Why don’t kids open gifts at parties anymore? Wasn’t group gift opening always a party highlight when you were a kid? And not just for the recipient but the gift-giver, too. Kids here always open gifts together, thank each other on the spot and guests go home with bon bon filled goodie bags.

Thank you notes? No, thank you: Of all the traditions that are different here in France, this shocked and delighted me the most. For some reason I have yet to understand, you will not receive a thank you note for a child’s birthday gift. The French are, in most ways, scrupulously attentive to rules of politesse (brusk waiters and civil servants notwithstanding) so this one just makes me happy. One less thing to do after a grueling fete with a dozen six year olds.

As the French say, “c’est top!”


6 thoughts on “Birthday Parties, Paris Style

  1. I have two boys- ages 8 and 12. I have the at home birthday party perfected.

    First- have it be for 1.5 hours – NO LONGER!

    Second- one kid for each year…

    Third – open presents as kids come- some are always later than others and it is not often that all arrive at the same moment. This way, the birthday kid gets to open presents more or less one at a time and actually be excited about each one. Then all the kids who are there get to sort of play with the already opened gifts as the birthday boy opens more. This generally takes about 30 min.

    Fourth – For the next 20 – 30 minutes I have an organized activity – can be a simple as playing Wii, or pin the tail on the donkey, or if they are really little, just playing in someone else's playroom with all the other kids is enough. Or doing the pinata thing (where I put in a lot of the junk my kids get in other birthday party gift bags that they never play with and some candy). This candy etc serves as a gift bag.

    Fifth – For the last 30 min, they gather around a table and have cake and ice cream.

    Sixth- have the party from 3:30-5. That way, in case a parent insists on staying, it seems late enough in the day to offer them a glass of wine!

    But I am sure all of this is more fun if the little ones are speaking french!

  2. Spot on summary of French birthday parties. There is quite a jolly circle of the *slightly sauced* getting themselves through those couple of hours.

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