Twelve hours before my daughter’s 5th birthday party, I made a horrible discovery. No, I hadn’t forgotten to pick up the cake or put the wrong time on the invitation. Every decoration, goodie bag, and utensil was accounted for. She simply didn’t want to attend.
This was revealed to me when I came in her room the night before the celebration, after she was supposed to be asleep but clearly wasn’t, to show her my favorite party favor: a sequined mermaid-tail keychain to go with the “Under the Sea” theme. Instead of the excited reaction I was hoping for, she burst into tears. “I don’t want a mermaid party!” she sobbed.
My mind went into a panic: How could that be true? Before I could ask the question out loud, I realized she wasn’t the one who could answer it. I had planned the bulk of the party without her input.
For every child, there comes a point when play dates, birthday parties, and extracurricular activities switch from being parent-driven to child-led. Some kids start to demand complete autonomy earlier than others, and some care more about controlling certain things—their outfits, for instance—than they do about others. It can be frustrating at times to parent a child with an unyielding opinion about what he wants to eat, wear and do every day, but at least there’s no need for parental guesswork.
My middle daughter—the birthday girl in this scenario—is a different sort of animal. She likes everything, and doesn’t seem to love anything. One day she’s into ninjas, the next day unicorns; one day she comes downstairs in tights and a party dress, the next day it’s a stained summer camp t-shirt and gym shorts (usually that day falls sometime in the middle of winter).
I love her free spirit, her self-confidence, and her open-minded approach to new people and activities. But buying gifts or planning a party for her feel like doomed efforts, or at the very least a crapshoot.
So I’ll be honest about the 5th birthday party, which also happened to come at the end of the school year when the amount of activities on the social calendar seems to skyrocket: I took an idea I thought she’d like, and I ran with it. I didn’t stop long enough or frequently enough to make sure she felt a sense of ownership over the event. In short, I screwed up.
I’m relieved to report that this story has a happy ending. My daughter had a blast at her birthday party, even if she largely ignored the mermaid décor (sorry, Pinterest artisans!) in favor of death-defying stunts with her friends on the backyard rope swing.
But I won’t forget the uncomfortable lesson her night-before tears taught me: when it comes to the important events in my kids’ lives, it’s not about me. It’s. Not. About. Me. And even when the days are chaotic and life seems to be moving a mile a minute, I need to slow down long enough to really check in with and listen to them.
So if you’re around next June and you’re up for a Ninja Unicorn 6th birthday party, you know where to find one. Come as you are.