Two words that send chills down the spines of parents the world over.
Flashbacks of pineapple and cheese cubes on sticks, skewering a foil-wrapped potato that sits forlornly among homemade trifle, neon crisps and slowly drying crustless sandwiches.
As a parent, you’re determined not to repeat these traumas for your own children.
Months before your child’s birthday, you start to plan, and scrabble around for ideas.
Can’t do that, as so-and-so did it for theirs last year.
Can’t go to such-and-such as it’s already been booked by parents who must love their children more than me!
Thingamy’s parents took them all to a fondue making retreat, and they all talked about it for weeks.
Why not just book a hall and get a bouncy castle? Can’t do that – everyone does that!*
Visions of swimming (you drown), bowling (you get squashed by a giant bowling ball) and lion taming (guess…) haunt your dreams until you wake up screaming, sweat pouring from you in the depths of night, wondering where you’ll find a clown who’s been CRB-checked!
So far, I’ve experienced seven birthdays for my children, and the only real time we’ve gone for a ‘proper’ party option was the boy’s fourth last year.
We’d asked him what he wanted to do for his birthday, and in that magically simplistic way children have, he asked to go and play in the woods.
Seemed fine to me, but Mrs Phil thought it might need more structure/organisation (frivolous things like food, toilets, shelter etc that southerners seem to demand).
Thankfully, Google (other search engines are available) quickly showed us we weren’t a gazillion miles from a farm with a bit of woodland they used for forest schools and parties. Added bonus, they sorted out grub, and even had a mud kitchen for the kids (prompting an embarrassing typo on invite, when I misspelled a request to make sure they bring wellies…).
Anyway, a good time was had by all (or at least everyone was suitable English enough to not say anything to the contrary) and a couple of months later we reverted to having some family coming round for the girl’s second birthday.
This year – following a full year of living down here, him starting school, and having gone to a few parties with friends – we again asked the boy what he fancied doing, and again, he surprised us. This time with ‘camping’.
Now, as this isn’t an ideal group activity for a bunch of four and five year olds and their parents, he was happy for it to be a family-only affair. So, the other week we all piled into a car full of paraphernalia for a few days roughing it in Sussex (must write that up one day) **.
The girl will soon be reaching the ripe old age of three, and as Mrs Phil sorted out camping for the boy, I’ve been tasked with sorting out something for the girl.
This is hard.
Not least because I’ve never been a three year old girl.
I don’t know if this is common, but I do find it tricky to try to entertain the girl. Or at least, I constantly doubt myself whilst doing it.
My default is usually to go silly, or make something, or go outside and run about.
This seems to work ok with the boy, and the girl hasn’t complained, but I do worry that I’m using my own childhood (as a small male human being) as source material.
I’m painfully aware that I’m assuming a small human female will enjoy the same things, and do worry that I’m somehow impairing her healthy development into the brain surgeon/astronaut/captain of industry she should become.
Another of the parenting self-doubts that will continue to fester over coming years.
Whilst a few of her friends at nursery have had parties, I’m not brave enough to have one for her, and – to be fair – she probably wouldn’t get much out of it as she hasn’t quite clicked what birthdays are yet.
Also, she doesn’t have the same temperament as her brother (she is, after all, a different person!).
He had/has obsessions – trains, tractors, Lego, building – that dictate his view of the world and what he wants to do.
She likes anything he’s doing, without really showing any great preferences beyond a mischievous need to wind him up that I should probably discourage more than I actually do.
For example, when I asked her what she wanted for Christmas last year, all she came up with was a red car. Easy enough, and she does like playing with it, but it’s not the first and most important thing in her day like a new train/Lego set would have been for the boy.
She is showing a bit more interest in her dolls, but it feels like that’s more because they’re lying around (they’re an irregular shape so don’t squeeze nicely into storage spaces like a box of something) rather than a burning desire to play with them.
She does like taking out the boy’s cars and playing with them, and likes trying to draw/paint/stick, but that’s not filling me with ideas for a day of family fun other than perhaps volunteering at a car spraying shop (which would be awesome, but Google tells me it isn’t an actual thing).
In reality, I’m sure she won’t mind what we do, though that won’t stop me worrying about whether we’re giving her the supportive childhood we’d like her to have.
The fact I’m worrying is in itself reassuring, as I’d rather that than not be doubting myself constantly. At least by worrying I know I’m thinking about it, and genuinely want to try to give my children a good start in life.
Whether it’s working or not, only time will tell.
I guess I just have to find reassurance in the fact that I try, and that my children seem to be happy when they’re spending time with us, no matter how clueless I sometimes feel.
Thankfully, that does seem to be enough for them, which I guess is a good thing. If they grow up thinking it’s better to do things together, rather than being spoiled with things – enjoy our presence, more than presents – I’ll take that as a sign I might have done something right, and that’s not nothing.
Though, no doubt I’ll be spending the next few days/weeks waking up with a cold sweat from a nightmare where my youngest has skewered me with a giant cocktail stick onto a bouncy castle, while criticising me for not understanding her needs as a young girl, before driving off in a big red car.
* There’s a reason everyone does that – kids love it and it’s nice and straightforward
** Really wasn’t very rough. Like I said, I’ll write it up at some point.