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Man of the House

When Dad Plans a Birthday

Pin the tail on the what? Our favorite primary caregiver learns the hard way that the best parties are the ones kids plan themselves.

Written By Nick Morton
Illustration Adam Nickel

Five generations ago the last introvert born into my wife’s family or mine died what was presumably a lonely death and left in their wake a legacy of socialites, gossip columnists, debutantes and escorts puking into the palms at the Plaza Hotel. My wife, Marie, and I are no exception. In our early days in L.A., we took the New Age dictum, “Be the change you’d like to see,” and applied it to our social lives: Throw the party you’d like to attend.

On my wife’s very first try at organizing — a crowded kegger replete with Jello shots made from Everclear — she managed somehow to pull Matthew McConaughey in off the street. It was an auspicious beginning. It’s no wonder that when our children arrived we hurled ourselves into throwing their parties with equal vigor. Sadly, though, I’ve learned through a series of painful missteps some key lessons about event planning for kids.

Our first few birthdays were homespun affairs. I’d man the grill while Marie made cupcakes and organized some form of kids’ entertainment, such as a hippie face painter who could also play guitar. Strong bloody marys marked the events, which were more a celebration of our dubious ability to keep the children alive than of the children themselves. The requisite goody bag might be a t-shirt you made on the spin-art machine set up in the back yard.

About 7 years ago, things changed when my wife’s career took off. While she set about winning Emmys for her work as a costume designer in film and TV, I was suddenly yanked from behind the grill and thrust into the role of party planner to our two young kids, Waller, then 2, and Georgia, 4. I quickly learned that kids’ birthday parties fall into two basic types: home and away. I started out with home ones assuming it would be easy to pull together the same kind of bespoke experience their mom had arranged, but I was not up to all the brutal minutiae that goes with the task.

"Ask a kid to throw a fairy party in the woods, and they hang a piece of fabric from a stick and call it a castle. Ask an adult, and you get Sean Parker spending $1.2 million to recreate Lord of the Rings in Big Sur."

After booking a juggler who couldn't juggle, the following year I splurged and got the most expensive Little Mermaid you could hire. At first glance, this Disney Princess looked legit. She arrived in the arms of a burly Prince Eric, and she was wearing nothing but a fishtail and coconut shell bra. Her confusion was palpable but quickly resolved itself into relief as I heard her whisper to her muscle, “It’s a kid’s birthday party!”

On top of these missteps, I discovered that hosting kids’ parties still triggered all the same high school social anxiety normal adult parents are meant to have conquered. It is stressful having a classroom full of toddlers and their parents traipse through your house, judging your broken-down kitchen that is little more than a water source and a fire pit. Every no-show feels like an affront. What do these mean girls have against my perfect angel? And worse, what do these power-hungry parents have against me? I mean, is Busy Phillips throwing a party for her kid right now or something? Inevitably, my feelings would be bruised, and I’d take it out on the entertainment either brusquely bossing them around or welching on their tip. Then again, $475 to haul some dirty crates of Matchbox cars out of a creepy van and set them up on ramps in my driveway? You’re lucky we don’t call the cops.

I soon decided you could save money and stress if you left your house and opted for a package deal: a place where the kids would get fed and entertained, cake would be provided and the hosts didn't need to lift a finger. Where to find this? Where else but American Girl? It was priced per-head, so I booked a small table and sent a passive aggressive email to all the parents encouraging them not to attend.

“Just drop your daughters off and use the free time to knock out some holiday shopping at the mall!” No one took the hint. Soon the table for six had ballooned to 30, and the entire private patio overlooking the upscale Grove’s synchronized water fountain had been reserved, missteps that hadn’t happened since the Sultan of Brunei celebrated his daughter’s sixth birthday there. Still, the production value was high and in two hours it would all be over. It felt like a bargain — until I watched in horror as every kid at the table ordered themselves a frozen hot chocolate at $18 a pop. This I could not afford, and I chased the waiter into the kitchen, canceled the drinks and explained to the irate 7-year-olds that I’d bought a package deal, so they’d better just enjoy their complimentary pink lemonades and trays of tea sandwiches and petit fours!

Unfortunately, while I was putting out this brush fire, a four-alarm blaze erupted at the grown-up table next door, and it was beyond my capacity to contain. One rowdy parent ordered a chardonnay, and then the floodgates opened. I felt my bowels slip as the waiter took orders for bloody marys, pink champagnes and dirty martinis. Mind you, we’re in L.A., and it’s 2 p.m. Everyone here has to drive home. Someone even opted to relive their childhood and ordered themselves a frozen hot chocolate. “18 bucks!” I thought as I watched my kids’ college funds drain in a flood of over-priced booze served up in a pink café. It was brutal.

"The first request from my now 8-year-old daughter was a 'prank war' and my wife hated the idea. It was too much work, she thought, and aren’t little girls mean enough already? Other parents would be pissed."

But it taught me something important: Kids are expensive, but adults have expensive taste. Ask a kid to throw a fairy party in the woods, and they hang a piece of fabric from a stick and call it a castle. Ask an adult, and you get Sean Parker spending $1.2 million to recreate Lord of the Rings in Big Sur. (You can look this up if you’re curious.) So, what would happen if I just let my beloved, imaginative lunatics run the asylum? Instead of trying to curate the perfect kid experience, why not let Georgia and Waller do whatever mad thought bounced into their crazy brains? Surely, it could be no worse than a battalion of stressed-out parents running up your bar tab at a restaurant built for high-priced dolls.

The first request from my now 8-year-old daughter was a “prank war,” and my wife hated the idea. It was too much work, she thought, and aren’t little girls mean enough already? Other parents would be pissed. Nonetheless, I persisted. Kids were split into two teams and armed with kits to create such classics as Twinkies filled with mayonnaise, exploding coffee cups and ketchup-flavored Slurpees. Not only did no adults want to participate but the only goodie bag that went home with the kids was their own tale of daring-do. And guess what? The whole thing cost about $36.

Since then, the kids have been allowed to have their parties catered by any restaurant in the city. Have you tried Popeyes mac-n-cheese? Yum. Waller has had cakes made from grocery store cookies and Korean donuts. For Georgia, we discovered that the “spa-quality face masks” from your local 99 cent store are as good as anything at a salon and so easy to apply that even the most sausage-fingered father can become a “facialist” overnight. Why book a suite at Great Wolf Lodge for a destination birthday when afterward kids only remember all the hijinks in the hotel room at night? Spare yourself the drive AND the anxiety about mysterious effluent in the water and just haul every mattress in the house down from the bedrooms upstairs, pile them in front of the television and you’re done!

In time, of course, this all will change, and the cruel reality of budgets will put its cramp on adolescent visions of a skybox and backstage passes. In the meantime, though, it turns out kids don’t need a trompe l'oeil face painter to make them feel like a giraffe. Their imagination does that. And in the process, their old man looks like a guy who will do just about anything for his kids which, in fact, is almost true — as long as it’s cheap!

Nick Morton is a film and TV producer living in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @mortonopoulis.