A Peanut Hunt: A Dad's Amusing Diary of Preschool Parties

By Rick Epstein

A dozen 5-year-olds were upstairs in our house running from room to room, screaming and bumping into things. My wife Betsy's vigilance had slipped momentarily and Marie's birthday party had spun out of control. As helpful as a fly-on-the-wall, I followed Betsy as she ran briskly up the stairs. One of the smaller kids lay on the threshold of our bedroom, overwrought, crying, possibly injured, and in danger of being trampled by three-way traffic swirling past and over him.

This would have been the time to point a gun at the ceiling and fire a shot, but Betsy is above cheap theatrics. In a loud, but friendly voice she commanded, "OK! Everybody lie down on the floor!" Sensing fun in the air, every kid lay down.

"What now?" I asked Betsy as 12 little bodies quivered expectantly on the carpet.

"A peanut hunt," she said. The command to lie down had been only a ploy to stop their running and get their attention. Like airplanes, children need momentum to remain in flight.

The peanut hunt was a big hit and so was tape-the-tail-on-the-donkey. (What kind of reckless, barbaric parents did we have who would blindfold a child, arm him with a straight pin and send him forth to impale whatever he encountered?)

Another diversion, which Betsy had found in a book, was the making of "peanut-catchers." You stick an unsharpened pencil through a paper cup and you tie one end of a string to the pencil and one end to a peanut. Then the fun-seeker holds the cup and tries to flip the peanut into the cup. I like to think I know something about fun, but I'd made one of these the night before and tried it out. Where the fun entered into this pointless activity, I couldn't see and I told Betsy so. But she ignored my input and sure enough, the peanut-catchers were an absorbing and intriguing part of the two-hour round of delights for which Betsy was the producer, director and emcee.

The biggest birthday parties are thrown when the firstborn turns 1 and a houseful of adults are invited. This party is an important rite of passage for new parents. It is the event at which they realize they no longer have much in common with their childless friends and that even their parent friends are more excited by the hors d'oeuvres than by Junior's big milestone.

Thanks to this insight and because Junior doesn't yet have any friends of his own, his next birthday will be celebrated with more restraint -- like a reception that follows a bride's third wedding.

But when the kids' parties resume in earnest at age 3 or so, they can be hard to keep under control and in perspective. For school-age kids, the more sophisticated pleasures afforded by birthday-party package deals at movie theaters, zoos, museums or roller rinks might be in order. But my wife takes preschool birthday parties as a special challenge to her imagination and her good sense.

Her guiding principle may invite challenge and debate, but it has served her well and is worth considering: "What little kids would really like to do is eat cake and ice cream and then go outside and throw dirt at each other. So keep it simple."

Rick Epstein's book, "The Right Number of Kids" (McKenna Publishing Group, 2003), is available from Amazon.com, BN.com or in bookstores everywhere.

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