During my children's birthday parties, I morph into Ms. Manic Mom, my alter-ego. Pumped with a maternal cocktail of adrenaline and anxiety, I dash around with a single question: ``Are they having fun yet?!?''
I worry about the activities, the party favors and the atmosphere of our high-energy, but low-budget parties. It doesn't matter that we typically receive rave reviews. In the Manic Mom mode, I never stop worrying.
I'm not alone. As a nation, we spend a fortune on petting zoos, bounce houses and other party festivities for our children. We spend huge sums of dollars to create a few smiles during birthday parties.
Just relax, says Sheelagh Manheim, co-author of Yes, You Can . . . Find More Meaning in Your Life (Stowers Innovation Inc/2005, $19.95).
As a grandmother and veteran of many fun, but frugal, parties, Manheim has dozens of celebrations that have generated happy memories for her children and their friends. Her kids and their guests still talk about the low-cost gypsy party in which Manheim dressed up as a fortune-teller and offered words of advice.
She believes in the keep-it-simple approach. Her basic party recipe includes a short roster of games/activities, cake-cutting ceremonies and sweet goodbyes. And she recommends a two-hour party limit, especially for the five and under crowd.
BASIC BALL GAMES
Here's the logic: Children are ''over-programmed'' during their daily lives. Play dates, homework, lessons and other after-school activities leave little time for basic fun. Therefore, many kids particularly appreciate simple ball games and bean bag tosses. Other party favorites include craft activities in which kids make place mats or other useful items.
For my daughter's recent birthday party, we purchased wooden door paddles on clearance from a national craft chain. Shaped like the classic do-not-disturb hotel signs, the wooden paddles were perfect for paint, sparkles, stickers and other tools of creativity. The kids decorated their paddles with names, initials, welcome signs or words of warning. This activity consumed a large block of time and was a hit with the boys and girls. What's more, each kid left with a practical, but unusual party favor for their bedrooms.
'Their self-esteem comes from saying: `I did it myself,' '' Manheim said.
Even Pin-the-Tail on the Donkey -- an old-school classic -- can be transformed into an exercise in self-esteem and creativity. We discovered that lesson by accident. As our party guests decorated their door paddles, my artistic husband quickly sketched out a donkey for the next activity. Fascinated by his artistic production, the kids drifted away from their own art projects to watch. We could have taken it a step further by letting the kids draw the donkey and create the tails, Manheim said.
''It's hysterical fun,'' she said about the entire process. `What matters is that they are using their imagination and doing something new.''