The Five Parents You Meet At A Child's Birthday Party
A field guide
A little more than two years after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve largely returned to a state of normalcy in most areas of life.
Workers have returned to offices. Sporting events, movie theaters and concerts have returned to full capacity. Restaurants are doing a brisk trade in indoor dining once again, and schools have almost entirely gone back to full-time in-person instruction.
Those aren’t the only things that have come roaring back, though.
If you’re a parent, your once-wide-open weekend afternoons have suddenly filled back up, as children’s birthday parties have become possible once again.
Now, there are many forms that a child’s birthday party can take—whether it’s a low-key affair structured around a few picnic tables in the park, or an elaborate soiree replete with bounce house, petting zoo, and face-painting station, or anywhere in between.
These parties may be different in many ways, but they’re also alike in a few key ways.
First of all—your child will be an absolute monster for the remainder of the day. I’m sorry, I’m just warning you now. They will have been riled up by exciting activities, filled with sugar, and have just witnessed another child receive presents. They are going to ask you no fewer than twenty times how long it is until their own birthday, and five of those times will be after you have put them to bed.
(The answer each time is: nine months. Their birthday is nine months from now.)
Second—and this is the one I’d like to focus on here today—the people you will meet at these parties will be largely the same. Whether they’re the parents of your child’s classmates or relatives of the birthday child, the adult attendees will generally fall into one of five key categories.
Let’s explore, shall we?
Despite all outward appearances, The Helper was not directly involved in the planning of the party. Make no mistake, though: they are essential to its operation. They showed up fifteen minutes early and immediately filled every need the frazzled host parents had. They troubleshot a malfunctioning sound system, and happened to have a tonally-perfect playlist already assembled. They spotted a pinhole leak in the bounce house and patched it with a kit they had in their car. They horse-whispered the anxious pony-ride pony and possibly also the host parents’ marriage. They did this all without breaking a sweat, and finished two minutes before you arrived. They greeted you warmly, asking knowledgeable questions about your child, who they know more about than you do—and who they easily associated with you on sight, despite you not introducing yourself and never having met them.
Have you met them? You don’t remember having met them before, but you must have.
They did not know they were attending a children’s birthday party until twenty-five minutes ago, when their child showed them the invitation for the first time. They showed up bearing a gift they purchased at the first store they encountered on their otherwise-extremely-fast drive to the venue. It was a liquor store, and the gift is a gigantic tub of cheese balls. The birthday child will love it more than anything else they receive that day.
They are sweating profusely, and The Helper is going to provide them with a new shirt moments from now.
They’re here for their kid, but this is their moment to shine; they’ve got a captive audience and new potential contacts. By the time the cake is cut, The Networker has hot leads on three new business deals, including negotiating a discount on the party venue, which they’re going to use to host a future networking event.
It is not entirely clear which child belongs to The Networker, or if they actually came with a child at all.
The Hider has been counting down the minutes until the end of the party since the moment they arrived. The invitation did say noon to 2pm, right? It’s 1:40 already and the kids are still playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, and The Hider is beginning to wonder how everything else on the agenda is possibly going to play out in the next twenty minutes. They have not conveyed this concern to anyone else, as they have not spoken a word since they arrived. They are currently trying desperately to blend into a wall, and the Helper has thoughtfully and discreetly moved a ficus in front of them.
It does not matter what today’s activity is; The Enthusiast is going to yes-and their way through it. They just managed to jump on a trampoline with their child balanced on their shoulders, and jump high enough that the child could dunk a basketball. This is especially notable, because the party at the trampoline park was last Saturday, and you’re at a crafting studio today. They’re going to make an amazing craft, though, too. You’ve made a mental note to schedule an unfortunate conflict in advance of the karate-themed party your child was invited to next week.
That’s everyone, right? Wait—no, there’s one more I’m missing.
That’s right, you. You groaned about having to spend another Saturday afternoon doing this. You’re trying to be The Enthusiast even though you’re The Hider at heart. There’s a chance you’re The Draftee today—that day comes for all of us sooner or later—and maybe one of these days you’ll be The Networker.
(You are not The Helper. You will never be The Helper. Let go of any notion to the contrary now.)
You’re all of these things—well, four of these things—but you can roll with it for a couple of hours, because for all the hassle, there’s nothing like seeing these kids happy again, seeing them running around together again, doing childhood things again in a childhood way that seemed unfathomable last year.
You are hoping there’s enough cake for the grown-ups to have some too, though.
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)