Saturday, 24 September 2011

It's Your Party And I'll Cry If I Want To

WHEN I was a child, children's parties were inviting a few selected friends home to have jelly and ice-cream and curly egg mayonnaise sandwiches, most likely in that order. Someone's dad would do the Harry Worth thing using a door frame (you know the thing) and there'd be Pass the Parcel  And - but only if the birthday child's house was big enough and they had enough seats - a game of musical chairs. There would be balloons and the party would be punctuated with a loud *POP* and an ever louder *SQUEEAL* throughout.

Perhaps it is this nostalgic view of what a children's party should be that has made me so against the Wacky Warehouse party. I say Wacky Warehouse (mainly because the last six parties I have taken the Small Boy to have all been held in one particular Wacky Warehouse) but it could be any generic soft-play area that offers party packages - a Cheeky Monkeys, a Little Monsters.

And I hate them. Really hate them. Loathe them. Two hours of hell in an (always drafty) room with a lot of scaffolding, netting and plastic balls in the corner. They call it a play-area but basically it's a big cage, with cushioned bits. There's formica and hard chairs and primary colours and cartoons on the wall. All it's missing is a woman in a cardi in the corner to put you right back in primary school.

Your child runs squealing with excitement into the "play-area" (children notoriously have no discernment) and you have to chase after them because they've broken the cardinal rule which is "No Shoes" - the first commandment of soft play.

Already "glowing" after wrestling a pair of shoes from a child in a ball-pool, you then have to face the Party Mothers. They're the same Playground Mothers you see five days a week, but instead of the three minutes of smiling and nodding at each other you can just about manage each day, you now face two hours together. Two hours on hard chairs while your children hit each other, trip each other, fight and scream in a cage in the corner. You can't actually hear each other because of the screaming and the shouting, but you have to pretend you do. Sometimes there is tea, despite there being a bar in the next room.

A carefully assessed amount of time later - just time enough for your neatly turned-out child to turn in a ravening red-faced shouty thing - a klaxon sounds for food, regardless of the time of day. Once, you had to fill in tick boxes on the identikit invitations of what your child might eat two weeks down the line at 11 o'clock in the morning.

Now though there is a buffet option though it IS mostly what you used to tick boxes for, but is now a free-for-all leading to the last-chicken-nugget-on-the-tray scuffle.


Several children WILL spill their drinks on other children. Some children WILL refuse to eat anything at all. SOME children will eat their allocated individual pot of tomato sauce with a spoon *looks hard at the Small Boy.*

ALL the mothers will be smiling with the slightly deranged, glazed rictus of the much pummelled and put-upon.

Someone will say: "Well, he never does that at home."

A child will be sick.

There will also be cake. Supplied by the family and sometimes, by the newbies celebrating their first born, home-baked and carefully crafted. Though it matters not one jot. Thirty seconds after the food is finished, the cake is slid in front of the birthday child. There may be an "Oooh" from the assembled mothers (depending on the elaborateness of the cake and the politeness of the assembled mothers). Candles will be lit, "Happy Birthday" sung at a out of time trot and candles blown.

There will be games, orchestrated by a staff member in a jaunty cap who harbors ambitions to appear on The X Factor. They will remain relentlessly cheerful, even if the child they threw out of musical statues is prostrate and sobbing at their feet.

OR, if you're deeply unlucky, the games will be conducted by a dragging-knuckled effigy of boredom seething with some untold resentment most of which they relieve by picking on happy looking, shiny faced, enthusiastic party goers at Pass the Parcel reducing them all mercilessly to tantrums or tears.

Eventually, at last, you will be released back into real life. But not until the party-goers have been presented with a plastic bag replete with one small toy (that will break within 3 hours), a small packet of chocolate buttons, a piece of cake (remember the cake) and an attached helium balloon destined to float up to your ceiling the minute you reach home and hang around like an embarrassed ghost for the next three weeks.

Your child will bounce off the wall for several hours. Eventually they will fall asleep. They will have had a: 'Fantastic', 'Brilliant,' and sometimes, depending on the development of vocabulary, 'Awesome' time.

They will not remember anything about it when they wake up in the morning.

But you will. And the next time you open an innocuous envelope from school with THAT invitation in, your heart will sink just that little bit further... Every. Single. Time.

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