I have a little confession to make. Can I just say I’m tired of birthday parties? Right now, I am at a demographically interesting phase in my life where someone I love has a milestone birthday seemingly all the time. My friends are all turning 40 or 50, my daughter just turned twelve. My husband is hitting 50 this spring, and my mother will be 75 this summer. I started out writing this about how my daughter is always in planning mode for her next birthday, and I realized it’s me. I’m the one who’s perpetually planning parties. I’m in a cycle of anticipation/exhaustion. But this is not about me, it’s about the kids, right?
My daughter was three and a half when we moved to France. We celebrated her 4th birthday a few months after we arrived in Paris. She had made a few friends in maternelle, and we planned a small féte at a kid’s art studio in our neighborhood. Five little girls, an art project, a gateaux chocolat, and some juice. It was my favorite party of all- because we didn’t really have to do anything. The parents were expected to drop off their kids and come back in 2 hours. Even the parents hosting the event were not permitted to stay. My husband and I, so pleasantly surprised by this rule, almost didn’t know what to do with ourselves.
Is this how French parties work? We were used to American birthday parties, which generally involved way more kids (sometimes the entire class is invited), and way more parental involvement, and way more effort to outdo the last party. Before moving to Paris, we’d endured Chuck E. Cheese parties more times than I care to count, several bouncy-climby-jumpy (sign a waiver) kinds of places, children’s museums, and water park splash parties. The parents in our social circle had a ‘go big or go home’ mentality when it comes to celebrating their offspring (or celebrating anything, really). Hosting a house full of kids and their parents for an entire afternoon was the norm. I loved those events, but I didn’t realize how ready I was to opt out of ‘go big or go home’ until I made my home here.
The simple, small atelier party was not only my intro to French kid parties, but also how we started my daughter’s social life in Paris. I learned from it that, like French apartments, kid parties here are smaller, and the parents can be more laid back about them. It is totally okay to have a guest list in the single digits. My kiddo likes making paper invitations, so I let her handle it. But most of the parties we’ve been invited to have been via text or group chat.
I have been chasing that “bring cake and come back in 2 hours” level of low maintenance for birthdays ever since. After 8 years of being an American mom planning parties for French kids, this is what I’ve learned on the art of the low-maintenance birthday party.
Party in the Park
If you are lucky enough to have had your child in the warmer months of the year, and to live near a park, this is a no-brainer. Stake out a spot in your favorite part of the park, and set up a picnic. This can be as simple or elaborate as you want: the kids can wear déguisements, you can have games and prizes, but this is truly the party that does itself. Once you’ve provided some food and drink, your sugar-fueled guests will run off and entertain themselves. From my observation, Parisian kids are just happy to be outside, and dare I say...frolick? They’ll do classic stuff like play hide and seek, or tag, or climb trees. Then they’ll come back, looking for refreshments, you sing happy birthday and let them eat cake. From ages four to ten, if the weather’s nice, it’s really hard not to have a great time in the park. The French are naturally good at picnicking, and it feels relaxing in a way that I can’t quite describe. Parisian parks have a sense of formality to them that makes it seem elegant to just be chilling on the grass.
The Almighty Atelier
I am a big fan of paying people to teach my kid fun stuff. And Paris seems to have a lot of neighborhood businesses that do just that. Many places that offer classes for kids will also host birthday parties. The instructor or animator will lead a group in making a craft project, followed by cake and celebration. Ateliers are also low-effort affairs. The venue provides the structure, you bring the kids. The aforementioned art studio was such a hit with my daughter, we had her birthday there twice. We’ve also partied at pottery studios, patisseries and neighborhood cinemas that offer atelier birthdays. As they get older, there’s laser tag, rock-climbing gyms, and escape rooms. Escape rooms are really popular for the middle school set right now. For 90 to 120 minutes, your group is led through an immersive mystery or treasure hunt. They solve the mystery, and leave with gift bags. I’ve found the Bastille area has a lot of escape rooms, but they’re so trendy right now, a Google search will probably yield one near you.
Bienvenue Chez Nous
My daughter is a February baby. More specifically, she’s a vacation baby. Her birthday falls right when school’s out and everyone’s leaving town. So, even if we wanted to throw a big party, half the invitees wouldn’t come. And that's okay. If you have enough space to entertain, celebrating at home can be fun. It’s just more work. You need to structure the time, or you'll have a bunch of kids tearing up your house. We’ve since tried to recreate the atelier party at home, with a theme, a craft project, and no more than six kids.
My daughter did a lot of the planning with the home parties. She’s always got an idea for a theme brewing in her head. One year, she was into the ubiquitous Space Invader mosaics around Paris, so we
made plastic versions of them with hama beads and paper versions with square stickers and graph paper. The next year, she was into baking shows, so each kid got their own apron, and my husband led them through making a birthday cake, and they played games while it baked. During the pandemic, we had a corny joke themed Zoom meetup as her party, and it was actually a huge hit. Blow up some balloons (no kid can resist batting balloons around), make a fun music playlist, and have plenty of candy.
My dear daughter just turned twelve, and she has grown into a planner, with wish lists and distinct ideas about her birthday parties. Twelve feels like a milestone, a turning point where the subsequent birthdays should become less of a production. So what did we do? Throw one last big production. It was a hybrid going out/ staying home party, where we took six girls to lunch at a burger joint, walked to a nearby escape room, and then headed back to our home, where my daughter had games planned (Kems and Loup-Garou) AND they made an impromptu movie. When the parents came to collect their offspring, we had an apéro of cider and snacks. As we sat around the table and chatted about collége, I realized things had come full circle: my daughter’s expectations were aligned with my desired level of effort. A well done birthday party should not only be fun for the kids, but provide a break for the parents. Oh, and always have balloons.
Do you have a favorite birthday party that you have planned, or your kids have attended? Tell us about it in the comments!
About the Author:
Rachelle Chapman is the mom of Camille (12). Originally a Chicago native, she has been living in Paris since 2014.
All photos in this article taken by Rachelle Chapman.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or beliefs of Message.