“Who wants to play the Cotton Ball Game?”
Ten children in pointy party hats wave their hands wildly in my mother’s kitchen. “I do!”
The Los Angeles man who spent ten million to hire Aerosmith and spoil his thirteen-year old’s birthday guests with $10,000 gift bags would recoil at my mother’s makeshift game, in which a blindfolded child had one minute to transfer as many cotton balls as she could from one bowl to another with a wooden spoon. But the group of St. Paul parents and professionals who recently founded Birthdayswithoutpressure.org would surely elect Mom as their spokeswoman.
Devoted to challenging the trendy “more is more” approach to kids’ parties, Birthdays Without Pressure offers strategies for creating a fun, low-cost celebration with simple activities like a walk around a lake or a treasure hunt.
Martha Stewart hadn’t yet made her fortune in the 1970s, and so my mother had to come up with her own activities, designed to entertain a flock of eight-year olds for two hours. Along with the Cotton Ball Game, we played Pin the Heart on Raggedy Ann—a variation of the classic donkey diversion, with red paper hearts instead of tails, and a life-sized rag doll depicted in crayon on butcher paper tacked to the wall.
The folks at Birthdays Without Pressure suggest that kids bake a cake for their class, with an emphasis on giving. The day before my birthday each year, I helped my mother make cupcakes, with an emphasis on modern art.
“It’s time for the Cupcake Decorating Contest!” Mom would cry, and we’d all flock to the newspaper-covered kitchen table where a frosted cupcake sat at each place. Tiny bowls held red hots, chocolate sprinkles, sugar flowers, and those tiny magical silver balls. “One prize in each category,” my mother announced, and ten pairs of hands got busy created masterpieces.
Mom was studying art history at the time, and so it’s no wonder that among the awards for “Best Use of Jelly Beans” and “Most Top-Heavy,” she presented accolades for “Most Surreal” and “The Cubist Award”–the latter offered to the child who inevitably, and lopsidedly, attempted to depict the birthday girl’s face in candy corn.
Following games, we raced into the backyard to swing, slide, and run off our sugar-high. There were presents, of course, the birthday child feted among a circle of friends. Birthdays Without Pressure suggests donating to a charity in lieu of gifts. I personally know of a boy in my town who annually donates his birthday money to our wildlife rehabilitation center. But receiving presents taught me a great deal about generosity and gratitude, and the importance of a sincere thank you to each guest, followed later by a handmade card.
“The kids don’t care what kind of effort and planning you put into it,” says Linda Zwicky, a mom who helped found Birthdays Without Pressure. But I disagree. Thirty years later, I’m still grateful for the effort and creativity my mother put into celebrating my birth each year. And I look forward to hosting my own daughter’s first party, complete with a bag of cotton balls, a crayoned Raggedy Ann, and a dozen cupcakes. For old time’s sake, I just might decorate one, too.
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