Photo: Courtesy of Brianna Sharpe
Although it is just one of many disappointing cancellations, telling my daughter there would be no party almost broke my heart. As I watched her chin wobble, I vowed to find a way to make it special despite how different it will be.
As schools across the country close for an unknown period of time, my daughter will likely be one of many with a cancelled birthday party. But it is still possible to make your kid feel special, to feel known, and for loved ones to show how much they care.
The youngest birthday kids thrive on serve-and-return social interactions—they love putting their little personalities into the world and feeling their loved ones respond. Video chats with friends and family are simple, but can still hold so much magic at this age.
Video conferencing apps like Zoom allow many friends and family to join in the fun, even if it’s just for a “happy birthday” sing-a-long as the cake approaches. If their birthday isn't for a few weeks, make a custom board book with photos of their favourite people and help your little one identify who’s who. While most American companies have cut off international shipping, the Canadian company Bags of Love can help you out.
For the littlest babes, take time to work on their baby book, make prints of their hands and feet, journal about their personalities, and (finally) print out photos.
These kiddos are just figuring out that a birthday is special, but they’re still mainly motivated by family, food, and fun.
Give them the gift of choice. What’s their favourite meal? What kind of dessert would they like? Toddlers love being listened to, and when would there ever be a better time for gourmet PB & J with unicorn cake?
Say cheese! Make a family photo booth complete with silly props to create memories for years to come.
Toddlers love to be active, so buy your child their own yoga mat and find a parent-and-tot yoga class to stream—there are plenty of options out there. Or, recreate the outdoors by having a living room camp-out, complete with tent, s’mores, sleeping bags, and campfire songs.
At kids get older, they start to recognize the importance of relationships outside their family unit, so birthdays are an important way to connect with friends, however briefly.
Let friends and family know that the birthday kid will be standing outside at a certain time and get them to drive by in decorated cars with balloons and birthday signs, if this is possible for them. Your kid will barely feel the distance.
Tap into their adventurous side with a scavenger hunt around your house, backyard or even the neighbourhood, if that’s safe and available. A few days before the event, send friends a list of items to find and then have them email pictures of what they located to see who found the most! Or, give their friends clues and then have your kid call them so they can solve a mystery together.
For a little bit of silliness, host an online karaoke party with their favourites from Raffi, the Laurie Berkner Band, and Disney!
Bigger kids are developing enduring friendships and building community, which means birthdays are an important way to strengthen these bonds.
Come up with a theme for the day. For example, if your kid likes cooking, try a chef’s party. Have a friend who’s a decent cook host a “cooking show” over Zoom for your kid and their friends. Gifts could be a chef’s knife, a cooking board, and an apron.
Or, why not throw them their first (maybe only) “midnight party:” wake them up at midnight, serve dark chocolate and blackberries, and have the flash on your camera ready!
Make a playlist of your kid’s favourite songs, gift them a fabulous new outfit, and hold 2020’s most ridiculous dance party on Zoom. Record this and make it into a movie with editing software like iMovie that can be sent around to friends.
Gift them a sense of community by creating a video campaign asking for donations to a community cause that’s important to them. They'll love to watch as the money roll in from friends and family.
Older kids are seeking independence and developing a burgeoning sense of identity, so let those things shine through in whatever celebration you choose.
Put them in charge. In normal times, it might seem counterintuitive to get your kids in on making their own cake, but many young people will be feeling a need for control in these uncertain times. Let them make the biggest, brightest, most sugary dessert their imaginations can muster!
Send out some fancy virtual event invitations (Paperless post has some great options) to the birthday kid’s pals, and set up a living room spa. Prep foot soaks, fancy moisturizers, dainty chocolates, and candles—set up a Zoom call, and get ready for giggles.
Have your kid pick a movie from Netflix and turn the living room into a movie theatre. Give them a new “lounge” outfit for the occasion, and set up a watch party with pals using Netflix Party. This can also work for group video-gaming.
Many celebrities are offering personalized birthday shout-outs through the Cameo app. Log on and see if one of their favourite stars is available to wish them a happy birthday.
My best advice, follow the motto, “Keep calm and party on.” If you’re excited about the way you’re choosing to celebrate, chances are good that your kid will be too. It’s nice to replicate the best parts of a party (celebrating your child’s personality, including loved ones, and giving gifts), but try not to force it to look a certain way. This is a great time to focus more on intimate connection than Instagram.
Also, try to front load the experience by reminding them that they’re not the only ones this is happening to. It will also be important to remind your child, especially if they’re young, about the ways this day will look different than they might expect. Remember to follow current health guidelines for any gifts entering your home from outside.
As I write this (with my toddler on my lap), we’re re-calibrating our birthday celebrations. We’re not going to let COVID-19 dim this bright day for our newly-minted three-year-old. Instead, we’re theming the day with rainbows, and have asked loved ones to send photographs and videos of colourful birthday wishes—one even made her a custom tutu.
We splurged on a fancy Grimm’s rainbow stacker, and our friends at Bright and Beaming music will still host a group music party for everyone, which we'll watch from the comfort of our rainbow-filled living room.
This article was originally published online in March 2020.