Written by Rick Epstein   



Betsy’s Birthday-Party Guide


A dozen second-grade boys and girls gather around the kitchen table upon which are spread about two dozen pieces of assorted candy. Veterans of previous birthday parties cheer, “Poisoned Candy! Yess!!”


New friends look nervous. “It’s not really poisoned,” my wife Betsy reassures them, “It’s the name of the game we’re going to play.”


She chooses one of our regulars, saying, “Amber, you’re up first, so go into the living room.” With Amber gone, Betsy says, “OK kids, now pick the piece of candy that we’ll pretend is poisoned.” An eager forefinger pokes a Hershey bar the size of Barbie’s brief case. “When Amber picks up that chocolate, everybody scream as loud as you can and her turn is over.” Amber is summoned and she starts putting the candy into her goodie bag, one piece at a time, while the other kids sing the suspenseful thinking music from “Jeopardy.”


Half the candy is bagged by the time Amber touches the Hershey bar and every kid screams. As we replenish the supply for the next thrill-seeker, neighbors probably consider calling 911, but don’t want to be linked to the hideous noise they just heard.


Betsy had found the game in a book or magazine and it became her signature party game for our three daughters’ birthdays. Betsy says, “What’s not to like? There’s candy and screaming.”


It does get the children worked up, but my wife’s philosophy is: A birthday party that’s too exciting is like a joke that’s too funny.


Some people – especially those with nice furniture – would rather offer the more sophisticated pleasures afforded by birthday-party package deals at movie theaters, bowling alleys, zoos, museums, hair salons or roller rinks. But my wife is proud of her in-house birthday parties.


Betsy says pacing is everything. Adjusting the program according to the age group, she works within a two-hour framework, figuring on Poisoned Candy as the climax, followed by a cooling-down period.


As the children arrive, they each get a paper lunch bag to decorate with markers and stickers. Then the fun begins. For really little kids Betsy has a peanut hunt in the living room or the yard. With older kids, say age 7-12, she offers the balloon game. Each kid in turn sits on a balloon with maximum violence. When the balloon bursts, it releases a slip of paper upon which is written some foolish task, such as: “Grunt like a pig” or “Kiss your knee.” Then she’ll have a little art project for them. For example, our daughter Wendy’s birthday is Oct. 9, so the kids daub tempera paint onto little pumpkins.


Then it’s time to pick up the pace. Piñatas are great fun for any age. (You have to admire the professionalism of the piñata-makers who refrain from busting up their papier-mâché donkeys right there in the factory instead of shipping them out to delight others.) After the flailing and scrambling, and the burro lies in pieces in our back yard, the party guests are now ready for the main event – Poisoned Candy – and you know how that works.


After 15 minutes of suspense and hysteria, the only thing that can get their attention is homemade chocolate layer cake. The kids are still too high on excitement and sugar to send home, so with 15 minutes left on the party clock, it’s time for the opening of the gifts. So far, the party has been carnival time in Rio. Now it becomes Oscar Night in Hollywood. The recipient radiates joy while everyone else smiles bravely. By the time their parents come to pick them up, the little guests are sober enough to drive the car

home. “Did you have a good time?” Mom asks.


“Yes,” a covetous non-birthday girl says quietly, consoling herself with a fun-size Snickers bar from her goodie bag.


My lovely wife has done it again – and so can you. She offers this guiding principle: “What most kids REALLY want to do is eat frosting from a can with a spoon and then go outside and throw dirt at each other. So keep it simple.”



Rick can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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