Before I had children, I imagined throwing fabulous birthday parties with clever themes. After nearly eight years of hosting birthdays for real children, though, I’ve decided a successful party is one that ends without tears, broken bones, or shattered windows. So if you’re planning a party, don’t drive to six different stores for toddler-sized Bob the Builder hardhats. Focus instead on simple preparations that can prevent nasty surprises.

  • Guests. Before you select a date, call the parents of some guests to see if they’ll be available. Last year, my daughter was heartbroken when she invited eight guests, only to have six—including her two best friends—decline.
  • Mail invitations to each guest’s home address. Invitations distributed at school tend to be forgotten in backpacks. Or they may get passed around, hurting feelings if everyone isn’t invited.
  • Food. Don’t get a cake with one or two beautiful frosting flowers; you’ll have to negotiate who gets them. Instead, arrange identically decorated cupcakes on a round platter to resemble a cake.
  • When parents RSVP, ask if their children have food allergies. A child may not remember to say he’s acutely allergic to chocolate until after he breaks out in blotches.
  • Games. I “test drive” games in advance. My daughter’s friends try them so I can see which work and which need fine-tuning. These kids then help demonstrate the games at the party.
  • Consider safety. Imagine the worst-case scenario and plan accordingly. For example, no matter how much your kids beg, don’t buy a piñata. Why is a party game involving blindfolds and baseball bats a good idea?

Do you have a back-up plan?—>

  • Back-up plans. Have alternatives if a sudden rainstorm, no-show magician, or punctured kiddy pool washes out your principal activities. Keep extra craft supplies around. Or rent the newest kids’ movie available (it’s more likely to hold their attention if they haven’t seen it). 
  • Pets. Before guests arrive, put pets in the garage or an out-of-the-way room. Will you have time to make sure little fingers aren’t stuck in the hamster cage? Some kids are terrified of animals in general, and will panic at the sight of a cat sleeping peacefully in the corner. And I don’t care how friendly Lucky the Dog normally is. If unfamiliar little hands yank his ears and tail, he may retaliate.
  • Contact information. When parents drop off their kids, get a phone number. This is especially important for sleepovers. (If it’s a child’s first sleepover, ask how the parent feels about 3 am phone calls.)
  • Favors. Pack goody bags with identical favors to prevent jealousy. And hide them during the party; give them to the kids as they leave.
  • Have at least one extra goody bag for surprise guests. More than once, children have arrived with forlorn-looking siblings whom I’ve invited to stay.
  • Co-host. Ask a friend or older sibling to help. Or hire a babysitter (it’s a great way to try out new sitters, because you can watch how they interact with the kids). You can always use an extra set of hands to pour drinks, referee games, and herd kids. More importantly, you get an extra set of eyes to spot impending disasters. One year, another mom noticed boys disappearing from my party room. She found them in my guest bathroom with hard rubber balls, trying to bounce the balls off every wall and the ceiling. Thanks to her intervention, the boys—and the bathroom mirror—survived.

So take extra precautions before your child’s party, to ward off “disasters” and make it one he’ll remember for all the right reasons.

Carla Little is a freelance writer.