Yet even experienced parents can, over time, forget what they should have remembered. So it was with a friend of mine, whose youngest child recently turned 5. The boy had been chattering excitedly for weeks about his birthday.
As his mother gazed at her darling, she thought: I want to give this little guy the best party ever. We can have it outdoors, in the sunshine! She imagined lots of little children galloping around her front lawn, with her son shouting joyfully in their midst. She imagined their sweet faces turned upward in song as she carried out a cake. She imagined how happy her boy would be to have such a party.
It gave her a feeling of warm munificence. She wanted to do more for them, these grateful children in her imagination.
Why not splurge and hire a big moon bounce? All children love moon bounces. She could invite her son's whole class! Come to think of it, why not invite the neighborhood kids too? She'd order loads of pizza and serve great platters of strawberries, and any mess would stay outside. The squirrels could deal with leftover crusts. It would be huge fun -- and so easy!
Alas, as the day approached, the weather forecast grew ever darker. Soon there was a 90 percent chance of rain. The party would have to be postponed.
Oh, great was the wailing and gnashing of teeth. "But it's my birthday party!" the child wept, his almost-5-year-old mind not quite grasping that it would still be his birthday party even if it came a few days later.
It was then that the mother unwittingly laid a few more cobblestones on that road to hell. Say, she thought generously, why not have two parties? A few friends could come over on the rainy day, as planned, and then everybody could enjoy a big blowout later in the week.
The birthday boy was thrilled with this proposal. When the damp day arrived, he and his guests ate buttered pasta and carrot sticks, then the boys ran out into the rain and jumped in puddles (their choice) while the girls stayed inside and colored (also their choice). Everyone had a good time. Nobody cried.
Several days later, two men unloaded a huge pile of rubberized fabric in the birthday boy's sunny front yard. There came a mighty roaring, and a moon bounce slowly began to emerge, as if from brightly colored primordial ooze. It grew and grew and became a colossus. It was two, maybe three stories tall.
"It's scary! It's too loud!" cried the birthday boy, holding his hands over his ears to block the noise of the air pump. He ran into the house.
Dozens of small children began arriving, staring in wonder and fear at the trembling monster. Toddlers tugged on their parents' hands so as to give the thing a wide berth. Soon a mob of children had collected at the far edge of the lawn. Only a couple of older kids dared enter the moon bounce's terrible maw.
"It was only an inch high on the website!" the mother said helplessly.
Despite the kindest intentions, the large and lavish gathering was destined not to be the best party ever. That one had already happened, very quietly and almost by accident, on a rainy afternoon earlier in the week.
Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at email@example.com.