Birthday Parties for Introverts

My ambivert 6-year-old daughter, Kavya, is fairly familiar with quiet forms of fun because of her introverted Papa. We’ve done things like the Papa-Daughter comic book reading beach party in Coney Island, and we’ve gone on a quest for the best soup dumplings in Chinatown. We’ve also rummaged through comic book stores, looking for specific things like Wonder Woman wearing pants (Kavya’s request), or adventured to our local farmer’s market in Jersey City for some delicious pickles.  

She is generally pretty indulgent of my introverted ways, and in return for this loyalty, I will cross over to the Dark Extroverted Side for her by wading through crowds, engaging in small talk during Family “Fun” Night at her school, or dressing in cosplay to attend New York Comic Con.

But birthday parties are like the Holy Grail—an extroverted American tradition you aren’t supposed to mess with. It seems like they’re always supposed to feature ALL the classmates, all the candy, all the cake, all the activities—just to be fun. For my own birthday, she will plan quiet things for us to do as well as making a card and “letting” her Mama help her bake a cake.  

As much as she enjoys quiet celebrations with the immediate family and bookstore playdates with classmates, Kavya equally enjoys loud celebrations. My wife’s parents, who live a short drive from us, take birthdays and parties in general very seriously. There is no occasion that doesn’t warrant a “few people coming over,” meaning at least forty extended family members, lots of whisky, Indian food, and laughter—whether it’s a party for a newborn, toddler, teenager, or adult.  

While my wife, Sona, is an introvert, she is pretty adaptable. When you’re part of an extroverted Punjabi family (just consider us the Italians of India), you can’t pull a Bartleby the Scrivener and say, “I would prefer not to.” I understand the lure of these parties for Kavya: she gets to wear fancy Indian clothes, play with lots of friends her age, enjoy almost no adult supervision, and dance to Punjabi and Hindi songs to her heart’s content, knowing her Papa or Nanu (her maternal grandfather) will carry her to the car or to bed when she inevitably falls asleep next to a bowl of palak paneer in the wee hours of the morning.

The birthday parties Kavya gets invited to around our home in Jersey City are mostly of the extroverted variety: Chuck E. Cheese, cooking classes for kids, martial arts studios, or a bounce house. It’s almost amusing to see how stressed out the parents—myself included!—get micromanaging fun for their kiddos.

Last year, my daughter wanted her birthday at her capoeira martial arts studio, and it was utter chaos. In a bonehead move, we invited all 25 of her classmates who all showed up, some with siblings. I abandoned most of the activities we had planned and decided on a brand new goal: to make sure the kids didn’t burn the place to the ground. My little ambivert daughter had a grand old time, of course.

Is it any wonder I was dreading what she might want this year?

Four months before Kavya’s February birthday, we attended a party that went against everything she had learned thus far in her short life about the nature of typically extroverted birthday celebrations. There were about ten kids there, and since the weather was still warm, it was at our local park. Kavya’s friend had decided on a very flexible Star Wars themed party. That meant there were Star Wars plates and some lightsabers, but everyone was dressed as whatever they wanted, representing a range of characters from Disney, Marvel, DC, and others. While there were some guided activities, such as the cake cutting and a magician, most of the party involved the kids running around, playing on the swings, and a brief lightsaber battle in which all the kids decided to attack me.

As we were walking home, Kavya asked me a question I’d never thought about before: “What are my choices for my birthday party?” I considered this. “Lots of options,” I had said. “Big party, small parties. It’ll be too cold for a park party though.” And that was the end of that conversation, or so I thought.

… Except not. A few months later, just before her own birthday, Kavya informed me that she interpreted the “small parties” reference I’d said months ago as an extension of what Sona’s sister, Kavya’s aunt, does with her own month-long birthday celebration. With my offhand comment, I had inadvertently agreed to an extended six-month-long mini-birthday extravaganza. Kavya decided she wanted her big “real” birthday party in the park in the summer, February winter birthday be damned. Of course, before then, she must have her other parties. For her class party, we had cupcakes, played some games, and read her class a book Kavya’s aunt made last summer starring Kavya, her cousins, and me. Kavya and her brother Shaiyar Singh also taught her class how to do a couple of bhangra dance moves. Her paternal grandparents in California sang her happy birthday over the phone and told her they’d celebrate with her when they see her during the summer. Her maternal grandparents took her out to Chuck E. Cheese and had another celebration with “a few people” at Pizza Hut. And for the first time, I am totally fine with all of it because in addition to the inevitable extroverted parties, thanks to Kavya’s misinterpretation, we also got to do our own personalized celebration that’s unique to our little family.  

On Monday afternoons, I take Kavya to her Indian dance class in the City, and as soon as it’s over at 5:30 p.m., we usually hustle back home to Jersey City so she can have dinner, unwind with a TV show, and be in bed by 8 p.m., giving the impression there is a system in place. One evening a few weeks after her birthday, we were power-walking down 8th Avenue towards the train station when she pulled out her “little party” card.

“For my little party, can you take me for coffee now?” she asked. A more responsible Papa would have said, “No! It’s dark! It’s bedtime! Routine is so important for kids!” Or at least lie and tell her all the coffee shops are closed because it’s so late. But it’s pretty firmly established I am not that Papa. She leaves it up to me to decide where to go for coffee. We lock eyes for a moment—it feels as though we’re sneakily getting away with something. Her eyes light up as we approach Kinokuniya, a multi-floor Japanese bookstore that serves coffee. Of course, she has no interest in a matcha latte and goes with an iced coffee on top of which she sprinkles grainy brown sugar for that crunch, just like her Mama does. As we roam through the manga aisles, I can tell she is very excited about being out super late with her Papa. I tell her I’ll buy her one thing, and she painstakingly assesses all the mangas in Japanese and eventually decides on Sailor Moon, an anime she is obsessed with. Two hours into our adventure, we are about to leave when we both notice a Samurai sword umbrella. She and I are in a quandary. I told her she could only get one thing. But it’s a Samurai sword umbrella! Obviously, she got two things: a Japanese manga she can’t read and most likely won’t read for at least several years, assuming she is dedicated to learning Japanese, and a $30 umbrella that looks like a sword. All in all, I’d say it was a productive evening.

It’s funny to see the things that bring her joy now: new colorful parandis for her hair, Xena comic books, getting to stay up late, apparently coffee, and now Japanese manga.

While the optics may be slightly different, it’s easy to predict what a little or big extrovert would want for their birthday: a big party so they can be surrounded by friends. An introvert is likewise kind of predictable, wanting something smaller and quieter. Ambiverts though are the wild cards and could go in either direction. It’s officially summer, and Kavya brought up her belated park birthday party this week. It’s a conversation I’ve been dreading, but surprisingly, she decided not to have a big party. Instead, she decided to put the money we would have spent on a big party towards an intimate sword fighting tea party at our local park with a few of her close friends, followed by karaoke in the city and popcorn and glow-in-the-dark balloons at home. And for her birthday present, she wants to book a room for the family to go to Atlantic City. I bought her a pack of Harley Quinn playing cards during Free Comic Book Day and taught her to play Blackjack, so now she thinks she’s some card shark.  

It’s important to remember that, while this is your kid’s day, they may have no clue what they actually want to do on their birthday if the only choices they’re presented with are big and loud. Whether you have an introvert, extrovert, or ambivert, their birthday can be just as special without it having to be what everyone else expects.