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Social Distancing Diaries: How Do You Throw a Kid’s Birthday Party in Quarantine?

It’s hard to get the tempo of “Happy Birthday” right over Zoom, but everyone’s health is more important

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The sports and pop culture calendars have paused. The safest thing that you can do right now is stay inside. And millions of people are looking for creative ways to pass the time. The Ringer is here to help. We’re running a series called the Social Distancing Diaries, with our staff’s ideas for finding comfort, joy, community, or distraction while doing their part to flatten the curve. In the coming weeks, we’ll be diving into what we’re passionate about and want others to discover—from bidets to buried treasure and everything in between.

We’d settled on Laser Tag, having considered and discarded such options as Trampoline Park (elevated risk of bodily injury) and Movie Night in Basement (elevated risk of a dozen feral second-graders destroying our house). Plus we’d done both of those before. And so: Laser Tag. And pizza. And lemonade, or, for a more refined second-grader’s palate, Sprite. And a pricey but exhilarating hour in the Laser Tag joint’s video arcade, the crown jewel of which is the sitdown Jurassic Park game with the machine guns. (Hella violent, but it’s just dinosaurs, and it’s them or us.)

The theme: Minecraft, obviously. The cake: He doesn’t like cake, so anything’s fine, really. Sounds like a pretty great birthday party for a 9-year-old, though we’ll never know for sure, because of course, times being what they are, it never happened.

Instead, on Friday, my oldest son turned 9 in the middle of the self-quarantine coronavirus era to the loving strains of “Happy Birthday” as sung, over Zoom, by four grandparents, one aunt, two uncles, one uncle’s girlfriend, and three cousins, scattered variously across Ohio and California. Plus his parents and his 6-year-old brother live in the room with him, of course, his parents struggling to light the candles on the cake only his parents (and the 6-year-old) would eat. It was not the most melodious and on-tempo version of “Happy Birthday” you’ll ever hear, but that’s technology for you.

He opened presents: a giant hamster ball to crawl inside and roll around in, rollerblades, Risk, Clue, and Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle for Nintendo Switch. (He puts video games on birthday and Christmas lists now; my wife and I hesitated at first, this being one of the thousands of emotional Rubicons we didn’t want to cross, but then, of course, did.) He made small talk: “Are you all in gallery mode?” He asked his uncle’s girlfriend if her dog was still sick. (The dog is feeling better.) Via my laptop camera, he showed everyone various individual cards from the card game Butts in Space, another gift, this one poorly vetted by his parents, as these cards included “Boob Butt” and “Assteroid.” Oh, well. Another Rubicon crossed.

The Zoom call ended: 14 humans in six separate onscreen boxes, waving goodbye. Time to watch a movie and eat pizza far superior, FWIW, to the Laser Tag joint’s pizza. The movie: Frozen 2. Obviously. His dad cried a little during “Show Yourself,” as he usually does. (It’s the big climactic callback to “All Is Found.” If you know, you know.) I did not cry out of sadness, not exactly. It had been a great birthday, and the birthday boy himself seemed perfectly content, under the circumstances.

We’re fine. Under the circumstances, we’re great. We’re lucky—we’re privileged—in a million ways. In this house and on Zoom we all have, as of this writing, our health. Our jobs are unaffected, and at this exact moment my wife can wrangle the kids while I type the words my wife can wrangle the kids, which is itself terribly embarrassing to type: I am not misled as to which job is harder or more important, but that’s capitalism for you. It’s not like I’m a grocery-store employee, or a teacher, or a Wisconsin voter. We have a Midwestern front yard in which the boys can roll around in the giant hamster ball that I gotta figure out how to blow up. For now, when it’s time to give mom a richly deserved break, the boys and I play a game called Frolic in the Grass, which is quite literal. They have a tendency now to run into the street without looking both ways, given that lately there are so few cars on the street. I’m working on it.

It’s sad only when they see other kids playing on a nearby lawn and we can’t get near them. It’s sad only when they can’t pet the dogs that walk by. It’s sad only when the 9-year-old, mid-frolic, says things like, “I love you so much—I hope you don’t get murdered,” which I don’t think is even coronavirus-related. It’s just that in every movie we watch lately, one or both of the hero’s parents are dead, Frozen 2 included. We’re lucky. We’re fine. We’re trying not to overload on screen time, but it’s a laughably minor problem in the grand scheme of things.

I am struggling, as a theoretical adult, to wrap my head around the grand scheme of things, to fully grasp that we’ll all be talking about this period in our lives for the rest of our lives. Try explaining that idea—the monumental historical import of what we’re all doing right now—to a 9- and 6-year-old sometime. Especially since we’re not really doing anything. To the boys it’s just that school now consists of chaotic Zoom conferences, and nobody can go anywhere, and there are very few bananas, and they get to play Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle for longer than is strictly advisable. They are mercifully not young enough to need constant second-by-second supervision (I can hear my wife laughing even as I type that), and not yet old enough to absorb too much of the existential dread in the air. But that idea is laughable, too. “If someone in our family gets coronavirus, I hope I get coronavirus,” the 6-year-old told me last week. “Because I love my family.”

Some days it’s like “Show Yourself” playing on a loop.

The irony is that I’d finally totally mastered parenting, like, a month earlier, while playing, as it happens, laser tag. Dads vs. Kids. I was crouched down on the second floor of the laser tag arena, with maybe a dozen of my opponents clustered in a corner on the level below me, reveling in my elevated position, and trying to decide how many of these dumbass kids to take out. Tag too many and I’m an Overcompetive Jerk Dad; tag too few and I’m a Wimp Dad who failed to teach the youth proper tactics.

In that moment I achieved a Zen state: total wisdom, total contentment. “It’s impossible to always control your surroundings, but when you shift the focus to how you want to feel, everything will conspire to assist you.” That’s the best parenting advice I’ve ever gotten. I forget who said it. OK, it was Drake, last week. I mostly let the kids cluster in that corner, unharmed, like a bunch of herbs, if that’s what they wanted to do.

And now I’ve lost all that expertise, and they’ve lost the ability to cluster. Oh, well. We press on. We’re lucky. The goal now, near as I can figure it, is to make these extraordinary times feel as ordinary as possible. If we do this right, the boys will mostly recall the weeks and/or months to come as The Time When Everything Was Fine But We Just Had Fewer Bananas. So we sit in the living room listening to either the Frozen 2 soundtrack or Bill Withers, who died recently, but no need to mention that. We abide. We play Clue. We play Butts in Space. We play Risk. How long will this last? How scared should we be? Will anyone we know get it? How close can we get to other people on our bikes? Has anyone ever finished a game of Risk? How do you pronounce “Kamchatka” or “Irkutsk”? I don’t know for sure. And so I guess.