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Graduation - Keeping the Focus on Fun

The high school graduation season can unleash a host of conflicting feelings, excitement, apprehension, pride and relief. Beginning in January, the reality of years in a public or private school system coming to an end begins to sink in for both parents and teens. With each “senior” activity or, “This is the last time I’ll ever do this,” the prospect of a future with open horizons, a home with one less teen in it or having to adjust to an empty nest looms closer. Many graduation activities fall within the school’s domain. But there’s one very special event that’s completely the family’s: the graduation party.

Planning a party together allows parents and seniors to celebrate the unique aspects of your graduate’s achievements and acknowledges the teen’s newly emerging role as a young adult. Naturally, in this time of heightened emotions, there are plenty of opportunities for stresses and anxieties to build up, but there is also lots of room for joy and jubilation. After all, who doesn’t love a good party? Remembering to keep the focus on fun as you plan your celebration is one of the best gifts you can give your son or daughter!

Here's how to plan a successful party: 

Get organized. Pick a time when you and your teen are relaxed and able to spend some time creating a ‘to-do’ list and a timeline (or calendar) for all the scheduled graduation activities. This gives you a realistic sense of how busy you’ll be during certain time periods. It’s also a good time to talk about your overall expectations for the party and to negotiate a budget. Be sure to clarify that, though you want them to be part of the planning process, when the big day comes, they’ll be the guest of honor and won’t have to do a thing but enjoy themselves.

Set a date, time and place. There’s no rule that says you have to hold the party graduation weekend. Some families want the graduation season to culminate in a large, festive celebration immediately after the ceremony. For other teens and parents, that will be too much excitement and pressure at once. Other things that should influence your family’s choice of dates could be if you want to include friends and relatives who may be coming from out of town for the graduation on the party guest list or other family considerations, like vacations or summer job schedules. What time of day you decide to hold the party will depend on what type of party it is – a cookout, a pool party or a brunch.

Some families want to have the party at home while others prefer a private function room. Other families like the idea of an outdoor location, like a local park. It’s best to pick a location that matches your family’s usual style of entertainment. If you’ve never had a large party in your home, think twice about starting now! If things like mud or insects really bother you or your teen, an indoor venue might be a better choice. Many parents also recommend investing in a tent. As we all know, weather can be unpredictable, even in June. Your main goal is that everyone, especially the graduate, be comfortable.

Co-host or fly solo? Each one has its pros and cons. Co-hosting a party cuts down on both expenses and work, and allows the teen’s friends to invite more guests. However, if each of the teens and parents has very different mental pictures of what the party will be like, the situation can quickly deteriorate. Jen, the mother of two high school graduates, has co-hosted parties twice and offers this advice, “If you do decide to have a combined party, make it with grads who are active friends of your child. This increases the likelihood that you’re already comfortable with the other parents.”

To ensure that a co-hosted party is successful, families also need to know how to work both together and apart. In Jen’s case, parents divided up responsibilities by setup, cleanup, cost and food items. To make sure the teens were seen as individual, rather than a group, each family bought paper products in the colors of the college their graduate would be attending in the fall and made sure to have separate gift and photo tables and cakes for each teen. “We had one meeting, made a few phone calls and trusted each others’ competence and it went off great!” she says.

Choose an invitation/announcement. You have two choices here. You can send out a standard graduation announcement and a separate party invitation or you can design your own combination announcement. When my oldest son graduated, our announcement was a personal photo of him, along with the time and date of his graduation, when we were holding his party and what his plans were following graduation. We all thought it looked great and our older relatives, or friends who lived far away who couldn’t be part of the festivities, were especially appreciative of a comprehensive announcement. For those of you on a budget, it’s also quite cost-effective!

As you’re creating your mailing list, don’t forget those not-so-obvious people: a favorite babysitter, an especially helpful employer or mentor, or that really inspiring teacher or coach. All these people played an important part in your teen becoming the person he or she is, and would probably be thrilled to be invited to share in their success. Above all, don’t feel obligated to invite anyone that your teen doesn’t want at the party. This is their day!

Refreshments. You can have the party catered, prepare refreshments yourself or combine the two. What you decide to serve will be determined by how many guests are coming, your teen’s favorite foods and your own energy level. From personal experience, June offers this advice, “Don’t put so much focus on the food that you lose sight of the purpose of the party. You don’t want to be standing over a hot grill or stove the whole time and end up missing all the fun!”

With this in mind, our first graduation brunch consisted of my son’s favorite chicken salad, coffee cakes, bagels, fruit, juice and coffee. It was colorful, tasty and best of all, most of the food could be prepared ahead of time so I was able to spend the party visiting with guests and talking about how proud I was of him!

Decorations. Decorations are fairly inexpensive and add a festive touch. Some teens like to make their own or you can drive to a party supply store together and pick up some banners, balloons – whatever makes it feel like a celebration.

Extras. Most teens love music so if they want to include it in their party plans, let them. You can get a live band (many graduates have friends that play in bands), hire a DJ or simply hook up their iPod to the stereo. Some adult guests may not like the noise but try to remember whose party it is.

With your teen, create a personal photo display or memorabilia exhibit of their school career. Include pictures of them as a baby, with their friends, at school functions and with their family. You can also showcase awards, trophies and positive press about them. Guests enjoy seeing this progression in your teen’s life and you will too!

Have a gift table with a card basket. This helps keep everything in one place so it will be easier to make a list for thank-you notes after the party is over.

Don't forget to... Have “the talk” with your teen. Your job as a parent isn’t over yet, no matter what your teen says. As the party season enters full swing, a gentle reminder about the long-term consequences of poor choices is always a good idea. Openly addressing issues like underage drinking, pranks that go awry or social media postings that could backfire on their future plans doesn’t make you a killjoy. It simply shows you’re aware of the potential perils of the season.

Take time to pat yourself on the back. With all these details to attend to, it’s no wonder that many parents lose touch with what’s happening within your family. Your child has worked hard to receive their diploma but you’ve worked hard too. School-related experiences probably encompass a great deal of the memories you’ve shared together over the years.

Remember those elementary school Mother’s and Father’s Day cards? How about all of the plays, concerts and sporting events you attended? Or teachers’ conferences (good and not so good!), school meetings or chaperoning field trips or dances you’ve been a part of? As graduation approaches, take a few quiet minutes to praise yourself for a job well done, and to wish your teen well on this next step of their journey toward adulthood.

Sue is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to family magazines. Contact her at

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