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Birthday Bash

I used to look forward to my son's birthday, but the event isn't nearly as much fun as it once was. The lad is catching on.

First birthdays are the best. One-year-olds have no idea what a birthday is, and no expectations means no disappointments. You don't have to deck the walls with balloons and crepe paper. You're not required to let a mob of young, unruly party guests drool ice cream, cake frosting and assorted kiddie-juices all over your furniture. Nor must you chaperone them to one of those numbingly cute theme-pizzerias for one of the ugliest afternoons of your life.

Hell, when you get right down to it, you don't even have to shell out for presents, because your yearling doesn't know what those are, either.

Should you feel compelled to observe the tradition, however, you can buy the kid a vacuum cleaner or a garbage disposal. Slap some brightly colored ribbons on it, sing a few lively choruses of "Happy Birthday" . . . and go to bed confident that, by morning, he will have no memory whatsoever of his expensive "gift," the gala bash thrown in his honor, or you, for that matter.

Not only that, you'll be the proud owner of a brand-new household appliance you never would have purchased for yourself.

Second birthdays are almost as nice. At that age, young'uns are just beginning to get the idea that there's something special about the occasion, but the concept of automatic gift-getting for no reason at all continues to elude them.

And since most two-year-olds have yet to learn how to count, one fabulous gift is as many as a thousand. Even better, paper-bag puppets qualify as fabulous gifts.

If the birthday babe has developed an early knack for numbers, you can still save yourself a wad o' dough and create for him the optical illusion that he's being literally showered with treasures. It's easy: just give him a paper-bag puppet, distract him ("Look! A squirrel!" works every time), grab the bag, regain his attention, and give it to him again.

After a few hours of this, any two-year-old in the world would consider you generous to a fault.

Unfortunately, such deceptions don't work as well by the time Year Three rolls around. Thanks to his blabbermouth pals, the little man is now getting hip to the benefits he can wring out of this, his own, personal holiday. He's aware that birthdays mean MORE STUFF, he can count, and he expects you to invite into your home every playmate he's ever had to see all the neat, new plastic crap he owns and THEY DON'T.

Although these discoveries take a good deal of fun out of the proceedings, parents continue to have an advantage in the fact that even the sharpest three-year-olds aren't real bright. It's tricky, but if you make a huge fuss over whatever horribly lame or practical gift it is you've given them, the average child can be convinced that he's struck gold.

"SOCKS! A whole big BAG of 'em! You're so lucky! Boy, I wish I had a WHOLE BIG BAG OF SOCKS like that! You must be a VERY GOOD BOY to get SOCKS for your VERY SPECIAL BIRTHDAY! Say, do you think I could BORROW some of those WONDERFUL socks one day?"

Don't worry about overdoing it, because you can't. In fact, the bigger fool you make out of yourself, the better. It will be another five or six months before your kid begins to suspect that you are untrustworthy, and at least a year before he's absolutely certain of it.

My son will soon be celebrating the fourth anniversary of his birth, and he's approaching the big day like a pro. Now a full-fledged material boy, he knows there will be a party and that he'll be bagging a ton of merchandise whether he's good, naughty or suddenly gets the urge to become a serial killer.

He can spot bogus grown-up excitement faster than he can locate the toy aisle in a supermarket.

He's fully prepared to make Mommy and Daddy's life miserable if they don't deliver exactly what he ordered.

And anyone who shows up at the festivities with a vacuum cleaner, a paper-bag puppet or a big bag of socks is begging to be struck from the "God bless" list at the end of his nightly prayers.

So the fun is gone, and it isn't likely to perk back up. Next year he'll probably want to spend the afternoon at a theme-pizzeria.