For many parents, the words "birthday party" have an ominous ring. And no wonder - there are tales from the front line almost too scary to recount, from pizza on the family room ceiling to ice cream finger paintings on the wall.

Usually these mishaps occur during a lull in activity. To keep the partygoers' attention and prevent minor skirmishes, I offer the following survival plans:Plan A: The Tea Party. This is an especially nice option if calm is the name of the game. Set the tone with teapot invitations; make a cardboard stencil and trace the shape on fancy papers. At the party, alternate children's chairs with a seated teddy bear-or doll.

Prop a "Drink Me" sign on the teapot; fill it with grape juice or milk. Serve peanut butter and jelly finger sandwiches.

Offer a costume trunk of exotic hats and costume jewelry from the thrift shop for dress-up and charades. Play pin the spout on the teapot (made from oak tag or butcher paper). Children's tea sets make civilized party favors.

Plan B: Pajamarama. This is the ultimate sleep-over. Hold sleeping bag sack races and a children's video fest. Each child is issued a slumber party overnight kit filled with whatever's appropriate: play lipsticks, charms, novelty soaps, curlers, barrettes, nail polish, flashlights, glow-in-the-dark toys, books of bedtime stories, and crystal balls for fortune telling. The next morning, make pancakes in the shape of each child's first initial. Or serve waffles topped with ice cream and a candle in each one so everyone makes a wish.

Plan C: Car Show. In a workshop or a clean garage, transform a sawhorse table into a car lover's paradise, with miniature cars, helmets, goggles and driving gloves as a centerpiece. Set traffic cones in the driveway and mark chalk lanes for balloon races (children hop to finish line with balloons between their knees). Borrow a friend's classic car to sit in front of the house with balloons attached. Send guests home with car posters.

Plan D: Craft Bash. Hold a T-shirt decorating gala in the yard; supply guests with prewashed shirts and paint, crayons and pens made especially for fabric. Or mix up a few vats of dye and tie-dye (ball the T-shirts and "tie" with rubber bands). The party could also feature handmade paper airplanes, friendship bracelets and clay figurines. Have instructions on hand and practice in advance. This way, your party activities are also your favors.

Plan E: The Peter Pan Party. Paint your own map of Never Never Land on arty paper and hand-letter the invitations; scroll and tie like a treasure map and send in mailing tubes. On the day of the party, issue each guest another map with clues for a treasure hunt. The booty? Sacks of gold chocolate coins, party rings and necklaces, pirate bandannas and eye patches, fairy wands and "Peter Pan" storybooks.

When it's all over and the candle smoke has cleared, you'll see that having a bit of strategy on your side can save the day. Declare victory!