It happens all too fast: One minute, you’re wiping up the crumbs from the first-birthday cake smash. A few whirlwind years later, your precocious preschooler brings home a stack of birthday party invitations penned by parents you’ve never met. Party-invitation emails invade your inbox, and group texts detailing last-minute party plans zip back and forth with the urgency of national security missives. Your child has hit the birthday party scene, and it’s hoppin’.
Given that kids’ birthday parties are big business — the average party venue charges around $300; add in the costs of decorations, food and favors, and the bill can easily top $500 — understandably, parents want to get it right. That’s easier said than done, though. Kids begin socializing with children outside the family circle in preschool and kindergarten, setting the stage for misunderstandings (do parents drop off the kids or do parents stay?) and gaffes (forgetting to buy enough cake for parents to have a slice, too — sorry!).
Parents bring different expectations, cultural norms, communication styles and budgets to the party-planning process, and etiquette can fall through the cracks, says Jacqueline Whitmore, an internationally recognized etiquette expert, author and founder of The Protocol School of Palm Beach. And the increasingly paperless world of party communications leaves room for etiquette missteps; According to online stationer Punchbowl, 73 percent of parents prefer to send online invitations.
While there’s no formula for the “perfect” party, avoiding these party-planning pitfalls keeps the focus where it belongs — celebrating your not-so-little one’s big day.
1. Always RSVP.
In today’s uber-connected world, responding to party invites has never been easier; emailing, texting or simply checking a box on a web-based invitation takes all of 30 seconds. But these days, many guests mistakenly consider RSVPs optional, says Whitmore. This leaves the party-planning parents to estimate the number of guests attending or track down and re-contact all invited guests’ parents about whether they’ll attend. And nobody has time for that.
“It gets frustrating when people don’t reply at all or respond ‘maybe’ but don’t update as to whether they’ll come or not,” says Raina Johnson, a Tacoma mom of three boys.
“If you’re fortunate enough to be invited to a party, respond as quickly as possible,” says Whitmore. Whether you can or can’t attend, respond to invites — including online and text invitations — within a week at the longest. And if plans change and your child can’t attend, contact the host ASAP so that food, activities and party favors earmarked for your child can be repurposed.
2. Skip the sibs.
As soon as invitations go out, the “Siblings welcome?” queries start pouring in. And some parents will show up with their entire brood in tow. This stressful scenario stretches party budgets and hosts’ patience, because some parties are simply more enjoyable on a smaller scale.
“We do small birthday parties at our house, and if a child comes with a sibling or two and both parents, the party triples in size for food, gift bags and activities,” says Gretchen Coulson Smith, a Tacoma mom of two.
Party activities aren’t always well-suited to younger sibs, says Chang. Her parties can involve experiments with chemicals; although not toxic or dangerous, the activities are not designed for toddlers.
Avoid this sticky subject by clearly addressing paper invitations to the invited child, says Whitmore. This gets trickier for online invites, which may not allow senders to specify an invitee. In those cases, a quick email or text with “We hope Amelia can attend Jake’s party!” can spare the awkwardness later on.
On the other hand, “the more the merrier” parents can let guests know that sibs can attend with a simple “Siblings welcome!” note on the invitation. When you’re not sure — because of limited space at your venue, for example — write “Please inquire about siblings.” And if sibs aren’t on the guest list, consider making the party a “drop off” celebration (also, of course, indicated on the invitation).
3. Go easy on the goodie bags.
Goodie bags filled with Dollar-store junk irk Amy Hussey, a Tenino mom of two. “Keep it consumable so it doesn’t add to the clutter,” she says. Or skip goodie bags entirely — most families won’t miss them.
If you just cannot bear to abandon giveaways, consider a copy of the birthday child’s favorite book, a packet of seeds or a bulb to plant, a single can of Play-Doh, crayons and a small notepad, or a take-home craft kit. A party favor that fosters family time or quiet play after the excitement of a party will be welcomed by guests’ parents.
4. Keep it real.
A top parental pet peeve: supersize (or super spendy) soirees that make your casual neighborhood cupcake-and-juice fête look ho-hum by comparison. “I’m tired of over-the-top parties that make my kiddos wonder why we don’t spend $5,000 on their birthday,” says Lynne Williams, an Eagle, Idaho, mom of three. “We went to one a few years ago that had two bouncy houses, hired entertainment, catered food, a full bar, craft projects ... all for a 3-year-old.”
While the size of the budget and guest list are personal preferences, you can skip some stress (and save some green) by focusing on party details your child will notice and remember. And consider this: It will be hard to impress a teenager who’s been given mega-parties since babyhood. One way to dial down the crazy is to only include activities and entertainment that can reasonably fit into a 90-minute party — roughly the party attention span of a kindergartner — with enough scheduled time for cake and relaxed socializing. That means you don’t need the bounce house, band, backyard water slide, pizza-making station and petting zoo. One or two “main event” activities, with a quieter option such as crafting or coloring for overstimulated kiddos, is festive without feeling forced.
Scale back on decorations, too, says Yin Chang, a mom of two and co-owner of L3 Academy, a Montclair, New Jersey, learning center that hosts STEM birthday parties. “Kids either completely ignore decorations or they look at them for five seconds.”
5. Make it a party for everyone.
Parents of children with restricted diets often assume that party food will be off-limits to their child and may bring their own; if party fare will be allergen-free, let parents know on the invitation. Ask parents of children with special needs how you can make their child more comfortable. Party locales that tend to be accessible for guests with mobility limitations include children’s museums, bookstores (some have party rooms or meeting rooms), libraries, craft stores, and accessible parks and playgrounds.
6. Keep it fair.
The fairest approach is to invite your kid’s entire class. But if that proves too costly or overwhelming, you can keep it a little more intimate and invite a small group of your kid's close friends, say 20 percent of the class. Whatever you do, do not invite a large group and exclude one or two kids from the class. Try and keep it as fair as possible.
Most classroom teachers prefer not to have party invitations distributed at school, especially when and if not every child in the class is invited. Some schools even have policies about this. There are many ways to circulate invites ― prevent hurt feelings and distractions from learning by avoiding classroom distribution.
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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2017 and has been updated for 2021.