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 a big deal (and big business!), it’s understandable that parents want to get it right. While there’s no formula for the “perfect” party, avoiding these party-planning pitfalls keeps the focus where it belongs — on celebrating your not-so-little one’s big day.
1. Always RSVP.
In today’s überconnected 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. This leaves the party-planning parents to estimate the number of guests attending or track down and recontact all invited guests’ parents about whether they’ll attend. And nobody has time for that.
Whether you can or can’t attend, respond to invitations — including online and text invites — 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. Be clear about the sibling question.
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 and manageable on a smaller scale.
Avoid this sticky subject by clearly addressing paper invitations to the invited child. 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.
3. Go easy on the goodie bags.
Goodie bags filled with dollar-store junk irk most parents, so consider skipping 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 fete look ho-hum by comparison.
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 has 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 waterslide, 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.
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 to guests with mobility limitations include children’s museums, bookstores (some have party rooms or meeting rooms), libraries, craft stores, and accessible parks and playgrounds.
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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2017 and has been updated for 2023.