Birthday Party Etiquette

Navigating the world of children’s birthday parties can certainly be overwhelming. Do I have to invite every kid in my child’s classroom? I love the ease of Evite, but is it rude? I love that my child is invited to so many parties, but what if I don’t have the cash for all those birthday presents? Don’t fret, here’s a roadmap for avoiding birthday etiquette potholes.

Happy Birthday … to Your Kid!

Let’s start with who to invite. Not everyone has the space or money to accommodate every child your kid wants to (or feels like they have to) invite. Talk to your child’s teacher to find out the rule at your kid’s school for inviting politely (e.g., invite all the girls to a girl party, invite only who you want but send invitations discreetly and don’t talk about it, etc.). You can always give your child a set number that you are willing to have at the party, and have her choose wisely.

Now that you have a number in mind, it’s time to hit the computer to set up that Facebook event and start inviting, right? Hold on a minute. How about instead you hit the party store with your little birthday munchkin and have him pick out some themed invitations he can either fill out himself or at least help decorate? After the invitations are mailed it’s alright to send out electronic reminders for an RSVP if you do not hear back from invitees within a few days before the party. You need an accurate count, after all, and you sending an email reminder or giving a quick phone call isn’t rude. Christine Glazier, mom of 6, says, “Call! I’m forgetful or maybe my child has lost the invitation!”

If someone asks what your kid wants for his birthday, it’s polite to say, “I’m sure anything your son picks out will be wonderful.”

Of course you aren’t going to ask for a $200 building brick set, but you might want to throw out some general small gift ideas. If you have no idea, art supplies are usually a sure bet.

Now you have to decide about the great gift opening controversy. Do you have your kid open gifts at the party or wait until after? For smaller groups, I say put the birthday kid in one chair and the gift bearer in another. Have your child open the gift bearer’s present while you snap a picture of them together. If the kids get bored, remind them cake is on the horizon. Oh, and don’t forget to remind your child about the basics of receiving gifts (say “thank you” even if you hate the gift or already have the same thing in four colors). Parents: promptly put the gifts out of sight so new things don’t get broken or lost. Then again, it’s always permissible to forgo the opening of gifts especially at a large gathering as it can become a timely operation.

These days many kids are either allergic to some food item or their parents won’t allow them to eat certain products. So you might want to add a line in your invitation asking to be told of any food allergies. If an attendee is allergic to something, and if you can easily accommodate them, it’s just a thoughtful thing to do. It’s always a good idea to choose foods that are generally well tolerated and a few healthy items can’t hurt either. A lower sugar load can cut down on the frenetic pace at the event.

It’s up to you if you want to send home goody bags or favors with the kids. Maybe you can’t afford them or just think they are ecologically ridiculous. At one party my daughter attended, the girls painted wooden birdhouses to take home. Some parents prefer to send home one substantial item instead of a bag of candy. For example, if your child has a pool party you could send home an inexpensive, but cute pool toy with each guest.

To thank or not to thank? Remember that picture you snapped earlier? Have it printed and place it in a thank you note that your child writes (or maybe he can just “sign” it if he’s too small). Thank you notes are mandatory! Parents – or kids – who say thank you notes are obsolete are just plain wrong.

Happy Birthday … to Someone Else’s Kid!

It’s hard to watch your child get upset over not being invited to a party because, even as adults, we know how that feels. Explain to your child that maybe the parents of the birthday kid had to limit the number of guests and that it’s most likely nothing personal. If you remain calm there’s a good chance your child follow suit. This is a great time to model appropriate behavior.

What if Audrey came to your daughter’s party recently, but now, even though your daughter has been invited, she can’t attend Audrey’s party? Friends, you have enough to worry about in your life without keeping track of this sort of thing. Please don’t worry about giving a gift anyway unless you want to, unless this is a great friend of your child’s or unless you want to go broke.

What if you have many more children than your friend does? Well, you have two choices here. You can either splurge on a big present for her kid annually or take care of her in little ways throughout the year (grab her a coffee, pay for her movie, etc.).

If you have more kids than just the one who was invited, and you have to be with your other children, ask the birthday child’s parent if you can, for instance, just drop off the invited child for the party. The hostess might be OK with supervising your kid especially if the children are a bit older. Or another parent who is attending with their child might be willing to take and watch out for your child as well. One thing is for sure, do not just show up with your huge family when you only RSVP’d for one. That would be rude.

What to spend? Jill Connors, mom of 5, says, “I like to keep it close to $10, but will occasionally spend up to $20 as it gets harder as the kids get older.” There is no magic number, but make sure your child participates in the process of picking out the gift. If your party budget is closer to zilch, consider baking something with your child to give to the birthday child or make a special craft as a gift. Angelina Lawson, mom of one, shares, “When I see some fun toys in the Target clearance bins, I stock up. I use the Sunday comics as my tissue paper and reuse previous birthday bags – it’s the new trend.”

If the party is at a place where there is an admission fee and you simply can’t afford it right now, it’s OK to turn down the invitation. You might want to have the birthday child over for a playdate another time to give them their gift and celebrate with them.

Birthday parties don’t need to be overwhelming. If you are giving one, or going to one, keep it simple and make it a rule to stress less.

Kerrie McLoughlin is the seasoned mom of five who writes about her controlled household chaos at thekerrieshow.com.


son picks out will be wonderful.”