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Etiquette Questions Answered

Joint Birthday Party Invite Etiquette

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

I’ve been reading and appreciating Smackdown for years. Now I’ve run up against something that I think you might be able to untangle for me. So, birthday parties. My sons’ s birthdays are about 20 days apart, and they will turn 5 and 7 in the fall. Every year we throw one birthday party for them either at our house or a local nature center. They’re perfectly happy sharing and I super really don’t want to spend the time or money throwing two parties two weeks apart. The wrinkle this year, though, is that the boys will be in different schools. They’ve already started to make their own friends and I know this will be greatly accelerated once classes start. What I want to do is allow them each to add a few of their individual friends to the gang of shared friends they still have. What I can’t figure out is how to manage invitations and gifts.

If I send invites that call out the shared nature of the party, parents will feel obligated to give both boys a gift. That doesn’t make any sense for the families that don’t even know one of them, and I fear they would perceive it as forward and gift grabby. But if I make separate, individual invitations then people are going to show up and realize it’s a shared party and possibly feel uncomfortable about not having been given an opportunity to decide how to handle. I know I would feel awkward if it were me. I could include a note just saying, “Don’t feel like you need two gifts. Or any gifts!” but my skin crawls at the thought of mentioning gifts in the invite. It doesn’t matter at all to me who brings what, and not brining anything is fine. We don’t open gifts during the party and it’s not like anyone is counting. The boys share all their toys and I would probably just let them open the whole lot together later.

My only goal is for the kids to have fun and the adults to have as little stress as possible. How would you handle this? I considered switching to let them each pick one friend for a special day, but they really do love their party.

Thanks so much!

So I’ve thrown a couple shared birthday parties (my two oldest have birthdays two weeks apart) and have also attended a few. I have personally done both of the invitation scenarios you mention, and have seen both done for other parties, and to my knowledge nobody felt any stress or obligation or awkwardness.

While obviously our birthday party experiences are not the Be All End All Final Word On How Things Are Done, I can tell you that nobody — NOBODY — brought a gift for the sibling their child did not know. I think it’s pretty well understood that you bring a gift for the child who invited you, not the sibling who invited his/her own friends and has no idea who you are. The only people who show up with two gifts at our joint parties are the people who know both children — the shared friends/overlap group. And that’s totally, 100% fine. (Especially since the gift-opening all happens at home, where my boys tend to ignore the “TO” tag and rip into the gifts indiscriminately while I frantically try to keep a decent thank-you card list going.)

So when we’re invited to a sibling party, we bring a gift for the child we know. Unless they also invited MY child’s siblings, in which case I’ve occasionally brought a second small gift. HOWEVER, we’ve included siblings at our own joint parties and I don’t think anyone else ever did that. Other times I’ve just spent a little more on the primary kid’s gift as a thank you/acknowledgement for entertaining/feeding my whole wolf pack at their pricey party.

We’ve also been invited to parties that did not specify the joint nature, due to the separate invite structure (i.e. paper invites to school, electronic invites to the shared/overlap group) and I don’t recall anyone ever commenting on being caught off-guard or thinking that was strange. I mean, maybe in Ye Olden Tymes when we opened all the gifts in front of our guests it would be weird if you didn’t bring something for both kids to open. But for today’s modern party, where the public gift opening ceremony has been discontinued (and you know the kids are both going to get an impressive haul no matter what), it’s just not something to worry about/stress over.

If anyone does bring two gifts, they get two thank-you cards, one from each child. Teach the child who didn’t technically invite that guest to include something like “It was fun meeting you at my party.” Etiquette skillz for the new generation!!

Lastly, some thoughts on including “No gifts” on the invites. That’s actually perfectly fine. People do it all the time. (Probably not so much with something wishy-washy like “don’t feel like you HAVE to,” because everyone knows some people will, and nobody wants to look like the only person who took you up on the offer.) HOWEVER! The “No gifts” addendum can be problematic because 1) some people will just go “whatever” and show up with a gift, which makes the people who followed directions feel weird, and 2) some people just aren’t going to notice it and automatically show up with a gift, and then THEY get to feel weird.

And by “some people” I mean ME, because I have done that second scenario TWICE in the past year. Just completely missed the little P.S. at the bottom of the invite, arrived and started looking around for the gift table/pile/bin, only to realize that ohhhhh. There isn’t one. Whoops. (The last time I did that was for a  joint sibling party, BTW. Nice paper invite with both kids’ picture on it. They rented a movie theater and screened Frozen and siblings were all welcome. WOW. AWESOME. I LOVE FROZEN. I bought a really nice Lego set for the kid we knew, and was completely confused when we arrived and there were clearly 150 other guests and the gift pile had like, three things. So at least a couple other people made the same mistake?)

I’ve also been on the losing end of the OTHER scenario — a good friend once specified “No gifts” for her toddler’s birthday and we obeyed. And we were the only ones who did! Everybody else showed up with fun presents because “we just HAD to bring him SOMETHING, it’s his BIRTHDAY” and this was years ago and I still remember the awkward like it was yesterday.

Anyway, TANGENT IS TANGENTIAL. Don’t worry too much about this. Either option you’re debating is fine. If you’re doing nice printed invites for everybody, it probably makes sense to pick one joint design and let everybody decide how they’d like to proceed. If anyone inquires about gifts while RSVPing, you can make it perfectly clear at that point that two gifts is not expected, or even one, for that matter. “Just your presence is all that matters!” If you’re doing them in separate batches (i.e. printed invites to school, email for everybody else), I think it’s perfectly fine to leave the joint nature off the school invites and only include the child who is actually extending the invitation. And then you can move on to the next stage of etiquette hell: Why Don’t People Freaking RSVP Anymore It’s Really Not That Hard.

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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Kimberly
Guest

Looking forward to the comments on this one since my kids’ birthdays are just a day apart! I’m not at all offended by “please no gifts” on the invitation, and I respect the family’s wishes. I’m not going to let other people make me feel bad for following the rules. 

Are your kids old enough and/or game enough to turn their party into some sort of collection for a local charity? e.g. bring a book for the literacy center, a toy for Toys for Tots, etc, socks and mittens for the homeless shelter, etc.

Books
Guest
Books

Mine is turning 6 in two weeks and I have officially given up on the “No gifts, please” note. I did it the first 5 years as my child gets plenty of stuff from us and family and was young enough not to notice anything missing. Inevitably several people ignore it and then I felt like I’d made it awkward for the people who followed it and came empty handed as instructed. Some people who just felt like they HAD to bring something had their child draw a picture, or brought a card with a $5 gift card to the… Read more »

Erin
Guest
Erin

I don’t have kids yet, so maybe this is why I didn’t know, but has the public gift opening ceremony really been discontinued? We always opened presents at childhood birthday parties — and actually, that still happens at most adult birthday parties I’ve attended. Is this a regional thing? Or are the people I know just incredibly tacky? Frankly I’d be happy to see it go by the wayside, since watching someone else open gifts is super boring, and the whole thing is terribly awkward for those who didn’t bring a gift — but in my experience, someone at the… Read more »

Kate
Guest
Kate

My kids are 5 and almost 3 – when we first started going to b-day parties for my oldest, I thought it was weird that no one opened the gifts!  I remembered always watching the gift opening at parties when I was a kid.  But yeah, I’d say for the most part, the gift opening happens at home.  We’ve been to a few parties that have been smaller and the birthday kid has opened gifts and it hasn’t been weird at all, but for the big parties, it’s usually skipped. (and in case this is a regional thing, I’m in… Read more »

JMH
Guest
JMH

My kids are 13 and 10…every party we have been to in the past included opening gifts. My daughter’s friends like to make each other homemade gifts (necklaces, picture frames, etc) and I think they would be very disappointed if they didn’t get to see the birthday girl open their gift. That being said, most of the parties they attend have 10 kids at the most so opening gifts doesn’t take very long.

B.A.
Guest
B.A.

Yeah, my kids are 9 and (almost) 7, and most, but not all of the parties we go to have gift unwrapping as part of the party. I have let mine open gifts at the party as well. I didn’t realize it was considered gauche to do so! (Oh, and FWIW, I’m in the south.)

Melissa
Guest
Melissa

Oh dear heavens, thank you for saying this:   “But for today’s modern party, where the public gift opening ceremony has been discontinued.” Everyone here still opens them and our kids are still little, so the soon to be 4 year old zeroes in on one gift and wants it open to play with asap…hell to the rest of the pile. And the soon to be 2 year old just gets so upset to open a gift and we take it way, only to do it again a few more times.  We do NOT want to open gifts at their upcoming… Read more »

Kim too
Guest
Kim too

In our corner of the woods, it’s optional.  Some people do, some don’t.  Personally, I like to watch people open presents, and my kids love to see the gifts they’ve chosen opened, handmade birthday cards and all. I’ve seen it go bad both ways (the latest was that my daughter insisted that her friend loved science and needed a science kit present, which necessitated a last minute gift run. When we got the thank you note, it was for something completely different and generic.  Understandable, and not a huge deal, but disappointing nonetheless.) We ran out of time at my… Read more »

Jill
Guest
Jill

I agree it’s good manners to open the gifts in front of the people who bring them.  Of the birthday parties we have attended there have only been a couple where the gifts weren’t opened.  I thought it was really rude when the parents would just pack up the presents and throw them in the trunk like “whatever, these aren’t a big deal” as if we hadn’t spent a lot of time picking something out for their kid. At the parties where gifts *were* opened (for 5 year olds) all the other kids seemed just as excited to see what… Read more »

Arialvetica
Guest
Arialvetica

I’m due w/ baby #2 the week before my son’s birthday, so I’ll be watching this discussion closely too! Amy, I have also been that Awkward Guest who didn’t bring a gift when the invite said NO GIFTS. I think you just have to give yourself a pat on the back for honoring the parents’ wishes and do an inner eye-roll at the people who ignored the parents’ wishes.  I do think it’s in VERY poor taste for the hostess of a “no gifts” party to then do a huge Gift Opening Ceremony (this happened at a party we attended… Read more »

Kat
Guest
Kat

I just spent like 10 minutes writing about how I am one of those parents that says no presents, and when people ignore it (or miss it, which totally happens) I can’t help but get slightly frustrated. We don’t need any more toys in this house, if you want to do something nice, invite us to the zoo or a picnic or something! BUT – I realized that has pretty much nothing to do with this particular question. Anyway – I think Amy’s right. I also think that birthday parties in general are kind of…overdone these days. What happened to… Read more »

agirlandaboy
Guest

Whhhhhhhyyyyyyyy aren’t kids opening presents at their parties anymore? That was always one of my favorite parts as a kid, and as a parent I’m always eager to steal the cool gift ideas for future parties. Even moreso, I like that my kid can immediately connect the gift to the giver; it’s nice for him to be able to say, “I really love this new truck that Veronica got me for my birthday,” or whatever. It makes the whole thing seem less like a massive toy dump and more like a series of personal, thoughful gifts, which is what they… Read more »

MR
Guest
MR

Yes, THIS!! Seeing the joy on the kids face when they open the gift is the best part. And, having your child open gifts in front of people, and then express their joy and IMMEDIATELY thank people is really good practice for them. They need to learn that skill, especially if it is something they already have or didn’t want.

Holly
Guest
Holly

When my husband was a kid, he LOATHED the gift-opening thing at parties he attended because his mom ALWAYS wrapped up the most ridiculous items as presents for his friends and he was *soooooo embarrassed*. Nothing like a room full of 12 yo boys craning their necks to see who gave the picture frame or potpurri as a gift! SO, when I said we weren’t doing opening presents at the kids party (our oldest is 4, and parties are just controlled chaos, really), he was thrilled! Thought it was the best idea ever and why couldn’t they do that when… Read more »

Karen
Guest
Karen

I agree! I love opening gifts at the party. Of course there are awkward moments, but it’s fun and yes, gives the kids a good opportunity to learn to be civilized, and eliminated the toy dump thing.

And, I also showed up to a neighbor’s 1 year old party with no gift as requested but was the only one who didn’t. So the group gift opening went on forever (large family party, I should have known…). It wasn’t a big deal at all until my 4 year old started incessantly asking “where’s our gift mama?”. sigh.

Stefanie
Guest
Stefanie

I like that people don’t open gifts at parties anymore. First, you get to avoid the whole “I have this already/hate this” comments from young children who have not yet learned tact. Second, it eliminates fighting over the new toys among party guests. And finally, and again this is for young children, it eliminates jealousy among the children who are not receiving presents. When kids are older, I can see opening gifts in front of everyone.

IrishCream
Guest
IrishCream

I prefer not opening gifts at parties. I don’t like the focus on materialism, and the potential for hurt feelings and embarrassment as kids start comparing who got what. It can be painful for the kids whose families can’t afford a fancy present.

It’s also boring for the guests, and I’d rather my kids think of hosting a party as an opportunity to make things fun for their guests, not just fun for themselves.

That being said, I’m not secretly judging families who do it differently…it’s a long-standing tradition that I don’t get bent out of shape about. 

MR
Guest
MR

Ugh, I actually detest the “No gifts” for a kids birthday party. My girls were invited to their friend’s party, and the invite said “no gifts”. My 5 year old, who had recently learned to read was reading the invite, got to that part, and looked at me HORRIFIED and started crying because it was a BIRTHDAY party, of course you bring a gift! We settled on a super cute classic, but not overly common kids book, because you can never have too many, and if you do, you can donate them easily to just about anywhere. But, the mom… Read more »

Sara BA
Guest
Sara BA

Agreed–when did this become a thing? Is it because people have such huge, over the top, parties for their kids these days so the idea of opening all the gifts is too overwhelming? My DS was so fixated on whether his buddy had opened his present a couple days after that he really wanted me to ask his buddy’s mom, so then I felt like the jerk fishing for a thank you (which the other mom had already put in the mail and was in-transit, LOL!) when all my DS really wanted was the joy of seeing his buddy open… Read more »

Sara BA
Guest
Sara BA

OOps–meant that as a reply to the prior comment!

Joanna
Guest
Joanna

Yeah, if you’re being super-technical on etiquette stuff, the letter-writer is right–you’re not supposed to put “no gifts” because it’s a mention of some expectation of gifts. I’ve written it anyway and then felt weird as all my friends RSVP’ed with “Don’t be silly” and trucked in the gifts anyway–I’ve arrived with and without a gift at a “no gifts please” party and found no issue either time. At this point, five kids later, I feel like it’s just part of having/attending birthday parties in my area and that’s okay. I’d never look askance at anyone who chose not to… Read more »

Katie
Guest

Yeah, I will say that where we are (MN), at least at the parties we’ve attended people are still opening presents at parties more than half the time.  When my daughter turned 5 I was sort of inclined not to have her open presents at the party for the reasons you mentioned, but the kids were SO EXCITED to have her see what they got her that it just wasn’t feasible.  It’s not as big of a deal as when I was a kid (we’ve never done a thing where you sit in a circle and open each and every… Read more »

Laura
Guest
Laura

We recently did my son’s 7th party with donations to Heifer international instead of gifts. We could create our own registry page and I included a link to that in the evites. Some people gave online and some just put cash in a birthday card. It seemed to work better than “no gifts” because people could bring something, but I still didn’t end up with a houseful of new things. Some people brought regular gifts which was completely fine too.

slydegirll
Guest
slydegirll

To throw a wrench in the mix: You could specify that any money that would have been put toward a gift for one or both boys be instead donated to x charity cause. that sort of eliminates all awkward confusion entirely (other than those who also forget that…like me one time). Plus, teaches children the importance of giving and selflessness! and keeps you from accumulating even more stuff in your house you don’t really want/need! P.S. I was one of those kids with the joint birthday parties, and even though my sister and I were SEVEN years apart, we still… Read more »

Hillary
Guest
Hillary

I have a twin sister and my brother is born the day after us. We often had joint parties where my sister and I shared a gift and he got his own. ARGH. Now I say “no gifts” on my kids birthday party invites. I don’t want to deal with any of that!

Jelourai
Guest
Jelourai

It looks like the comments are coming from every direction so I’m going to add mine – just some reassurance that my sister and I were born on the same day but two years apart, we have ALWAYS had shared birthday parties, and neither of us were ever upset about it. We usually picked our own cake, though (and I mean that I picked the $1 box of Betty Crocker chocolate, and she picked the $1 box of vanilla). We often got “shared” gifts and that was fine. I appreciate the closeness even more as an adult because it means… Read more »

Hillary
Guest
Hillary

My siblings have birthdays in the same 2 day period and I love it now because we always have something we’re celebrating at the same time each year.

Rebekah
Guest
Rebekah

Wait, what is this open gifts later thing? I have a 2 year old, so we haven’t been to many kids’ birthday parties. Is this now what is done? Is this just for the kids’ party or for a family party too? Help! When I was growing up, opening gifts at the party is just what you did.

Liz
Guest
Liz

After attending one too many “no gifts please” parties where we were some of the only ones who didn’t bring gifts, I decided on a new policy: paper card that the kid makes (or we buy depending on time) with a $10 gift card to an ice cream place. That way, we have something to bring and the card doesn’t look like you’re breaking the no-gifts rule. Plus if the “no gifts” thing is meant as a “we invited a lot of people and don’t need 100 more plastic toys” plea, then the ice cream also satisfies that idea.

Karen
Guest
Karen

That’s a great idea!

Jillian K D
Guest
Jillian K D

I LOVE this idea.  I wouldnt feel right about not bringing a gift, but also dont want to annoy anyone by ignoring their requests.  I think this is a fantastic compromise! 🙂 

Alissa
Guest
Alissa

This is what I do, too.  Cuz who doesn’t like ice cream?  🙂  I am a slacker, though, I just buy a card and put the gift card inside.

Lauren
Guest
Lauren

Have each kid pick their favorite book, wrap it, and then everyone gets to pick one to take when they leave. This also takes care of the favor, which is another issue entirely.

MR
Guest
MR

I just also have to point out – all this confusion is exaclty why etiquette exists, so that people know what is expected. Trying to change etiquette is a confusing process. Maybe it needs to happen in this case, but it hasn’t officially happened yet. So, current etiquette still stands – invite people to your party. Don’t expect gifts. Don’t try to tell them what type of gift to give (unless they ask what you want), and be gracious no matter what they do gift or no gift-wise.

EB
Guest
EB

Okay, agreed. But then what is proper etiquette at a childs birthday party? Open gifts at the party, or no? I seriously don’t know.

MR
Guest
MR

According to Emily Post, you open the gift at the party, ooh and aah, and immediately thank the person. Then, because you have thanked them personally, you don’t need to send a thank you note.

Amy Renee
Guest
Amy Renee

My kids haven’t been invited to any joint sibling birthday parties, so I have no help for the OP. We did throw a no-gifts joint party with his best friend who’s birthday is only 2 weeks from his which went over well since they have the same overlapping friend group. For some ancedata regarding present etiquette : In our town, the general trend is no gifts parties for under 5 or so. Present generally not opened at large parties where there is something to do like swim or roller skate, especially if it’s the type of party involving the whole… Read more »

Meg in VT
Guest
Meg in VT

Augh, I so WISH there was no gift-opening at parties in our area. Everyone does it!  I am still dithering about having a joint party for my girls (birthdays 10 days apart and they are in the same joint preschool class this year at school), mainly because I think present opening at parties for kids is horrible (all the plastic crap, other kids being felt left out, boring, etc) but now I can’t really deny my kids their turn since they have been to so many parties where it happens. What about encouraging each guest to give the host child… Read more »

wyomom
Guest
wyomom

My sister and I are are one year and 3 days apart (yes my mother was hardcore) we always shared birthdays and usually got nearly identical Christmas presents. But when we were 8 and 9 we got to have seperate parties! And I still remember that. Inviting all my friends and not sharing the spotlight. We went back to sharing after that but it was so awesome to have that one year of individual parties. Definitely recommend that. My own girls are 3 weeks shy of being exactly 2 years apart but between the youngests birthday and the eldests we… Read more »

Stephanie
Guest
Stephanie

I am so glad that in general no one opens gifts at parties anymore. It takes forever, it’s super boring, and the kids get antsy waiting around. Anyway, as to the joint birthday parties. We’ve been invited to some (and hosted one) where the kids had birthdays near each other. These weren’t siblings, but friends. Anyway, I only brought a present for the child we actually knew. If not for the joint party, our daughter would never have been invited to the other kid’s party. And when we co-hosted a birthday party, we didn’t get presents from the families our… Read more »

Kim too
Guest
Kim too

People have many, many feelings about the gift opening thing. 2 unrelated kids in my mom’s group were born on the same day, so for the past couple of years there were joint parties complete with out of town relatives on both sides, and gift openings (yea! I like that much better, myself.)  J sat on one end, M sat on the other, and their respective friends/family gathered around them, with those of us who love both of them in the middle swiveling back and forth.  I don’t think the OP needs to worry.  People will understand why they are… Read more »

jill
Guest
jill

We have family-only parties for our kids’ birthdays except at the “big” birthdays (5, 10, etc).  I don’t like the “no gifts” thing because it’s a birthday party.  For a child.  Of course they should get a gift, that’s the whole point.  If you are of the “please don’t bring a gift b/c I don’t want 50 more plastic toys!” then maybe you shouldn’t be throwing an over-the-top party where you are inviting 50 kids to your 2 year-olds’ birthday party.  I commented earlier in response to opening vs. not opening (I’m in favor of opening the gifts) and I… Read more »

Kim
Guest
Kim

It’s fine if you don’t open presents at the party but then a thank you note needs to be sent. My son was invited to two birthday parties where the kids did not open the gifts no was the gift acknowledged with a thank you note. I have no idea if my gift was even opened or if it got lost in the throng of presents.

Tammy
Guest
Tammy

I am planning a party for my mom and my mother n law ( married to her son for 19 years,) so I would like to see if you may have a peom or something I could put in the invites for 2 moms