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Birthday Party Etiquette Q&A

The Politics of Birthday Parties

By Amalah

Hi Amy!

I’m a longtime reader and LOVE your advice and since this is something I’m trying to figure out I thought your wise words would help me out. I have three girls 5, 3 and 1 who now that they are getting a little bit older seem to be getting invited to more and more birthday parties. Specifically, birthday parties from kids in their class (or Mother’s Day out) whose parents I’m not close with and may or may not know the sibling makeup of my family.

Now my conundrums, how do I deal with one child being invited and not the others? I’m certainly not coming from the place that all my kids should be invited. I know that those jumpy house/bowling center/kid museum parties are pricey and only allot a certain number of party guest spots. I also want my girls to learn they can’t always be invited to everything and they will get their turn soon. However, in my area parents expect you to stay the whole time while your child is at the party. Why? I get the safety issue of having so many kids and needing to keep an eye on them but why not just invite as many kids as you can safely watch? Why do parents expect you to take two plus hours of your time on a Saturday to go to their kid’s party and how do I manage this expectation with three kids? Do I just say “sorry I have to bring my other two kids and I’ll cover their costs”? Do I arrange babysitting or have my small business owner husband take the kids with him?

Now my three year old was just invited to her first party and I can only imagine how this issue is going to become more and more prevalent in the coming years. Do you limit how many parties your kids can attend? I’m just at a loss on how to proceed without becoming the “birthday party scrooge.” What happened to the days when you just had some kids in your neighborhood over for some cake?

Laura the Party Pooper


This question could not have rolled in at a better time: Noah’s birthday party is on Sunday. Ezra’s party is next Saturday. I am ready to murder birthday parties.

So let’s start by tackling your general laments one by one, in no particular order:

What happened to the days when you just had a few kids over for cake?

I once read that the “rule” for an appropriate party size is your kid’s age, plus two. So a 5-year-old’s party should have seven guests. That sounds PERFECT, right? Here’s why that’s harder than it sounds:

1) School policies. If you send invitations to school, you have to invite everyone in the class. Full stop, not negotiable. Even if the class is 30 kids. Sure, you’re perfectly free NOT to send invitations to school and invite the kids of your choosing directly, via mail or email, but good luck getting that information out of the school. Particularly if your child’s birthday is in the beginning of the school year, like Noah and Ezra. It takes about three months for all the forms to go out and permission slips signed and privacy rights disclosed before we ever see a directory or class email list. Much too late for my kids’ birthdays. And of course, every year there are a ton of new kids with parents I’ve never met (and might not ever meet), and email addresses I have from last year’s list are outdated and people move around a lot in this area and GAH NEVER MIND I WILL JUST SEND 25 DAMN INVITES TO SCHOOL AND BE DONE WITH IT.

2) Size limits. We’re throwing two parties at the same dumb indoor bouncy place. (Why? Because I had to send out over 25 damn invites for each party. There is NO WAY we can accommodate that many kids and parents in our townhouse. Especially if it rained or was unseasonably cold and outdoor entertainment wasn’t an option. Plus, while I love entertaining, I’ve done the at-home party and personally prefer the whole “take my money and let me not have to do a single blessed thing” approach. I am baking the boys’ cakes, and that is freaking IT.) (Though I reserve the right to change my mind tomorrow and go order some cupcakes.) Now, the SMALLEST party size this particular venue will book is 10 kids. And you can only book a party that small on a weekday. For a weekend party, you must commit to at least 15 kids. And the birthday child (and his/her siblings) are included in that count, so maybe we should round up to 20 or 25? Especially once we add in some neighbors and other friends with kids?

So much for a 5-year-old’s celebration with seven guests.

Why do parents expect you to stay the whole time?

Rest assured, there is some light at the end of this particular tunnel. By first grade, most parties we attended started seeing an increase in parental drop-offs. It became more of a personal comfort thing. I believe some of the party venues have their own policies (so parents might *have* to stay for liability/insurance reasons), however, so it depends. Last year we did a joint birthday party for the boys — age 6 and 4 — and the only parents who stayed were 1) ones who brought siblings/multiple kids (more on that in a bit), 2) ones who brought 3- or 4-year olds, and 3) the special needs parents.

So probably, when your oldest starts attending parties in the 6-year-old realm you’ll be able to drop her off. In the meantime, remember that these parties can be a lot fun for little kids…but also big, loud and overwhelming. Some have a lot of structure and transitions that a preschooler will need support getting through, and some are just bedlam with a high probability of someone getting bonked or bumped or hurt.

On the plus side, if you hope to avoid having to throw a 25-kid party of your own, attending parties is one of your best defenses. Meet the other parents. Figure out who your kid actually seems to like and play with and get the parents’ emails and phone numbers. Then you can avoid having to distribute invites through the school and keep your kid’s party at a more low-key level.

How do I deal with one child being invited and not the others?

You ask, and you offer to pay for the additional child. Or you use THIS situation to teach your children that “they can’t always be invited to everything and they will get their turn soon,” provided the date/time is doable for you to leave the siblings with your husband or send them to a playdate. (I would personally turn down any party that necessitated a babysitter, unless it was for one of my boys’ best friends or something.)

For our party this weekend, we have a LOT of siblings coming — a few people emailed me to ask and offered to pay; I assured them that it was fine and payment wasn’t necessary. I’d rather have some tagalong siblings than a whole slew of regrets, and even if we go over the booked number the price is really pretty negligible. But I appreciated being asked. A couple people just RSVP’d with more than one kid on the Evite and bah, that’s fine too, but again, I would have appreciated being asked. 

I once made that same Evite faux pas, however, back when Ezra was just a toddler — I didn’t realize that the party venue would include him in the head count at his age — and the mom (who I at least knew and was friends with) had to email me and apologize profusely for the fact that Ezra couldn’t come and I was all, “no! that’s fine! omg I’m sorry!” NEVER AGAIN. Always ask and never presume.

But we also don’t take All Of The Boys to All Of The Parties. We generally only take the invited child, particularly if it’s a booked venue and aimed at a particular age group. Jason and I usually take turns attending parties as well, and have sometimes flipped a coin to see who will go to the party and who will stay home with the other two. I am choosy about what parties I take Noah to, since the “wrong” sort of party can really exacerbate his sensory issues and be kind of a nightmare; Ezra is an angel from heaven so we generally go to any party that works with our schedule; Ike…well, the tide of party invites hasn’t really started for him yet. In another year I predict it’s going to start getting super nuts and I’ll have to start sending our regrets to parties simply because my sanity (and present/wrapping paper budget) can’t take it.

For the record, the low-key at-home party really ISN’T a thing of the past. It still happens. We’ve gone to a few and they are very nice and the kids enjoy them just as much as the big destination blow-outs. I feel like they are easier to do as your child gets older and develops real, established friendships that last year after year. You know the kids and have contact info for the parents, and know the sibling situation, etc. Thus you can keep the guest list small and the idea of providing food and cake and games and goody bags and supervision (and clean up!) for all those kids is a less daunting idea. It’s different when you aren’t really sure which kids your child even cares about or how in the world to invite those specific kids without running afoul of the school invitation policy or causing hurt feelings.

Because hey, I remember not getting invited to certain parties as a kid and I remember it sucking. Like a lot. I’m totally okay with my boys being told that they can’t automatically be their brother’s plus-one for every party, but I’m definitely not a fan of the whole “YOU’RE invited to my party but YOU’RE not, nyah nyah” thing. I would hate for it to happen to my child, and I would hate to (even inadvertently) teach them that it’s okay to exclude someone else. So fine, once again, I will send 25 damn invitations to school and just be done with it. Here, dumb indoor bouncy place, take my money.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


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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