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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?

Best,
Laura the Party Pooper

OH MY GOD THE OPINIONS. I HAVE THEM. I HAVE SO MANY OF THEM.

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.

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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trish
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trish

We are being the Scrooge parents who don’t do a big party for each kid every year. We have two kids. We’ll do one proper party a year and that’s it. Last year Boy 1 got the big do at three with his whole (small) preschool class invited and I was really worried that the smaller family celebration was going to bum him out this year. But he turned out to be fine with just having the grandparents and a cousin over for cake and pizza. 

Leigh
Guest
Leigh

Luckily, my close group does family parties where siblings are specifically invited. 
For the big parties, we are ok with saying no and choosing sanity with three kids.

Suzy Q
Guest
Suzy Q

Please stop the insanity of goody bags. They are a waste of money and arose out of the self-esteem movement where no child goes home without a participation prize.  No parent seems to like them but no one seems to want to be the first one to stop. Be that brave parent; make it stop.

Fabs
Guest
Fabs

I ditto what Suzy Q said, I loathe goodie bags, both to hand out and to receive. A waste of money and all you get is crappy toys that don’t work or break right away.

Stephanie
Guest
Stephanie

I HATE goodie bags. After a birthday party, I’m always left with junky toys everywhere that either break right away, or break because I stepped on them. Like Amy, I always ask about siblings. If it’s not allowed, no big deal. I have a 4 year old and she’s invited to at least two or three birthday parties a MONTH. She always wants to go to them. Once, we were invited to three on the same day. Lord. I can’t WAIT for the day I can drop by child off at a birthday party. Seriously! Do I really have to… Read more »

JenVegas
Guest
JenVegas

I made goody bags for my kid’s 2nd birthday. I didn’t realize it was a “thing” I just got really excited about the space theme I created and wanted to send all of our friends’ kids home with some cool space-y stuff. He’s just going to be 3 this winter so we haven’t run into this whole For Real birthday party issue yet but I’m super afraid of it. When we lived in Chicago we had a really great indoor play space near our house, it was super low-key and allowed the kids to run around safely while the parents… Read more »

Microbial Tea
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Microbial Tea

Agreedo with Amalah. Better to ask permission in this case. Offer to pay, it will likely be politely declined. If the other parents say “no” do what you can, even if that means a “thanks but no thanks”. As to the comment thread: Goodie bags are what you make them. We always do an art project while everyone is arriving- origami animals, balsa wood planes, tie die shirts, bookmarks… whatever goes in the theme of the party. Then the kids take that, and a piece of cake (if there are leftovers so I don’t have to have them temptation in… Read more »

Lucy
Guest
Lucy

I have a just-turned 3 year old and a 7 year old and we do the at home parties. We live in Alaska and both kids birthdays fall in cold months, but so far we’ve still done mostly outdoor parties – treasure hunts in snow, obstacle courses in snow, Harry Potter themed snow-town building. We generally start with cake/happy birthday/candles (which most parents have tended to stay for) then the kids run around outside for an hour or so, then come in and have hot chocolate and popcorn or some other party-type food and then play some old-school party games… Read more »

Meera
Guest
Meera

Hi, I’m from Australia, and the general trend here is to just go to the park and have a BBQ. That way there’s loads of space and play areas for the kids, and everyone brings a plate for food, and it doesn’t matter how many come or what time. I realise this doesn’t help with parties you are invited to, but it does make it easier for parties you host – no clean up, no worry about numbers or catering.

Sara
Guest
Sara

I LOVE goody bags.  Love giving them away and love when my kids (3 years old) bring them home.  We bring the junky toys out with us to restaurants to keep the little ones entertained- and it doesn’t matter if they break or get left behind.  What could be better?  Goody-Bag-Grinches beware – I won’t give up my goody bags!

Nicole
Guest
Nicole

A very timely post for us. Our oldest turns 5 next Friday and we have 2 younger girls as well. We’re having the girls from her preschool class (5+ her best boy buddy) over for a pizza lunch. Luckily I’m friends with most of the moms and the siblings are close in age to my other girls. Even though I didn’t send invites to school, she’s still too young NOT to talk about her party in front of those not invited and completely understand that it might hurt feelings.

Autumn
Guest
Autumn

Now I get why my mom was so thrilled about my summer birthday.  Cause she only had to invite my friends who she could contact (basically turned into my Girl Scout troop) and didn’t have to deal with the school stuff. I’m dreading birthday parties with my 2 year old and her food allergies.  Just today a classmate brought nut inclusive confections to our supposedly “nut free’ day care.  At least I’m known as the crazy food mom so the teachers knew I would want to look at them, but GAH! (I digress).  I’m trying to figure our a non… Read more »

Kim
Guest
Kim

I don’t do goodie bags, but I usually do some sort of favor.  For my 6yo’s swim parties,I bought a bunch of swim/luau toys at the dollar store, and everyone picked one, For my 3yo superhero party, I made capes. 
But my crowning achievement is celebrating half birthdays.  My kids were born 1 week before and after Christmas.  I cannot handle or afford birthday parties then, and nobody else wants to, either.  So we go to pizza with some close friends, and then have parties outside in the summer.

Nancy
Guest
Nancy

We have twin girls who are 6 now and I relish the parties where I can drop them off after a few minutes of polite chitchat. I don’t know anyone else nor most of the kids, so these parties really tweak my own insecurities! At the most recent one though (big bouncy house place), I came back in time for cake and went and hit up another awkward-looking mom so we were able to commiserate about hating these things. I felt like maybe I was modeling the “just go introduce yourself” behavior I want the girls to learn. Even though… Read more »

Diana
Guest
Diana

As a practical matter you could probably ask one of the other parents attending to watch your child for the 2 hours and just return to pick her up.

Jenn
Guest
Jenn

I’m pregnant with my first child, so I don’t have any personal experience with this, but I’m perturbed by the idea of bringing along other siblings to parties.  I don’t agree with the idea of bringing along other siblings regardless of whether you pay for them or not (unless there is no other option- in which case I would probably decline the invitation altogether).  I wouldn’t ask to bring along an uninvited person to an adult party, so why are the rules different for children’s parties?  Even as a kid I never experienced this.  It was always clear to me… Read more »

Amy
Guest

I just stopped in to say that IT GETS BETTER.  At 8 years old my daughter is starting to opt for “take a couple besties to someplace really cool and expensive” (like Dave & Busters) instead of the big crazy invite-the-whole-class parties.  If I can talk my girl into a sleepover with her two best friends with a trip to an age-appropriate movie, or an amusement park, or a shopping trip to the mall and avoid the chaos – done!  Especially when we still have a huge family and we had to switch to a “friend party” and a “family… Read more »

Amy
Guest

The situation I run into is that my daughters are only 19 months apart, so they share a lot of friends, and sometimes it’s not clear if an Evite addressed to my email is for one or both of them.  That’s why I generally email the parents and say, “Hey, thanks for the invite, can you clarify which of my kids you want there?” and they generally say “all of them!” because my kids are awesome.  🙂  LOL

Amy
Guest

My comment at 11:40 am was supposed to be in reply to Jenn at 1:02 am.  🙂

Emily
Guest

@Jenn – I have have three kids ages almost 7, 4.5, and almost 2. The issue with not inviting siblings for us is that frequently the birthday parties are held at a time when either I or my husband are working or at school. So we have to bring along all of our kids or else our child who wasn’t invited wouldn’t get to go. There are a few single parents in our friend group and this is a huge issue for them too. For what it’s worth we always do either an at-home party OR a big fun destination… Read more »

YetAnotherAmy
Guest
YetAnotherAmy

While folks are commenting I’d thought I’d get opinions on having no gift parties – is that a really Scrooge thing to do? Or rude? DS is 2, and has tons of toys already. And gets lots of gifts from his grandparents. So far with just a few families from my moms group invited, it has gone over well (none of us want to be shelling out for gifts every month). I’m not so sure how that might go once we get into parties from his preschool class. Thoughts?

S
Guest
S

I’m leaning toward the no gift idea with our kids too for the same reason + we have limited space. I have a tight knit group of friends from uni and our tradition of celebrating our birthdays on student budgets has carried on to adulthood – we all chip in a tiny bit and plan a “day of adventure” for the birthday girl. Now that we’ve all started to have kids, we plan on carrying on with that tradition for them. I’m sure this will work for us until the kids go to school and get their own friends that… Read more »

Helen
Guest
Helen

My friend in B.C. Saya Toonie Parties are very common there. Each guest brings two toonies ($2 coins) and birthday child gets one, the other goes to charity. Affordable, no gift mountains, no goody bags in ‘return’, the child gets to buy a bigger thing he or she wants and choose a charity. Perhaps a tradition worth starting in your area? Apparently you just say it’s a toonie party on the invite. Not sure what you say in the USA without toonie coins but i guess there may be an equivalent phrase?!

Susan
Guest
Susan

I have always put “no gifts please” on my boys’ birthday party invitations, because a) my kids have a ton of toys already and b) our friends already know that I am anti-wrapping paper, anti-battery-operated-toys and also just a little weird.  To date no one has objected (and ALSO – no gifts = no obligation for goody bags, so my life is easier all around) and some have thanked me – particularly moms of girls, who have no idea what to buy for boys.  Only with the last party, my youngest’s 3rd, when we invited kids from his preschool whose… Read more »

Paige
Guest
Paige

@yetanotheramy I have done a big party twice for my daughter and both times I asked everyone coming to bring a bag of dog food which after the party we took to the local animal shelter.  My dd gets a lot of family gifts too and I just feel like your gift is I’m shelling out $300 for this party and you get gifts from family. Now, I always do bring her family gifts to the party so she has a couple things to open but in the end she has always been really excited to drop the food at… Read more »

Marnie
Guest
Marnie

Fellow mom of 3 here, I’ve got a 6, 4, and 1 year old. If an invite is from a close family friend, the ones we hang out with and know us well, our assumption amongst ourselves is that all kids are invited unless otherwise specified. Again, close family friends. For friends of a kid that I don’t know a parent of, I make sure my husband or I can go with the invited child to the party. However, if the party is at a time where I can’t get coverage (like a mid-week, moonbounce place when hubs works late)… Read more »

betttina
Guest

My kid is only two and so far her two birthday parties have just been “invite the in-laws and family over for dinner and cake.” At some point in early elementary school, I will probably throw her one of those “invite the whole class to a fun place” parties but for now, especially while she has NO IDEA what’s going on, we’re cool with just family for dinner. She opens one present, wants to play with it, and ignores the rest – same at Christmas. (At her second birthday party, it was past her bedtime but the in-laws wouldn’t leave… Read more »

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[…] days, birthday party politics are much more complicated. My kids went to eight birthday parties last year, which varied from […]

Roy Williams
Guest
Roy Williams

Goody bags now in trendz, if you are throwing a party or hosting a special event for kids, giving them goodie bag at the event is becoming the norm. Whether the kids are preschoolers, in elementary school or are teens, finding items for goodie bags aren’t that difficult. There are no set rules for these bags and they can be as inexpensive or as elaborate as you’d like. I don’t think there would be any problem in goodie bags I like this complementary idea as an appreciation for coming gust and for kids happiness off course.

Mindy
Guest
Mindy

Kids, at least my daughter, has her besties, it is what it is..however, I’m very anti-mean girl/bullying-my daughter better not EvEr let me catch her leading the wolf pack, unacceptable!! So I’ve seen it with my own eyes, same kids, different bday party..as much as we would love for our kids to really be friends with the whole class, show me 1 kid. I don’t recall doing it. I was never mean to anyone, but I had my favs I got along with better and that’s life. I think it hurts feelings worse at a birthday party in a different… Read more »

Ruth
Guest
Ruth

Hi,

My daughter’s birthday is the end of September and she really wants to have a pool party for her birthday.  However, due to living in the north east, this is not really an option in September. Would it be appropriate to have her birthday party in July and call it an Early Birthday Party so she and her friends can swim?  Of course she will not be having another party in September – just cake and few gifts from mom and dad.

Thank you,
Ruth

L S
Guest
L S

I know this is an old theread, but I just gotta vent. My son is easily overwhelmed by hullabaloo, too many kids making too much noise overwhelms him. We decided that his birthday age +2 is a good number to invite. I don’t want to invite all the kids from his class, some of them have spent the last year bullying him, or hurting him rather than sharing toys. I am all for being inclusive at school, but I don’t feel my son should have to invite some kid who has been mean to him all year into his home.… Read more »