Party Manners, Please

Every Question You’ve Ever Had About Throwing A Birthday Party, Answered

No, you don’t have to invite the entire class.

Originally Published: 
How To Throw An Epic Kids Birthday Party

Birthday parties are a big deal. There are a million moving parts and a million decisions to make and the thing is... other people are involved. Like, lots of them. And as birthday parties have changed over the years, so have plenty of birthday party customs and even birthday party etiquette. (My own mom remembers always wearing her “Sunday best” to a birthday party, complete with gloves.) “All etiquette is inherently local, and the way kids’ birthday parties are done in Hollywood, California, is going to be different than Hollywood, Florida,” says Nick Leighton, journalist and host of the etiquette podcast Were You Raised By Wolves? “When in doubt, it’s OK to ask other parents about what’s typical and usual in your area.”

Bottom line: Think about the social skills that happen at a party — like being gracious with receiving gifts, being friendly to people they may not know, and even accepting food they may not have tried before. These principles can help guide you when making decisions about how your own party should go, Leighton advises.

First things first: Do I really have to invite my kid’s whole class?

It’s a hot topic. Do you invite 27 first graders when your kid is only interested in 15? Can you just invite all the boys or all the girls in an effort to make it easier? Like most things, it really truly depends on the situation, and there is no one-rule-fits-all here. “Our rule was that you didn't have to invite the whole class, but if you got close to inviting the whole class, then you had to invite the whole class. You couldn’t just exclude a couple of people,” says Catherine Newman, author of How to Be A Person, a skill guide for kids.

So how do you make sure the whole grade doesn’t hear about the festivities and get their feelings hurt? Feel free to encourage your children to keep their big mouths closed. “I think it makes sense to cue your kids to shut down birthday party conversation if there are kids who aren’t invited. You can even role-play this, since it’s a pretty useful life skill,” Newman says.

The most important lesson your kid needs to absorb is that it’s cruel to exclude just a few kids, says Georgia elementary school teacher Jamie Roy. “If it’s a question of ‘I just don’t want this one kid to come,’ then I think parents just need to tell their kids they aren’t singling out one child in the class,” she says. “But if your kid only wants to invite their five besties to come celebrate, I think that’s fine.”

Now how am I *supposed* to invite them?

There is truly nothing like receiving a pretty paper invitation in the mail, but let’s be real: “Paper invitations are not necessarily the norm anymore, as many people prefer to use text or email invites for convenience and environmental reasons,” says Renee Patrone Rhinehart, founder and CEO of Party Host Helpers. But if your kid is super excited, a paper invitation can be fun to let them write out or even make themselves to pass out to friends.

But something else to consider? Using a digital invitation resource, like Evite or Paperless Post, means you don’t have to track down RSVPs or hope that your child actually gave their invitation to their friend. Another nice benefit is that if you have a party update — like a change in venue because of the weather — you can update everyone very easily. You can even nudge some guests to make sure they RSVP. (Bonus points: You can make the guest list private if you don’t want your invitees to see who is/isn’t invited to the party.)

Just remember that if you’re not inviting the whole class, having your kid walk into a classroom with a stack of paper invitations to dole out like a slow-motion scene from a ‘90s sitcom probably isn’t the best idea. Text or email invites may be your best option there.

Are parents invited, too, or can I just ask them to drop off the kids?

A nice big womp-womp here to say: It depends! If your child has a group of friends that you know and are comfortable having in your home without their parents, then feel free to let parents know that they can drop off their children. “The invitation should always clarify the expectations: ‘It’s fine for you to drop off or stay — whichever you prefer.’ Or, for the littlest kid: ‘Our expectation is that a parent will stay for the party, but let us know if this doesn’t work for you,’” Newman suggests.

Wait, do I have to *feed* the parents, too?

I once went to a party where the children all got goody bags and the adults were also given mini candles. It was very sweet, but I also panicked a bit. Was I supposed to be giving tiny gifts to the adults who came to the party, as well as gift bags for all the kids? Banish that thought, says Newman. “Every little-kid party I ever went to, it was like, ‘Here, in lieu of a goody bag, enjoy this case of norovirus.’ So, no, I think adults are OK without favors.”

But when it comes to food, it’s nice to think of the grown-up guests. “I always loved to be offered a coffee or a glass of wine, depending on the time of day. If your expectation is that the parents will stay, it’s nice, if your budget allows, to get enough pizza or bagels that you can invite the grown-ups to help themselves. I used to eat Goldfish crackers like I was in some kind of contest,” Newman says.

OK, but we can just do snack foods, right?

Timing is everything when it comes to party food. My husband and I are pros at this — we always host parties either between breakfast and lunch or between lunch and dinner. There is no noon party here, because I don’t want people expecting a full meal. Newman agrees, but again, no real rules: “Presumably all of your guests are well-fed people. If it’s lunchtime but all you serve is Cheez-Its, folks will eat Cheez-Its and then go home and make up the difference if they need to. But as a general rule: If you do a party at 10 or 12 or 6, then I think folks are more or less expecting the corresponding meal. I think 2 or 3 is a safe bet for a party with no meal expectations,” she says.

If you decide to throw a party at mealtime but aren’t actually serving a meal, maybe give your guests a heads-up, Leighton suggests. “Parties scheduled during normal mealtimes often do feature that meal and many guests will have this expectation, so if a host isn’t going to be offering it, then it’ll be important to let potential guests know that this will be the deal,” he says. Maybe add a note on the invitation like “light refreshments will be served.”

How long is this party supposed to be?

Three hours is just about right, according to the many parents I spoke with. For really young children, an hour and a half or two will more than suffice. “I always advise my clients to make sure there's a short party timespan, just because the children will get a little fussy over time,” says Los Angeles-based Lisa Lafferty, founder and CEO of Lisa Lafferty Events. Both Lafferty and New York-based Jung Lee, founder of Fête and Jung Lee New York, agree on the three-hour limit.

Planners agreed that three hours gives time for people to arrive and settle in (maybe even roll up half an hour late without missing anything), have an activity or two for the kids, eat cake, say a brief 'thank you for coming' (Lee thinks this is a must that’s often forgotten at kids’ parties), and mingle a little bit with all your guests."

Here’s a nice reminder: Put a beginning and end time on your invitations. Make it clear how long the party will last and when it will end.

Wait a minute, go back. Is there supposed to be a planned activity?

Don’t stress. While a lot of parties include a structured activity, a party can have any activity (or lack thereof) that makes your kiddo and their guests happy. Let your theme (or your kid’s favorite toy) be your guide. Just kicking a soccer ball for 20 minutes definitely counts!

Is writing “no gifts please” actually annoying (or, gasp, tacky)?

Ah yes, the controversial “no gifts please.” People often go this route because they want to simplify their lives (fewer new plastic playthings to clean up, no need to write thank-you notes, etc.). But by writing “no gifts please” on an invitation, you can in fact be complicating your life. Lots of people will wonder, “Do they really mean this or are they being coy?” So get ready to reassure people that you really, truly mean it. And if you do — and that’s your policy — more power to you. Just don’t be wishy-washy and tell people “you can bring something if you want.” It creates a very strange dynamic if some people turn up with a gift and some people do not.

Or maybe just let yourself (and your kid) be carried away by the flood of new stuff: “Because gift giving and receiving are such important social skills to practice, I’m inclined to want to see it done at children’s parties,” Leighton says.

Alright, people brought presents. Do we open them during the party?

Opening presents is chaotic. It doesn’t matter what age or how many kids are there or what. It’s near the end of the party, usually, kids are all jacked up on frosting and pizza, and the sight of a new PAW Patrol toy might put them over the edge or bore the assembled crowd. “I don’t think it’s fun for people,” Lee says simply.

With little kids, it’s often easier to open presents once the party ends and all the guests have left, but I’ve found that with older kids, their friends really love to see their reactions. When my oldest turned 7, we started opening presents at the end of the party because all of her friends were so eager for her to open the gift they had brought.

You know your kid best. If they want to open a gift from their guest in front of them, go for it, and if it’s going to get too overwhelming for them, you can nix the idea. Above all, Newman wants you to take this piece of advice: “It should be fun; it doesn't need to be a grueling lesson in graciousness or generosity.”

Where have we landed on goody bags?

If there’s one thing people get really fired up about with birthday parties, it’s the question of goody bags. There seems to be an overwhelming chorus of parents begging to do away with them in order to make parties simpler for everyone — the parent who has to assemble said goody bag and the parent who now has to deal with yet another bag full of plastic junk in their house.

“Goody bags have a lot of regional variation,” Leighton says. “If offered, the key to success is thoughtfulness — not extravagance.”

Party planners tend to think that some kind of favor is a must for a children’s party (no surprise there). “Kids are 100% expecting it,” Lee says. “I like things that are meaningful; nobody needs a bunch of tchotchke things that are going to be more for the landfill.” She suggests a cute bath toy, or simple wooden blocks; Lafferty is a fan of edible favors.

“Nothing that makes sounds!” says Lafferty. “No drums, no musical whistles or things that are going to be blowing all the time.”

Really think about your goody bag intention: Are you making goody bags just to say you made them? Or were you hoping every kid could leave with a little memento of the science-themed party in the form of a container of mini slime? Make a thoughtful favor/goody bag choice and nobody should have any issue. (You can also leave them in a basket by the door for parents and kids to take only if they’re interested.)

The party’s over. Now what?

You did it! Your house is a mess and/or your car is full of nonsense from the venue cleanup. (Was that balloon garland worth it after you spent three hours assembling it and another hour tearing it down with a blunt pair of kid scissors? Who can say!) You’re tired and you’ve also had too much sugar, but your kid is sticky and sweaty and happy. And now you get to eat leftover pizza for dinner.

P.S. Do my kids really have to write thank-you notes?

Yes. (Let that sink in.) Try not to make it a chore or an arduous lesson in gratitude, but bottom line: If someone gives you a gift, you have to send a thank-you note.

While both Lee and Lafferty agreed that thank yous after the party are essential, Lee thinks a thank-you text, phone call, or email is also acceptable. If you aspire to send out handwritten thank-you notes, Lee recommends getting the stationery (complete with stamps and addresses) ready ahead of time. “Have it all ready, and then try to bang it out as soon as possible,” she says. “I feel like the longer you wait, it becomes more stressful and then it doesn’t happen.”

As soon as your child is old enough, have them write the notes. If they can’t quite write yet, consider composing a note yourself and having them augment the card with a picture. (Nothing hits quite like a grateful toddler’s picture of their birthday party.) You can also make a form note where all they have to do is sign their name or scrawl their first initial. (For example: “Thank you for coming to my party and bringing me a lovely gift.”) As the kids get older, they can write something personal to each friend. It’s a great chance to teach kids how to address and stamp an envelope, too. (And even the smallest guests will love getting something in the mail.)

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