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Birthday Party Etiquette for the 21st Century

Birthday Party Etiquette

As parents, our child’s birthday is more special to us than the 4th of July or New Year’s Eve. After all, it’s the anniversary of the day our precious baby came into the world and changed everything forever. It’s only natural to want to throw an elaborate bash befitting such a monumental occasion. However, as any parent knows who has had to accompany their own child, gift in hand, to the birthday parties of countless school friends, making the scene on the birthday party circuit can get expensive and exhausting. Here are some tips on being a gracious party guest and for throwing birthday parties that work for everyone.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

It’s Saturday afternoon. Your tiny tot has a birthday party to attend from 11:30 to 1:30. You have to pick up dry cleaning, go to the bank, and take your older child to soccer practice. Is it OK to drop your child off at the party and leave to run your errands? A lot depends on your child’s age, of course. If your child is still in diapers, you definitely need to stick around. You also need to consider your child’s temperament. If he or she is used to being dropped off at daycare or school and just wants to rush off and play, it’s probably fine for you to leave; however, if your child tends to get upset and requires comforting when you’re gone, you need to stay or be nearby instead of leaving the birthday parents with a screaming, crying mess.

Whether you should stay or go also depends upon the party’s venue and your relationship with the birthday child’s parents. If the party is at someone’s home, the parents can probably use all the adult supervision possible. But if the party is at a restaurant-with-play area or other spot designed specifically for kids’ parties, there’s not too much damage the children can do under the management’s watchful eye.

Sophia, mother of 5-year-old Olivia and 18-month-old Grace, said that the birthday parties she takes her daughters to are usually more of a social event for the parents. “It gives all the moms a chance to get together, chat, and compare notes. If I know the other moms well, I usually stay and socialize. If I’m not as friendly with the mothers, I’m more likely to drop the kids off and come back later.”

To Open or Not to Open?

Sometimes, parents just want to gather family and friends to celebrate baby’s birthday, and don’t want guests to feel obligated to bring gifts. It’s OK to specify on the invitation, “no gifts,” especially for first birthday parties, where the guest of honor is bound to have a face full of cake and then fall sound asleep during the party. But for older kids, presents are surely the best part of birthdays. The dilemma for the parents is whether to open the gifts at the party or later on at home, and a debate rages on this topic.

Deborah, mother of 16-month-old Liana, says gift-opening is much better left for home. She says parties can be over-stimulating for the birthday kid. It’s better to open presents calmly at home later, when the child can process each gift and the parents can track gifts received for sending appropriate thank-you cards.

On the other hand, some moms feel it’s downright rude not to open gifts at the party. One mom tells how her daughter was hurt and disappointed after not getting to see a friend open her carefully-chosen birthday gift during the party. Watching a friend open a present you chose especially for him also emphasizes the joy of giving, making kids feel good about pleasing someone without having to get anything in return.

So how to know what to do if you’re the birthday mom? Chances are you know your child’s friends and whether they have the attention span to watch a gift opening. If your party has ten kids or fewer, and they’re school-aged, opening gifts is probably fine. They’ll be used to sitting still longer, and will have taken an active role in selecting the present.

For larger parties or for children too young to comprehend the process, you can leave gifts for later; or, as each guest departs the party, you can open their gift. That way they get to see the birthday child enjoy receiving the present without you having to corral the whole group for the project. If your child attends a party where gifts are not opened, and you know your child will be disappointed, speak up. Before you leave, say “We were so excited about the birthday present we chose for you. Can we watch you open it before we go home?”

Of course, sending out thank you cards is essential. If your child is old enough, he or she should be involved in the process, if only to reinforce gratitude for the thought his or her friends put into gift-giving. Some parents take pictures of the child with each gift and send the photo along with the thank you card, allowing the birthday child’s friends to see their present “in action.”

What to Give

If your child is invited to a birthday party, how do you know what kind of gift to give? After all, gift giving can get expensive. Sophia notes that when her daughter Olivia was in preschool, they had at least eight birthday parties during the school term, and they always ended up clustered together in the span of a few months. “Unless the birthday child is a very close friend, I’ll usually ask the mom what kind of gifts the child would like. If you know the child’s interests or hobbies, you can get an appropriate gift. Otherwise, arts and crafts project kits are always good gifts.”

Deborah says she always opts for books or a gift certificate to a local bookstore. “You just can’t go wrong, and they’re easy to exchange if the recipient already has them.”

Let Them Eat Cake

Of course you’ll serve birthday cake, but do you have to feed these kids lunch, too? Depending on the time of day the party is held, you just might. “Most of the parties we go to are from 11:30 to 1, so we expect lunch to be served,” says Sophia. “If the parties are mid-afternoon, then I feed the kids lunch beforehand.” Typical birthday party fare includes pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers, and chicken fingers. If your child is very picky and unlikely to eat whatever will be served, feed him or her ahead of time. Sending food along just for your child is rude, unless your child has food allergies or specific needs, (e.g., a kosher diet) that aren’t likely to be met by the kid-friendly food served at the party.

If a big crowd of parents or adult guests is expected for the party, it’s a good idea to offer adult beverages, salads, and slightly more grown-up fare. It doesn’t have to be champagne and caviar, but the moms might not get by for the whole afternoon on chicken nuggets and Juicy Juice.

Go With the Flow

In recent years, kids’ birthday parties have reached new heights of elaborateness. Sophia recounts one birthday party where the 6-year-old guest of honor was feted with an inflatable castle, rock-climbing wall, an inflatable slide, a commercial popcorn machine and a slushy maker. All 30 guests got personalized beach pails at the beginning of the party stocked with sunglasses, visors and treats. Game stations were set up with prizes given out liberally to the winners, and everyone got another goody bag as a parting gift. A sophisticated barbeque, complete with well-stocked bar, kept the parents entertained. Other parties she’s been to featured magicians, and even an artist who let each child create a work of sand art to take home.

Most parents don’t have that kind of money, or wouldn’t think it sensible to spend so much on a 6-year-old’s birthday party even if they could. While it isn’t necessary to hire someone or spend a year of college tuition on rented equipment, it’s essential to have a game plan. A craft project works well and can be something as simple as gluing faces on paper plates using pompons. Think seasonally—a jack-o-lantern painting party in the fall, decorating pre-baked gingerbread man cookies in December, making doily Valentines. As long as the project is hands-on and semi-messy, the kids will have a great time, and won’t know or care how much money you spent.

Plan out the flow of activities ahead of time: lunch, project, birthday cake, pick-up. Planning cake time for the end of the party is key—the last thing you need are a dozen sugar-charged kids running wild when they’re supposed to be making pipe cleaner caterpillars.

Deborah notes that although her daughter hasn’t even yet turned 2, when she’s old enough to “get it,” she intends to have birthday parties centered on giving back to others. “I believe it is never too early to encourage children to do for others, especially on the day that is centered around them. I think they should be the center of attention but that they should always be made aware of how fortunate they are.”

She’d like to have all the guests at the party make a craft project, and then pay a visit to a hospital or eldercare center to give their projects away. Children’s holidays tend to encourage greed, with kids tearing through gifts to get to the next, and the next, and then throwing the gifts aside to gorge on cake. Getting kids to slow down and appreciate what they’ve got is a gift that will keep on giving.

Something to Remember Us By

Although you and your child will send a gracious thank you card and maybe even a photo within days, it is customary to thank guests with a goody bag at the end of the party. Again, it’s the thought that counts. The goody bag doesn’t have to include personalized T-shirts or video games. Children like the simplest things best anyway. Hit the dollar store, and stock up on simple toys like pinwheels, bubbles, balloons or coloring books. Buy candy or treats in bulk. Even the bag itself can be homemade—buy plain paper lunch sacks and let your child hand-decorate each one.

And remember, relax and have fun. Your proficiency as a parent isn’t based on how much money you spend on birthday parties or gifts. Your only job is to show your child how loved and special he or she is.

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