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Birthday Party Etiquette

Is there any activity that strikes as much fear in the heart of parents as that of planning a child’s birthday party? If you have friends who pride themselves on Martha Stewart-like capabilities, you may feel negligent if you haven’t picked out your theme, personalized invitations, and artisanal birthday cake at least six months in advance, never mind deciding whom to invite and what games the kids will play.

Rest easy, brave parent, because we have insights on some of your most pressing birthday party concerns! Grab a cup of coffee or tea, a notebook, and a cozy chair, and read on. And take comfort that you’re not alone. A Google search of “children’s birthday party politics” netted more than 4.5 million results. These days, birthday parties are stressful for everyone, but they don’t have to be. 

For the host

Before you get started, breathe. Robin LeBlevec, a franchise owner of the event planning company Par-T-Perfect, says parents push themselves too hard to impress other parents but children don’t necessarily care about having the fanciest cake or the most expensive decorations.

“Everybody wants to be better than the Joneses and the last party they were at,” says LeBlevec. “People put too much pressure on themselves. Kids want fun, period. We can be simple and have games and fun and silliness.” 


Of all the birthday party decisions you face, this might be the one you lose the most sleep over. Hurt feelings, divided loyalties; the invitation process is more fraught with peril than a Game of Thrones wedding episode. There are no strict rules about whom you must invite to a child’s birthday party, but there are ways to be gracious. If you’re inviting almost an entire class, invite the whole class. Don’t invite 23 of 25 students, no matter how you feel about the other two.

Best rule to follow? Juleen Boshart, mother to three boys ages 13, 11, and 9, says to invite your children’s friends: “Invite the kids they like to be around and, more importantly, seem to like being around your child. There are some kids who literally get along with everyone and if you feel like it, invite them. My dad always said that if he wasn’t invited to a party, he was fine with that because why would he want to be somewhere he wasn’t wanted?” 


Don’t get stuck on your own agenda. Having a plan - and a back-up plan - is great, but if you notice the children enjoy something, let them play.

“One party at our place had all kinds of games planned, but we could not get those kids away from the water guns and light sabers to play our organized game,” says Boshart. “So instead of forcing them to stick to the activities we planned - and bought supplies for - we allowed the water gun battle to continue for two hours. The kids had a riot.”

LeBlevec agrees, and says the best idea is to know when to stop: “Keep it short - three hours, maximum. Give them high-level fun, and then send them home. If they go home wanting more, you’ve done your job well. If it’s too long, they start getting bored and that’s when their minds get them into trouble.” 

Opening presents

Undecided about whether to have your child open their presents at the party? Play it by ear. “It depends on the party,” says Boshart. “If the kids are having a great time and playing like crazy, I hate to interrupt that for presents. At the same time, a lot of kids are super excited about what they brought. They want to see their friend open their gift.”

Opening presents can get hectic, however, so Boshart has a way to keep things calm and add education to the mix. “Have them give their presents in order of first name. That way, things are a bit more calm and the children have to think about the alphabet, which automatically tones everything down.” If the children are having too much fun to interrupt, that’s okay, too. The point of a birthday party is for children to have a good time. If someone is upset that their gift wasn’t opened, Boshart recommends pulling that child aside and opening the present separately.

Goodie bags

Goodie bags are up to you. If you do give them out, don’t put live animals in them. No one expects to go to a birthday party and leave with an added responsibility. Boshart says when she hands out goodie bags, she includes items that reflect her child. For one son who is creative, Boshart includes bubble wands and sidewalk chalk. For another who loves Star Wars, she includes Star Wars puzzles and coloring sheets. 


Worried about ensuring every guest eats enough at the birthday party? Don’t fret. “Not all kids like to eat,” says LeBlevec. “Some kids love food, but some won’t even eat at home and forcing them to eat [at the birthday party] isn’t the best plan. Do finger foods - bite-sized foods that are fun and simple. And allow grazing. The kids won’t starve in the few hours they’re with you and at the very least, they’ll have some cake.” 

For the guests

Plans have been made and budgets set based on the RSVPs. If your child can’t go to the birthday party, tell the host. If you say you can’t go and your schedule frees up, ask the host if there’s still room for your child.

Pay attention to invitation details, too. The hosts have agreed to entertain your child for a set amount of time. Help them out by being punctual. There’s no such thing as being fashionably late when it comes to picking up your child.

“When the party is over, I want to sit down and have a glass of wine and forget that it ever happened,” says Boshart. “For that matter, don’t arrive early, either. I’m glad some people are type-A and are never late for anything. But I’m barely holding on by a thread and I’m not remotely close to being ready early because I’m a procrastinator. Come when the invitation says, not before.”

And remember, birthday parties are supposed to be enjoyable. “The biggest thing is to make sure you have fun,” says LeBlevec. “Have giggles. Kids need to be active and have a good time together. Don’t be too hard on yourself. There’s always another birthday next year.”

Heidi is the director of Corporate Writers, and has written articles for a variety of publications. She teaches in Simon Fraser University’s editing certificate program, and in 2013 was awarded the Abbotsford Arts Council’s Arty Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Literary Arts.


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