Party Etiquette: The Dos and Don’ts of Kid Birthday Parties


young girl celebrating birthday with cupcakes at partyOnce your kids are old enough to spend time around other kids—whether it’s at classes, daycare or school—you can expect one thing to pop up like clockwork.

We’re talking about birthday party invitations … and they just keep coming and coming and coming.

You may think, Oh, kids’ parties are simple affairs. Balloons, cake, presents, done.

But there are actually plenty of money issues that arise regarding birthday parties, whether you’re hosting, or your kid is attending. Namely:

  • How much should you spend on gifts?
  • What’s the appropriate amount of money to spend on gift bags?
  • What should you do if someone gives your kid an inappropriately expensive present?

Because these are tricky issues, we decided to go right to the source. Here, Lizzie Post, great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post and co-author of “The 18th Edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette,” answers your most pressing questions about kids’ birthday party etiquette.

If You’re Hosting a Party

Should you invite the entire class to your child’s party?

You’re not obligated to invite the entire classroom if that doesn’t work for your family. According to Post, many families follow the “age plus one” rule. For example, a party for a 4-year-old should have five attendees. Many schools even have set policies, like inviting half the class or less, or all of just one gender. If you’re not inviting everyone, it’s worth talking to your kid about discretion, says Post, and remind her that she should keep party talk to herself. And, if you’re planning to invite nearly the whole class, then you should invite everyone.

Is it appropriate to send invitations via email or through evite?

Though electronic invites can be convenient and budget-friendly, Post believes they lack one big benefit: They don’t allow your child to be part of the process. Opt for paper instead and you can let your child help pick out and write (or decorate, if he’s too young to write) the invitations. Feel free to use email to send out a party reminder.

What’s the most tactful way to remind guests to RSVP?

Make sure you give a date by which you want RSVPs, and a method or two to reach you (a phone number is best, says Post). Then, one week before the party, call any families you haven’t heard from and say, “I wanted to call to see if Johnny was going to be coming to the party. This is the time and date again. Please let me know—I’m just trying to get an accurate head count.” You’re not being pushy by giving a friendly reminder.

Should you open presents at the party?

There are pros and cons. The benefits are that it’s good to teach your child about opening gifts and receiving graciously. Also, it’s wonderful for guests to see the joy and happiness their presents have brought. But little guests can get bored, and sometimes everyone wants to play with the new toy (which can get broken or lost).

If you do decide to open presents while guests are still there, it’s important to create order, says Post. Have everyone sit down and remind kids they’ll be getting their own party favors later. Once presents have been admired, hide them away with a, “We’ll have lots of fun playing with these later.” Note: Even if your child does open gifts in front of his friends, he should still send a thank you note later.

If your kid receives an overly expensive gift, how should you respond?

Receive gifts with the same spirit of generosity in which they were given, says Post. Be grateful, and don’t consider refusing the gift because it’s “too much.” Instead, explain to your child that she received a very special present, and be sure to have her personally thank the gift giver. When it comes time for that child’s birthday, don’t feel you have to reciprocate. Stick to your budget on presents, and don’t try to match gifts.

Are goody bags a must?

“Goody bags were always a part of parties when I was growing up,” said Post. All the same, she says, they are not necessary, and giving them out depends on your party style. Sometimes the most meaningful takeaway is one you’ve made, like sending guests home with homemade muffins, or cupcake liners filled with candies or balloons.

For cute, inexpensive gift bag ideas, check this out.

If Your Child Is Attending a Party

What’s an appropriate amount to spend on a present for a child?

There is no right number, Post says, it’s about giving something special to acknowledge the child’s special day. Spend what is in your budget. If that’s $10 per gift per child, work with that, but also ask his mom about his interests so you know whatever you choose, he’ll love.

Should your child help you pick out a friend’s present?

Since your kid is going to know what the other child would like more than you might, go for it. Plus, it teaches her about giving to others. For younger children, you could ask questions about what their friend might enjoy. For example, trying asking, “Does Susan like arts and crafts or playing with toy cars and trucks at school?” For kindergarteners and up, you can say, “We have $15 to buy Susan a present. What do you think she might like?”

If your kid is too young to understand, or is going through a “mine, mine, mine!” phase, then go pick out a gift without her and don’t worry about it!

What if your current financial situation does not allow any budget for presents?

One option is to call the hosting parents to let them know. You can say something like, “Store-bought birthday gifts are tough for us to purchase right now. We were thinking of baking Kelly’s favorite cookie. What does she love?” This lets the other mom know what to expect, and that you really care, without asking her what you should do. Of course, you also have the right to discuss the situation with your child and politely decline the invitation.

What if your child is invited to a party where she’s expected to buy something (like a costume or admission to an amusement park), and you can’t afford it/don’t want to buy it?

You could DIY the needed costume yourself, which could be a great bonding project. If the party expenditure requires a specific dollar amount, it’s OK to decline the invitation and, instead, offer to have the child over a different time to celebrate over a homemade dinner, or with a small gift.

If you have two kids, is it OK to bring the sibling to the party?

In general, it’s expected for a parent or caregiver to stick around during parties for infants and toddlers, says Post, and in our experience, even through preschool. After that, she suggests asking the host what they prefer.

If you have siblings to deal with, it’s inappropriate to ask if you can bring them along. Try to make other arrangements, or call the hosts and ask if they would be OK with you dropping your child off instead of staying. That also allows them to say, “Why don’t you bring the whole family?” Even if you’d only be bringing a newborn in a baby sling, Post says it’s still proper to call the host ahead of time to give her a heads up.

If your kid is upset because she wasn’t invited to a friend’s birthday party, what’s the best way to talk about her feelings?

If your child is not invited to a close friend’s party, it may be because that year the birthday child is only having a family party, or a very small party or only inviting friends from the soccer team, etc. Validate your child’s feelings of disappointment, and help her learn to be the bigger person. Suggest that she invite her friend over to play some other time.

If your child can’t make it to the party, do you still need to get a gift?

Unlike a wedding where you are obligated to send a present whether or not you attend, you don’t need to send a birthday gift if you can’t be there. You may choose to do so if it’s your child’s best friend or someone who bought your kid a gift, but it’s not required.

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  • Robin

    Is it appropriate to sell pictures of the birthday girl?

    • Sandra Pohlman

      SELL? Are u nuts?

  • Janice

    What if you went to a party and gave a gift, but they didn’t come to your child’s bday party … should they get a gift for your child?

    • taz

      yes giving the circumstances…Tricky like a wedding where person is invited and goes but then when the shoe is reversed..other party does not attend and no gift…

  • Janice

    What if you went to Jack’s bday party and gave a gift, but Jack didn’t come to your son’s bday party – should Jack give a gift to your son?

    • Andrea

      Janice, our expert says that unlike a wedding where you are obligated to send a present whether or not you attend, you don’t need to send a birthday gift if you can’t be there. You may choose to do so if it’s your child’s best friend or someone who bought your kid a gift, but it’s not required. So if Jack was not free and could not make it to your child’s party, it’s okay if your son does not get a present. (That said, if a child was going to go to a party but got sick or had a last minute conflict, and had bought a gift for his buddy, that it would be nice to schedule a time to drop off the gift at some later date or do a make-up playdate.) 

      • taz

        Andrea. Not obliged to send any gifts to anyone…Old school thinking…What is your relationship to the bride/groom?? Bride: party at work/shower…you contribute to that gift…

  • Stonesfan21

    What does the magic play dough thing say? I really like that idea but don’t want to just put the receipe on a peice of paper.

  • Tjeffer11

    How can you tactfully add to an invitation to keep sick kids home?

    • Andrea

      Is it because of a newborn in the home or someone who might not be fully vaccinated? Perhaps then when people RSVP you can explain your situation. 

    • Lonerwithaboner420

      Or those parents should be sane and not bring the sick kid.

  • Amy

    What if the child brings a sibling a year younger to the party, are they required to bring 2 presents for the birthday child?

    • AB

      We did bring 2 presents, because we brought 2 guests. Siblings 3 and 4 years old. I don’t know that it was required, we just wanted to be extra polite.

    • AB

      Also, we did check with the host first and make sure it was okay for the younger sibling to attend.

  • Big Brother

    Related to Janet’s question, if you attend a kid’s b-day party are you required to bring a present?

  • Jennifer Saranow Schultz

    For those who only have $10 to spend, here’s some inspiration on great $10 first birthday party gifts (and a link back to this super helpful piece):

  • Brownie

    I agree with most of the advice with two exceptions. Firstly, I’m an average father of two girls, ages six and seven. Post is incorrect in assuming that electronic invites exclude the child. In the modern era, kids are more capable with computers than most of us “older” people. My kids enjoy making the electronic invitations. Also, the RSVP must include an email. Most of us parents wait until late in the evening to clear the administrative duties of the day. It is usually too late to phone somebody. It is much easier to send an email response. I find the email responses are returned much more timely.

  • kristi

    My childs school has strict rules regarding invitations. They are not supposed to bring invitations to school. There is no parent contact list available as well. Any sugestions ? Is it rude to go through the phone book and hit or miss? We were given a list of childrens names in his class .

    • taz

      Kristi: school does not want to be party to this..
      where do families live?? Many who don t want these parties/celebrate with family members and
      nobody else is invited…

  • Vr

    My son is turning 9 and is adamant he only wants to invite his close school, neighborhood and soccer friends to the party. We have a lot of close family friends with younger children that always invite my older kids to their parties. Do I insist to my son he needs to be fair and invite family friends? Or explain to my friends that he is getting older and only wants same age friends to come.?

    • taz

      Time to stop the parties…If you don t invite the above mentioned kids then this could cost you friendships…Don t have kids so not much help in that regards…Female friends say ‘no invitations through school. word of mouth within 7-10 days of the party and 0 on via computers’…

  • finebyfive

    What if you invite friends, with a son, and they call to inform you that they are also bringing their niece, 3 days before the party. And the niece isn’t even your childs age, how do you politly tell them NO! I have a budget and now Im having to redo my food arrangments.

    • Mich

      You simply say “sorry that is not possible”. No its or buts just a polite no. Give people an inch they take a mile.

      • Rachele

        I would say – Although we would love to have your son there, we have had to tell others no; therefore, I’m sorry – but I have to say no.

    • taz

      Niece was not invited…No different than inviting
      a person(s) on Christmas/Thanksgiving/Easter and the boobs invite others to your home…Rude..

  • SKP

    What if your child is invited to a birthday party for 2 kids but he only knows one of them? Do you have to bring 2 gifts?

  • taz

    Parents/nbrs had kiddie parties until we were 6/7..Mom said there were 8-10 kids there. Today, parties gotten out of hand…Invitees
    become child whole classroom..Many send emails to parents who
    ignore them..