Birthday Party Etiquette for the 21st Century
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.
YOU MIGHT BE INTERESTED IN