Birthday party etiquette

Who to invite? Thank you notes? Open gifts at the party? We’ve got the answers to your dilemmas.


Photo: fotostorm/iStockPhoto

Who to invite. Whether to send thank-you cards. What “no gifts” really means. My kids are only four and six and I’m already suffering birthday party burnout! So I turned to the experts and other parents in the trenches for insight into the level of junior social etiquette required to survive these complicated yearly rites of passage.

The dilemma: The invite list
I was dropping my four-year-old daughter, Maia, off at kindergarten when one of her classmates ran by with a fistful of pink envelopes. “I’m giving these out to all my friends,” she called over her shoulder. Maia didn’t get one, and, frankly, didn’t seem to notice, but I went into mama-bear mode in anticipation of how she would feel when she did figure it out. Maybe I can talk to the girl’s mom. Maybe I can talk to Maia’s teacher. There should be rules to prevent this from happening!

Not so fast, says clinical psychologist Alex Russell, author of Drop the Worry Ball: How to Parent in the Age of Entitlement. “It’s good to think about children’s emotional worlds, but the idea that the child can’t handle not being invited to a party is actually really disrespectful. And worse, when all the adults act as if the kids can’t handle it, we lower the bar on what we expect of them. This is what the child comes to believe about himself.”

Plus, the rules some schools have in place—the rules I was about to demand—can be downright annoying. Mom-of-two Kara Smith’s* sons, four and six, attend a school where the students are prohibited from handing out invitations at school unless the whole class is invited. If everyone isn’t invited, discussing the party is verboten – but try forbidding your four-year-old from talking about his birthday party with his classmates.

Most of the parents include all 20-plus kids in each class, says Smith. That’s a lot of birthday gifts to buy, plus rather unwieldy invitation lists. Although Smith fears her sons might be too young for tough lessons, she’s also concerned about the message being sent with the all-inclusive rule. “We’re just not teaching real life. Not everyone is your friend. You need to learn to cope with disappointment.”

However, according to Paula Lemyre, an elementary teacher in the York Region District School Board in Ontario, it’s easy for these already emotionally fraught situations to get out of control. “One of my students invited all of the girls in the class except for two,” says Lemyre. “The girls who had been excluded were heartbroken, and there were many tears, phone calls home, valuable instructional time used to discuss the situation, and a barrage of little cliques beginning to form. It was a lot of work for me as a teacher to maintain the sense of community in the classroom.”

Handling it: “If your child gets left out, you need to respond with sympathy,” says Russell. Don’t try to fix it. Offer a hug. Make soup. When Maia finally did realize she’d been left out of a party, she cried, and I held her. Then she got over it (before I did), proving to me that Russell is right: Children are surprisingly resilient if we give them the opportunity.

Also, be sensitive when it comes to your own child’s invite list. “It’s good manners to be discreet about the process,” says Lew Bayer, the president of Civility Experts Worldwide in Manitoba. This means slipping invitations into backpacks or folders rather than waving them around, for example (OK, so perhaps I’m still a little bitter about the pink envelope incident), and encouraging empathy towards those who didn’t make the cut.

The dilemma: To open gifts or not to open gifts?
“I used to let the kids open presents at parties,” says Karen Ashmead, mom of Bailey, 4, Emersyn, 9, and Shelby, 14. “But then I stopped, and it was the best thing I ever did. It just gets too crazy!”

But Anne Moore, mom of Camryn, 7, says her daughter is always crestfallen when gifts she brings aren’t opened in front of party guests. “She really likes to see the reaction the birthday boy or girl has when her present is opened.”

Handling it: According to Bayer, the present-opening segment of the party should never be skipped. The gift giver is excited about what they brought, and the receiver should be learning how to receive graciously,” she says.

The dilemma: The “thank you” is in the mail
I can barely manage to send out invitations on time, so we don’t usually get to the thank-you card stage at our house. Still, every time one of my kids receives one, I feel slightly chastened.

“I can remember loathing having to write thank-you cards, but my mother insisted, and I’m better for it,” says Maxine Finlay Ross, mom of four-year-old Beatrice and six-year-old Henry. “I want each of my kids to understand that the Lego set or Corolle doll they received for their birthday means that someone spent time and money on them, and they, in turn, need to show appreciation, even if it means taking time out of playing to write the notes.”

Handling it: Thank-you cards are a nice touch, but not a necessity, says Russell. (Phew!) Just make sure your child thanks his guests at some point, with a note, email, phone call or in person. But whatever method you choose, ensure your kid is involved in the process. (Though, admittedly, a thank-you note “written” by a two-year-old doesn’t have a lot of meaning. At this age, send the thank you to the parent.)

The dilemma: “No gifts, please.”
Every time I receive a party invitation that says, “No gifts, please,” or suggests a small monetary donation toward a larger gift, I get nervous. Am I really supposed to not send a gift? If I’d normally spend more than what’s asked for in the invitation, should I send more? Plus, I always feel bad not sending a gift for a kid. I’m not alone. “I’ve never seen a child refuse a gift,” says Priya Davies, mom of Sundari, 7, and Janaki, 13. “However, we respect it if the parents ask us not to bring them. The kids make an extra-nice card instead, or we find out whether we can send something yummy along.”

Handling it: Bringing a present when you were asked not to is just going to make other parents look bad, so don’t do it. (If the child is particularly close to your family and you want to splurge, do so discreetly.) The child’s parents probably have a good reason for their choice. Alison Juda’s daughter Jorja, 8, requested a large skating party over the winter break. “We discussed with her that with so many children attending, she’d be overwhelmed with gifts, and that no child needed 20-plus presents, especially since she would still be getting gifts from us and from her grandparents,” says Juda. “We suggested that she ask each child to bring a donation for the food bank.” Jorja ended up with more than 100 pounds of food to donate. “She was very proud of this. It taught her that sometimes it’s better to give than to receive, and it was a good message that she was passing along to her friends, too.”

Cheat Sheet: common party dilemmas solved!

Should I stay or should I go?
Don’t be afraid toask for clarification. And never assume a party is a drop-off until your child is in at least grade one. If your kid is invited to a drop-off party but he’s apprehensive, explain the situation to the parents privately and then stick around. But be helpful – don’t be another guest the hosts need to worry about fussing over.

How much should I spend on a gift?
Kids birthday parties aren’t weddings, so don’t feel pressured to buy an elaborate gift just because you’re invited to an elaborate party. According to the parents interviewed for this article, the going average is about $20 to $25 per gift. Include a gift receipt in case of doubles.

Do I need to give out loot bags?
You don’t have to—but kids really love goodie bags (or some little token to take away). If you’re not into giving a bunch of dollar-store trinkets, try something different: a paperback book, a gift certificate or a craft that was made at the party.

If you rent a venue or hire professionals, do you need to tip?
Definitely. Tip as you would at a restaurant – 15 percent overall or 20 percent if the service exceeded your expectations.

If your child got invited to another child’s party, do you have to reciprocate?
Technically no, says Bayer. However, even if you have good reasons – cost issues, space issues – there might be consequences.“I find children don’t necessarily hold grudges,” says Bayer, “but parents do!”

A version of this article was published in our June 2013 issue with the headline “The ultimate birthday party etiquette guide,” p. 94-5.

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Read more:
Great birthday party ideas
The ultimate birthday party guide

15 comments on “Birthday party etiquette

  1. I’m sorry – if a family of 3 is coming to a party, enjoying the entertainment, eating food and dessert to their content, receiving a gift of $25 is offensive! Ordering pizza at home will cost $25, never mind the loot bags. I don’t expect guests to cover their cost, but I think the gift should be different for a drop off party and one where the whole family enjoys an afternoon out…


    • That is just plain greedy of you.
      Just be thankful for the gift.
      If you are not able to feed everyone, then keep it very very small. But don’t be petty. It will embarrass you in the long run.


    • I think you have to ask yourself why you are throwing this party in the first place. Your priorities seem a little skewed. Are you trying to create a wonderful memory for your child? Or are you trying to recoup your expenses?


  2. I am writing the thank you notes for my daughter’s 2nd birthday party. On my list, I have that one family gave two gifts but I am missing gifts from two other families. I am not sure if they didn’t bring gifts (which is fine, I will still right a thank you note for attending the party) or if I got it confused and the two gifts are actually from two different families, which still leaves one family out. I want the notes to be personal but I am just not sure who gave what. What should I do?


    • If there is no way you can sneakily ask what the presents are (mentioning the gift to see if they react or getting someone else to ask for you), I would just thank them both for coming because that was the main thing. Don’t stress too much – at least you tried and getting a thank you for coming is still really thoughtful. You invited them to a lovely party and that’s the main thing :)


  3. Loot bag etiquette , I recently celebrate my daughter birthday party , my daughter decide to invite some kids from her class, some of them told me that will come and at last minute canceled , should I need to send the loot bag to school ? And what about the ones that never reply , do I still to send loot bags too? I wasn’t raised in Canada and for my this so confusing , today I was lectured by the teacher that I should not punished the kids for parents behavior but what about my kid feelings? Does any one consider that she was expecting seeing her friends there and at the end they never show up, what about the lessons we as parents are giving to our kids and no keep your word, which for me is very important ! Any comment will be appreciated .


    • Hi Yolanda,
      That’s a tough one. Personally, I think you should use your moral compass and do what you feel is right. It doesn’t matter what other people think. Your party, your child, your rules. Good luck.
      Amy Valm, editor


    • Its common now in Canada to not RSVP for anything. And to cancel last minute. You dont need to send loot bags to anyone that didnt attend the party. There is no Canadian custom that says you need to do that. As for the teacher, she sounds like a pretty mean person and uninformed about basic manners. She should not be telling you what to do about birthday parties as it has nothing to do with her job. I would only listen to her when it comes to your childs actual education. Not what you do in your spare time.


  4. Why would a mother think it’s okay to invite all the girls and exclude one or two girls from a class? That seems like pretty bad parenting and that it’s okay to be vindictive. Then we tell the excluded child to stiffen their lip and deal with it?! Shouldn’t the ADULT stiffen their lip and tell their child to do the right thing?!

    Entitlement is telling a child that everyone should be first place and there is no loser. Entitlement is not when a child gets their feelings hurt by bad manners.


    • I couldn’t agree more. Young children don’t understand why they’re the only one left out. My 3 year-old was the only student in her dance class of 8 three- and four-year-olds not invited to a classmate’s party. I can’t understand why since they all seem to get along. Obviously, the mother was very thoughtless to exclude one. I hope she finds out what that’s like one day.


  5. One question that I always struggle with is when you invite someone, knowing the parent will want to come and they have a younger sibling. Then they ask to bring the other sibling and my party of 10 is suddenly a party of 20. Is there a nice way to only include one child? I’ve tried the “we are limited in numbers” or “due to space” then I get the ” if I can’t bring X then Y can’t come.


    • I hear you, I’ve been on both sides of that. I have twins in different preschool classes. Frequently one gets invited, but not the other, by parents who don’t know our family well. I’m a single mom, and can’t afford a sitter every time that happens, so until they’re old enough for drop-off parties, we’ll end up (regretfully) declining those invites. If the party is at a venue, where additional kids cost $, I think parents should only ask to bring siblings as a very last resort, and even then offer to cover the extra cost, and don’t expect goody bags for the non-invited sibling. Last year I had a party for 12 at an outside venue that turned into a party for 18 with the additional of several younger sibs, which rang up an extra $125 in goody bag and refreshment surcharges. Privately, I was annoyed, although I’m sensitive to the fact that parents are busy, even on weekends, and it’s hard to find sitters. (I’d love to have a home party where a few extra guests don’t matter, but having a dozen kids + parents in my small urban apartment in the winter is not an option.)


  6. My daughter is 3 and very friendly. One of her dance school classmates invited everyone in their class of 8, except my daughter, to her birthday party. I’ve never seen the girls not getting along and the party was outside so space or cost shouldn’t have been an issue. I feel very bad she was left out and don’t understand how the mother could feel it was okay to exclude one little girl in the class. The girl’s mother is “friends” with me on social media, so I saw pictures of the other girls in her small class there and comments from other dance parents thanking her for the invite. My daughter looks at my social media with me and sees the pictures. I never thought I would be dealing with this type of issue so young. At least when they’re older, it’s easier for them to understand that some people are phoney, mean, and/or toughtless. I hope all of you who are planning parties keep this in mind. When they’re little and you’re going to invite most of a class or team, have a heart and include everyone. Unless a child is violent or a bully, no harm will come of it. Mothers will remember that you left out that one child.


  7. I am havin a party at my house and my stepdaughter is hosting it for my granddaughter who is turning 1. Am I obliged to see the guest list and add to it?


  8. We should teach our children to exhibit good manners. Period. Imagine how rude and boastful it would appear for an adult to run around inviting some but not all people to a party. No child or adult should be expected to just “handle” it. That kind of behavior is inherently awkward and may be hurtful. I do not believe that a child needs to invite all children in the class, but if they aren’t inviting everyone, sending the kid to school to pass out just a few invites may not be the best way to avoid hurt feelings.


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