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 to ask 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.