If you’re the host
Make the invitations timely Remember, 7 p.m. is like midnight for kids three and under. Plan for your party to start early in the day — weekend brunches can be ideal.
Put the kids to work They can help with party prep by putting away their things so the house looks presentable. Preschoolers and young school-agers love setting the table or laying out the cutlery, napkins and candle holders for a buffet. Older kids can load CDs
in the player or put together an iPod party playlist.
Create a diversion (or two) Plan some games or activities that work for most ages and keep kids happily occupied. Hold a Twister tournament or set up a gingerbread-cookie decorating station in the kitchen.
Hone their hosting skills Having an age-appropriate task helps children feel part of the action and builds their comfort level in social situations. As people begin arriving, three- to five-year-olds can help you open the door and say hello. Six- to eight-year-olds can greet younger guests (“Jenny, Ethan, all the kids are playing downstairs — come with me”) and are great coat takers. Eight- to 14-year-olds can pass around hors d’oeuvres, take beverage orders and shepherd the younger children.
If you’re the guest
Give food some forethought Party-atmosphere excitement is notorious for shutting down little ones’ appetites. Feed them ahead of time so that anything they eat at the party is a bonus; find a perch for kids to sit so they get a sense of the regular dinner ritual. For older children, this isn’t the time to push strange food (“I don’t want to try the oysters!”), but the sight of peers digging in to new kinds of nosh could serve as the positive influence you’ve been hoping for.
BYO entertainment — but only if others can share Family parties should mean fun for everyone: Adults can have adult visits while kids do their own thing. So pack a quiet toy or activity to hold babies’ interest; toddlers or preschoolers can arrive with a game others can share. Tweens may ask to bring hand-held gaming systems or iPods, but I can’t give them a thumbs-up — call me a grouchy mother! A better plan: Determine beforehand whether tweens and teens will have buddies to hang out with. If they will be the only kids their age, talk to the host about having them babysit younger ones, then stock them up with crayons, paper and other “tools” for the job; a classic holiday video will keep most kids happy.
Lead by example While it’s a good idea to talk before you arrive about the appropriate way for kids to say hello (the answer will depend on what goes on in your family and whom you’re visiting), they’ll learn the most from watching you and following your lead. If you have a kid who seems shy or hesitant, don’t force it — good-guest graces will come with time and practice.
Have an exit strategy If you have a baby or toddler in tow, remember that two hours of busy socializing is the maximum most wee ones can handle. But a meltdown can hit at any time, so always be ready to bolt. You can probably push older kids’ bedtimes a bit, but do the gracious thing and leave before your Cinderella turns into a pumpkin.
Teach flawless follow-up Ask kids to help with the post-party thank-you note. No need to spend a lot on fancy store-bought cards — a homemade card, decorated with your kids’ art, is more personal, and cost-effective too.
Should the kids stay home?
Don’t feel you have to drag children to a gathering that’s clearly adult-oriented; none of you will have a good time. And if the invitation specifies this, don’t even think about it! Instead, hire a sitter and enjoy a night out with your friends. No guilt, please — you deserve it.