An outdoor pirate party seemed like a good idea at the time. Rosie Zweiback drew up a list of ten invitees, created a treasure hunt and felt certain that a jolly time would be had by all—especially her 4-year-old, Joseph, who loved pirates.
The big day dawned bright and sunny in their Princeton, New Jersey, neighborhood and all the guests showed up. So did their parents and siblings. There was a crush of kids tearing around, looking for booty. Little Joe, outgunned and overwhelmed, sat down and lost the battle against his tears. "Who invited all these people?" he wailed.
"We comforted him and made sure he was the leader of the group looking for treasure, and the party went on," says Zweiback. "But all his enthusiasm was gone for the remainder of the day."
Birthday parties can be a wild-card venture. We know that there are rules for hosting and attending them, but what are they exactly? Do you have to invite everyone in your child's class? Shouldn't your close friend just assume that your child will come to her kid's bash without an RSVP? Are goody bags, or thank-you notes, necessary? Some answers to moms' most-asked questions:
Getting the party started
Q. What's the best age to start throwing a birthday party?
A. Honestly? Around 4 or 5. By then, a child has friends, a distinct taste in toys, and some experience with cake and ice cream.
Of course, few of us can hold out this long. So if you must have a party for your 1-year-old, go ahead. Just make sure there are lots of grown-up food and drinks, and don't expect the birthday baby to be very interested. (He's also likely to get grumpy with so many people clamoring around him.)
Brigid Galloway of Grantville, Georgia, couldn't resist throwing a huge bash when her son, Jack, turned 1. Some 50 friends and family came, but it was too much for Jack, who cried through the puppet show and wouldn't touch his cake. "Everyone had a great time—except for Jack!" says Galloway.
She learned the hard way that for a more pleasant celebration, it's smart to keep the attention off your baby and work around his nap and feeding schedules.
For her daughter Lulu's first birthday, Julia Regalado of Berkeley, California, decided on a picnic in a local park for 12 of her friends and their kids. She made sure Lulu stayed blissfully unaware of any extra attention. As Regalado nursed her daughter to sleep under a tree after lunch, the guests offered a hope for Lulu's future in lieu of gifts. "There were no meltdowns, everyone had a good time and it was such a satisfying way to mark the day," she says.
Simplicity remains the rule for 2- and 3-year-olds too: You might offer cupcakes—the perfect-size confection for little ones—with cardboard Blue's Clues characters stuck on them. (Check your local stationery or party store.) They'll appreciate more elaborate parties with themes and planned activities later on.
Q. How many kids should I invite?
A. The general rule, often ignored: age plus one. That means four friends for a 3-year-old's birthday. For toddlers, it's best to invite at least one friend she sees a lot and feels comfortable around. (If your child goes to daycare or preschool and is used to being with a large group of kids, she can probably handle a few additional guests.)
On the other hand, grade-schoolers have definite ideas of whom they want to invite, so you can use the opportunity to teach them to be considerate of others' feelings. Explain why inviting 10 out of 12 kids in the class is bad form. Better to invite everyone and hope for some no-shows. Inviting 4 out of 12 kids, however, is more a matter of discretion and will work better if the bash isn't held immediately after school. Teach your child not to talk about her upcoming party around those she didn't invite (and then cross your fingers).
Q. My child went to Megan's party. Do I have to reciprocate and invite her?
A. It depends on how old your child is and whether they're actually friends. As kids get older, they become aware of where they stand in the social pecking order, so it's best to invite Megan if your child spends time with her on a regular basis. But you needn't reciprocate for every acquaintance. You already bought a gift for each child's party, so your social obligation has been fulfilled.
What if your child's the one who's been snubbed? Gently explain that there wasn't enough space at the party or that it was limited to very special friends. Then soften the blow by taking him to the playground or doing another fun activity.
Keeping up with the Joneses
Q. The other moms have been throwing elaborate and expensive parties for their 3-year-olds. How can I keep up?
A. Don't even try. All a child this age really cares about are cake, songs and presents in the company of friends. Whom do you want to impress: the Joneses or your preschooler?
Rachel Schewe of Coppell, Texas, has taken her 2-year-old, Emily, to over-the-top parties with lavish themes, goody bags with birthday-party-size presents, and intricate cakes from gourmet bakeries. But for her daughter's second birthday, she chose a joint sandwich-and-cupcake affair at the local park with Emily's friend Sam, who'd just turned 2 himself. She asked that the handful of guests donate a book to the local children's hospital rather than bring gifts. "My daughter had a great time and didn't miss something bigger," she says.
And, of course, it is possible to have a theme party that's actually simple in scope. Kellie Gaines's daughter wanted a bug party for her third birthday, so the Murrieta, California, mom sent out bee invitations to 15 kids, held an easy rubber-bug hunt in the backyard and served a homemade ladybug cake. It was a short, sweet and successful gathering that didn't end up sapping her wallet or energy.
School-age kids might indeed start to notice the disparity in birthday extravaganzas. If your child doesn't understand why she can't have a bash as big as her friend's, be casual but firm. Simply say, "This is how we do it in our family."
Q. Do I have to RSVP?
A. Absolutely, whether your child will or won't attend. RSVP as soon as you get the invitation so that you don't forget and the hostess can get an accurate head count. We're all terribly busy these days, but it takes only a minute to dial a number and say, "Tim would love to go."
And since you're on the phone (or on e-mail), you might ask which sort of toy the birthday boy would like. Is he into science? Trucks? Art?
Q. The invitation is addressed to my daughter. Does that mean we're all invited?
A. No. That's why you RSVP—to clear up ambiguities. In some communities, there's an unspoken understanding that moms of young kids (under dropoff age) may have to bring the infant sister. But the toddler twin brothers? That's pushing it. Find out what the host has in mind and then respect those limitations.
If you're giving the party, be as specific as possible on your invitations. If space is an issue, it's absolutely fine to write "invitee and one parent only." Clear instructions like this are never rude.
Q. At what age can I drop off my child at a party?
A. The general rule is age 5, but this can vary, depending on your community and your child. By 7, it's usually understood that the kids don't need you hanging around anymore to interfere with their candy consumption. When in doubt, ask the host when you RSVP.
All about the presents
Q. How do I make sure parents pick up their kids on time?
A. Simple: You clearly write on the invitation when the party begins and ends. Gently remind parents when they drop off their child.
Q. How much should I spend on a gift?
A. In most parts of the country, the range is between $5 and $15. My own cautionary tale: For my daughter's sixth birthday, my husband and I decided to splurge and bought her a $60 child-size guitar. It sits in her room, largely ignored. But the bright-pink stuffed unicorn that her grandmother picked up at a dime store for $3 never leaves her side.
Q. Should my child open presents at the party?
A. It's a split, with some parents enthusiastically for it and others strongly against it. Those in the "no" camp believe that opening gifts can send already excited kids over the edge, resulting in a frenzy of torn paper and discarded cards and hurt feelings about slighted gifts.
Opening presents after the party means you get to avoid all of the above. It also extends the celebration for the birthday child and allows him to wind down a bit before tackling a pile of gifts (and you get to keep track of who gave him what!).
However, most kids will tell you that opening presents is one of the best parts of a party (next to the cake, that is). In the end, it's up to you to decide. Take into account the size of the gathering, the kids' ages (children under 4 are less likely to be able to sit through opening a slew of gifts), your own child's personality, and the current level of chaos.
Q. What do I do if my child sneers at a present in front of the kid who gave it?
A. You correct her, and then ask her to apologize. But next time, it's a good idea to prep her for this. Rehearse what to say. You can even make a little game out of it: "What would you say if Benjamin gave you an iron for your birthday?" "Thank you very much. I really like it."
Q. Are goody bags still de rigeur? How much should I spend on them?
A. The goody bag is alive and well. Kazoos, candies and plastic bracelets may be junk to us, but they're treasure to a 4-year-old. Stick to your guns and a budget, though. Any more than $5 per goody bag is ridiculous.
Think outside the bag as well. How about sending everyone home with a packet of seeds to plant in the garden, or some colored modeling clay? One mom I know simply handed out a small box of colored sidewalk chalk to everyone at the end of the party. Most kids sat right down to draw on the patio. Cost for all this bliss: 90 cents each.
Q. Do we have to write thank-you cards?
A. They're a gracious touch, and learning this early is a nice idea.Young kids can draw a picture of the present, then you fill in the words yourself. An older child can sign his name and, by age 6, should be able to write his own note. Don't worry about the spelling.
Lost track of who gave what? Don't mention the gift specifically—thank your guest for coming and being part of your child's special day.
Finally, remember that following guidelines is all well and good, but as every parent knows, sometimes the rules simply have to go out the window. Just so long as they don't all go out at once.
Julie Tilsner is the author of three books. Her most recent is Attack of the Toddlers! Further Adventures on Planet Parenthood.