Birthday party guidelines for sane parents

Hedra's new-ish mom friend asked her for tips on birthday parties to help her stay sane. Here's what she told her:

Birthday parties under age 3 (certainly the first birthday) are for the grownups more than the kids. At 3 years old, our rule is one child per year of age. We keep the invite list to that number, knowing 25-50% won't be able to come. I'm perfectly happy with the smaller number, provided at least one guest can make it. It keeps the focus on the guests rather than the gift extravaganza, too. We have the same rules for in school. We don't invite the entire class, they have to choose a subset to invite. It is possible to make the 'big year' party (see next tip) a whole-class invite, but the timing is limited for that – it seems K through about 3rd grade is about it in our area. After that, it is close friends only.

Pick a year cycle that you can live with, or specific birthdays to celebrate 'big'. We do 5 years, my little sister does 3 years (both ways of making sure there isn't more than one 'big' birthday per year, and also ways of toning down the BIG PARTY emphasis without eliminating it entirely). This is the basis of the sweet 16, really – that was 'the' birthday to celebrate, as the last year of 'childhood' for girls. Pick whatever, but don't do it 'big' every year.

Instead of inviting lots of extended family to the 'kid party', try having family (just parents or parents and select doting relatives) take the birthday child out for dinner. Or take her out for lunch and then to a bookstore for shopping. Or to lunch followed by musuem or zoo trip (experience over 'stuff!').

Party 'goodie bags'. For some reason, it has become improper to have anyone leave the party without 'getting something' to take home. Instead of the (currently ubiquitous) cello bag of cheap stuff from the dollar store and candy my kids can't eat anyway, we've opted to have the birthday child share something they enjoy.

For Bren's 'Pony Rides' party (the last 'big' one for him), the kids took home books about horses or cowboys, wrapped in bandanas and pinned with a sherrif's badge.

For Gabe's 10th birthday, it wasn't by theme, but by his interest in general. He loves reading, gem collecting, and his favorite treat is chocolate. So, each child got a book he'd picked out for them (we go to the used bookstore for these – anyone who minds a used book isn't usually on his list of pals, but the Scholastic Book Club could be used if you plan in advance), a handmade paper bookmark that explained why he'd picked that book for them, and a small collection of crystal chips with a guide to the ones they got. For the 'treat' aspect, we put in some of the chocolates. It cost me about $50 total for the entire set. Maybe more than the dollar store would have been, but not insane, especially as only 10 kids were invited in the first place. And it reflected who he was, rather than being just 'more stuff'.

* * *

What are your birthday party "rules"?

Related: Lots of great birthday ideas in the Holidays/Special Occasions archive


  1. Sonia says

    Another good tip is to use cupcakes (they have cupcake “cakes”) instead of a regular cake, and those little cups of ice cream instead of a big tub of ice cream. It makes it much easier and faster to pass it out to each kid, and it’s MUCH less messy.

  2. says

    For thank you gifts to the kids on the way out the door we do one lollipop and one toy for the treasure chest (bag of toys we’ve bought). This cuts down on the loot bag madness and gives kids some control over what they choose.

  3. lb says

    My daughter went to a party for which the invitation requested no gifts – everyone was instead asked to bring a wrapped book. At the end of the party, instead of goodie bags or present opening, each kid got to open a book that someone else brought and take it home as their favor. It was great! The birthday girl was only 4 and has since caught on to the birthdays=presents concept so they haven’t been able to do it since, but it was great while it lasted. I wish I had thought of it sooner for my daughter!

  4. says

    I have a 5th birthday coming up in June. It will be her first “big birthday” party that all of her friends have had. She chose one of those giant inflatables places to have it, which is fine with me.

    Since there will be 25 kids, I had a hard time with the gift bags, because I am annoyed that it is almost expected these days. I went with bubbles ($2.15 for a 6 pack) and made sure they were in recyclable containers.

    We will be making our own invitations and matching stickers to go on the bubbles, reminding each guest to recycle the bottle when they are done.

    Good idea with the milestone big birthday!

  5. RK says

    I think this is so sad. Parties are for running around, cakes, ice cream, and yes, gift bags with candy and trinkets. Trips to the museum and bookstore should be everyday events not special events.

  6. shirky says

    where are birthdya party guidelines for lazy parents?

    my mom would pay a teenager ten bucks (i’m old ok) to make up games and make sure the kids stayed in the yard.

  7. says

    A great favor idea is chocolate lollipops. I learned how to make them for my son’s first birthday and now that’s my standard party favor. You can get a mold to match any theme (and only for like $2) and it’s a treat everyone can enjoy. It’s also a fun activity for the birthday child to help with. A good tip — buy plastic squeeze bottles, melt the chocolate in the microwave and have your child just squeeze into the molds.

    To add some pizazz, print out little tags with the birthday child’s name and tie them around the lollipops, or just use ribbon. (To make it really easy just wrap them in small sandwich bags, not the zip shut kind, and seal with a twist tie.)

  8. Caitlin says

    Birthday parties are a lot of fun for me to plan. I love trying to stretch my imagination to match my budget (generally small). We have rented out a rock climbing gym and given “rock” music CDs as favors. I’ve concocted elaborate treasure hunts through the botanical gardens in which the treasure was the goodie bag (mostly pirate related items). We had a backyard carnival where tickets could be turned in for prizes (temporary tattoos, gently used stuffed animals, etc.).

    My pre-schooler shared his fourth birthday party with two other classmates. We invited the whole class. A few parents got together and bought each birthday kid one special gift instead of 4 inexpensive gifts, It was a wonderful idea because it cut down on the “stuff.” One of the other birthday moms has an embroidery business, so our favors were baseball hats with the number 4 on them.

    Creativity trumps pre-packaged any day.

  9. hedra says

    Oh, RK, you missed the point!

    Bookstore and museum trips ARE regular and frequent events for my kids. As are meals out.

    It’s making it a special trip with the grandparents and child that is the point, here.

    The kid parties are for running around and cake and such, indeed. But the older family members don’t tend to enjoy that, much (at least not once they get to where they’re a bit less resilient). Adding on an EXTRA family event that they can enjoy together is the point.

    Perhaps I should have been more clear – it’s either the child takes the grandparents to somewhere the child loves (to introduce them to it), or the grandparents find a place that they love to take the child (that is something that becomes their ritual together), or they do something else together as their own ‘thing’. It isn’t ‘in place of running around’ and it isn’t ‘because you never get to go otherwise’.

    Certainly, my kids spend plenty of time with family at such places. But it is also somehow really special to be taken to the bookstore JUST with grandpa, just the two of them. And family dinner out with the entire family – extended family included – is also quite special, I think. It doesn’t mean that’s the only time they eat out!

    Anyway, wanted to clarify that for RK, since it apparently didn’t translate (since I wrote this for a friend, there were a lot of assumptions that she already knew how we live, and that my kids act like they OWN the major local musuems, they spend so much time there… and just try to walk past a bookstore with these guys! Unheard of! LOL!).

  10. hedra says

    Heh, shirky… those are the other four years. (minus the teenager, haven’t had one handy, but I’m going to remember that one!)

  11. wndl says

    for my daughter’s parties, we go around the goodie bag (which i hate!!!!) by having the kids do a craft, which they then take home. the kids actually remember them from years past!

  12. Stacey says

    We just don’t do parties. The birthday boy gets to choose an activity and a meal (usually they choose a restaurant). They can choose any activity – this year one chose to go to the Baltimore Aquarium (which is almost 3 hours away, so not an everyday activity) another asked to go to Great Wolf Lodge. We take cupcakes to school on their b-day (one in Jan & one in Oct). That is it. As they get older, depending on the activity, they can bring a couple friends along.
    Parties stress me out, so unless they specifically ask for one, I’m not offering it.

  13. Elizabeth Hosto says

    For my son’s last birthday (3 yrs old) I had no idea what to do for the “goody bag” I was tired of throwing away small cheap toys and knowing my son’s friends parents I knew they were too so I finally came up with a solution, I went to Baskin and Robbins and got gift certificates, they come in 2 dollar increments and each kid got one certificate. Much easier than goody bags and just as cheap, plus the parents liked the fact they had no cheap toys to break and throw out later!

  14. Nooshi Robertson says

    I’ve got to second RK. I’m sure you have a rich and wonderful life, but it sounds like this article (and others like it) are always trying to put a damper on all-out fun crazy creative parties.

    I guess I take issue with the word “sane”. As if you’d have to be crazy to have more than a few children over for a cupcake.

    Sorry kid, this is not a celebration, we are obligated to recognize your day, and therefore are searching the internet to find out how we can get away with the bare minimum. We are clinging to the 1 child for every year of life rule. Why? Because even though you play with 25 kids with glee every day in preschool, and have other circles of friends outside of your school, we’re clinging to an old fashioned notion that small children are not comfortable in large groups.

    My party “rules”? NO RULES- IT’S A PARTY- have fun and relax and stop trying to find ways to cut the excitement.

  15. says

    My main problem with the idea of going out to eat or somewhere fun with the grandparents is that we do that at least once a month. My parents are divorced and we see the great grandparents often as well, so just taking the kiddos out wouldn’t seem much different for them. (My parents are our sitters and they love to take them places)

    I really enjoy the putting together of a party as well as the fun had there.

    I can understand the distaste for the little toys or candies in gift bags to go but honestly it doesn’t have to be much. (and it doesn’t have to be cheap dollar store stuff either. )

    For my boys friends that come to the party, I make a batch of dry cookie mix and put it in little plastic tubs that are decorated in the theme of the party. (This year its pirates!) That way the child gets something that they can do with their parents, plus after the tubs empty the kiddo can store his/her treasures in it. (I’m on the hunt for little plastic treasure chests this year.)

    My boys go to a a small Mothers Day out program so other than the cousins they have that are their age there are only a few other kids.

    I don’t know, I just feel like my parents made my birthdays a blast as a kid (and my sisters as I was old enough to remember just about every one of hers) without making me feel like my birthdays were all about gifts. So I want to do the same for my boys.

  16. marci says

    while i see the point that it’s a party – absolutely! – i think the ‘sane’ side has a valid point, too. nothing wrong with blow-out bashes, but to take 20 3 year olds to mcdonald’s or the skating rink or the moon walk place is overkill. there will be more melt-downs than just the ice cream. the first ‘rule’ of a party is ‘people have fun’, so thinking what your child and your child’s friends can handle should be the second.

    i think in many neighborhoods, it’s all about the competition, and that’s what i think is wrong.

  17. says

    Great tips once again from Hedra.

    For my daughters 5th Birthday recently we asked the guests not to bring gifts, instead to bring old towels and blankets to donate to our local cat protection society –

    My daughter was so thrilled to do this and donate the towels and blankets and is already talking about doing it again when she turns 6.

    Last year our youngest was diagnosed with aspergers syndrome. For her 3rd birthday in January we gave each family a copy of the book “All Cats Have Aspergers Syndrome” to take home instead of a lolly bag.

    A book is something they can keep forever and this book helps them to understand more about the birthday girl and where she is coming from.

  18. says

    We were required to invite the whole preschool class (18 3-5 year olds) to my daughter’s recent 4-year-old bday. We could have skipped a party, but she really wanted one…and the families with multiple kids wanted to bring siblings (reasonable) so we ended up with 21 kiddoes of partying age (& a few more 1 year olds who didn’t get into the activities or favors). Sooo…not sure if sane really comes into it, but we had it at a public park, got cool but not expensive kites for everybody from the internet, which doubled as activity AND favors (and gave out a few lollipops and tattoos at the end), made a big batch of bubble stuff and had intensive “running around like banshees” along with hot dogs and a cake. Honestly, we were absolute toast afterwards, but a good time was had by all including us. (And we did separate out the grandparent stuff because, well, they weren’t up for 21 kids running around like banshees and they wanted more special time with the birthday girl.)

    Anyway, I guess I’m in favor of moderation in all things…not excluding moderation itself, and as long as it’s not about more, bigger, fancier for its own sake.

  19. Suz says

    For my son’s 5th birthday, instead of goodie bags, he and I worked together to create a “mix tape” of his favorite songs (I burned them on a CD). He could actively participate in choosing the songs that he likes best and that he wants to share with his friends, and he helped me with the cover design. We had fun doing it.

  20. Monera Mason says

    Okay I am soo anti goodie bags. Last party(Isabella’s 3rd) we had a Pollock Party(some parents were confused) and the kids took home canvas board that they made. They were small 5 by 5 squares, strewn on large sheets of paper. Instead of thank you’s I bought a Warhol camera and took sun pop shots of the kids.

  21. says

    i think the conversation about sane vs. fun is really the crux of the problem. i know so many people who think it’s going to be fun and/or simple to rent a gym or go to a big bouncy place and then hate it. i want us *all* to have fun, my birthday child as well as my husband and i. usually that means low-stress and not too many kids, preferably ones whose parents will hang out with us while we throw the party. i do stick to the one-kid-per-age rule not because i’m not “fun” but because i think it makes more sense to share your birthday with you friends rather than mere acquaintances/classmates.

    (plus i bake the cake. very important!)

  22. says

    Several of you touched on the issue but it worth addressing in greater detail – and by sheer coincidence, I blogged about this just last month…

    There’s a disturbing trend towards increasingly extravagant children’s birthday parties. Regular folks like you & me are going nuts with these things – renting a traveling petting zoo, reserving private time at a water park, a block party complete with a DJ spinning kids’ music – and these fandangos are costing hundreds of dollars or more!

    No disrespect to those who choose to do so, but these otherwise well-meaning parents are sure making it tough for us mere mortals who really can’t afford these blowouts. But more importantly, I just don’t believe it’s necessary to go that far over the top on a child’s (or anyone else’s for that matter) birthday. Great and memorable birthdays don’t need to be the result of excessive spending and massive productions. It’s about experiences.

  23. j says

    I had the best party for my kiddo last year — a ride-on toy round-up. Everyone brought their own ride-on toys and bikes. We had it at the park, and I invited about 40 kids, because he’s in two different pre-school programs PLUS friends. We had peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches and chips and juice, cake, and the favor was a red bandana. My entire expense was about $100, and I’m still being told it was the best party they’s been to.

  24. says

    Some ideas that help our family to keep perspective and have fun:

    -before the party, take a collection of gently used toys from their toyroom and donate to a charity

    -write a thank you BEFORE playing with any gift
    (great habit even for adults!)

    -for some parties, we’ve asked for no gifts and said if they wanted to bring a gift to donate to a charity, that would be great! we made a little collection and my daughter delivered them herself. she was very proud.

    Another thing that has helped our family reduce stress and make it more meaningful is to talk to our children about what they really want. Usually it’s much simpler than you might imagine. One year I was playing with different thematic ideas for a party that were a little elaborate and my daughter said, “Can we just have a swim party and eat hotdogs?”

  25. says

    This year I was so freaked out about the kids having nothing to do (I suck at kids parties) we got each kid a color-yourself birthday card from (they come in packs) and a small box of crayons so they could just color their own birthday cards for my daughter – or keep them. Either way.

    Of course we had enough fun that the kids took the cards home with them. But I figured the parents would appreciate it more than candy.

  26. Christy says

    Saw a great hack in family fun for ice cream at parties: scoop out single scoops in cupcake liners and leave in freezer until party time, that way you don’t have to deal with the mess of ice cream during the party, and it’s a bit cheaper than dixie cups (which in our area aren’t really great quality as it is).

    We’re getting ready for our first really “big” party for our about to be 4 year old. We’re going with a garden theme, because she wanted the butterfly cake her little sister got last month, which was a pull apart silicon mold one, which I used muffin mix, cream cheese icing and necco wafers to let them decorate.

    She wants a cake with princesses, fairies, butterflies, flowers, bugs and birds, which will probably be a similar type endeavor, if I can find the candy bugs, etc.

    We also decided to have a total of 7 kids (including ours), mostly because her friends are all twins and you can’t invite just one. I found $1/yard material at the walmart that’s vaguely tie-dyed in nature, which will be cut into kid-arm length pieces, scrunched at the middle and tied to their arms and hands for butterfly wings. That’s what they’ll be able to take home, along with foamie party hats they can decorate at the party. I will probably have spent only $60 on everything when all is said and done, which might be a bit, but cheaper than most of the dog and ponie shows we get around here normally.

    Last year, for 3, we invited a friend and went to a theme park, because oddly enough, she was at the 40 inch height and she loves rides. Much more expensive, but very memorable.

  27. says

    Oh yeah, the big balloon things and the petting zoo in the backyard is a bit much in my mind. (Unless of course the kiddo asked for that and then we would discuss how that would be their present from Mom and Dad)

    One of my 3yr olds friends had a party with those big blow up things and the mom got smart. She said that she told her older two that they could have an early birthday get together (they both have a birthday in the next two months, his was last week) so that they only rented the things once. The company they rented them from made them a deal on a two day price that was just over the one day price. So it worked out.

    When I said I do a theme party I don’t always mean all out. My 3yr old has asked for pirates, so I’m looking at what I can do. Of course I have a huge amount of craft supplies already so I’m at a bit of an advantage. I’ve decorated cakes for a living as well so thats one thing less I have to purchase.

    I love the idea of taking the party to a park though. Kites are always a blast and generally fun for all ages.

  28. monkeysmom says

    Houses and yards in our area tend to be small, so many parents rent party places out of necessity. It also seems like even at 7, many parents will stay at the party with their kids, or bring along uninvited siblings.

    Charisse, you may want to look into your pre-school’s policy on invitations a little more. We thought that our elementary school had the same policy- invite the whole class or all the boys/girls (same gender as your kid). It turns out that this only applies if the invitations are handed out at school. If you want to invite a smaller group of kids, you need to send the invitations to the kids at their home.

  29. hedra says

    I do see the point of the question of ‘fun’ vs ‘sane’ – but I have yet to have a party for the kids that wasn’t fun.

    They do get to have a big blow-out extravaganza, which is *one* kind of fun. Just not every year – if they did, I’d have to do four of them in a 2 week span (three kids were born on the same day, the fourth’s birthday is two weeks earlier). That’d be insane – and I do like to honor them each with their own party if that’s important to them (and it is).

    They also get to have the smaller, quieter, more intimate (and often more creative) smaller events in-between. Also fun. Different fun, but fun.

    The sane, for me, comes in not making the grownups crazy, keeping the older adults safe (and not making it obligatory that they listen to screaming children racing about like lunatics with light sabers), and keeping the size to where it is possible to handle the issues the kids will have that are age-typical, such as tantrums, tiredness, and potty emergencies.

    It’s all fun, though – that IS the point of a party, yes? I don’t see the point of making it a ‘beat this’ fun each year, though. It’s fun to do pirate treasure hunts, and to do arts and crafts, and to gather with a big group, and to gather with a small one. It’s fun to do something special as an event with someone you don’t often spend solo time with. The small ones often take more creativity than the large ones, too.

    Sane has to do with assessing what is going to be fun and celebratory without causing troubles. One of the advantages of the big party places is that they’ve already tried to work out those details – I have nothing against that at all! It’s way more sane to have a huge party at a venue that is set up to have huge parties. I can’t afford them every year, certainly, and even if I could, four at once would be … um, problematic. The cycle of big and small means that if my child wants to have their big party at the party place, that’s what we do. So far, though, the big parties have been varied – ‘pirate theme party at grandma’s house’ (bigger yard, great for the treasure hunt), and ‘pony rides party at the equestrian center’ (large outdoor venue), and ‘museum party at the powder mill museum along with period crafts, cooking in a wood stove, and watching them explode some black powder’ (10-year-olds plus BOOM is good!). No ‘un-fun’ in any of them, but all sane. And in the other years, the ‘light sabers in the yard with my best friends’ and the ‘legos and ice-cream cake with my best friends’ parties were also a hoot all around. And all of them were sane.

    However, inviting 30 adult relatives to a kids party does seem a recipe for not sane. As does inviting more kids than you can manage (the one-per-age thing has to do with group dynamics and function, and I’m not a trained teacher so fewer than that is more in line with my ability to dodge meltdowns and deal with bathroom emergencies).

    And honestly, do what is sane for you! IMHO, keeping an eye out for the non-sane stuff is a good way to prevent a disaster of a party. That doesn’t mean you have to use my rules to get there, or that being sane means automatically avoiding fun (sane does not equal ‘boring’ around here, nor does it mean ‘I’m doing the party because I have to, and I’m not that into celebrating your transitions’ – it just means ‘avoiding problems and choosing thoughtfully’). Granted, some people think that thoughtful is guaranteed to be boring, but I think the blowing stuff up party was pretty cool, and that took thought, not to mention research.

    I guess I take a little umbrage at the assumption that sane equals not fun, or that somehow I’m only celebrating at the bare minimum obligatory level. Doing it cheaper and smaller doesn’t mean doing it pathetic and half-assed. Intimate parties aren’t less valuable than big blow-out bashes. On the contrary, knowing how to do a small party well, as well as doing a large party well, is a good skill to model for our kids. Bigger isn’t always worse, and neither is smaller.

    There are many ways to celebrate, and I like to have my kids experience a variety, in a predictable way (that is, they KNOW when we’re doing a big extravaganza, and when we’re doing a more intimate celebration – so far, they don’t seem to be less excited over the smaller events). I don’t want them to look down their noses at the big blowout bash their friend had, nor to feel let down by the small scale party another friend had. I want them to recognize that celebrations are not *made* by the expense or the drama of the event, or the craziness. I want them to know both ends of the spectrum, and a lot of spaces in-between, and I want them to be able to feel loved and cherished and honored under whatever conditions they find themselves at any point in their lives.

  30. Christy says

    I think ultimately it’s like everything you do as a parent. You do what works best for your family.

  31. rednexmama says

    I totally agree with the idea that a lot of things to do with our kids turn into a competition… And as a mom to an almost 3 yr. old: with too many people around she justs gets overwhelmed, and we end up finding her hiding out in her room, and I’m sure she’s not the only one. Good call on knowing what works for your family, too. I just always have problems with anything that I am “obliged” to do. Gift bags? For a three year old? Or even a 10 yr. old? For what? Honestly, how many kids have you seen leave a killer party, only complain that they didn’t get some shoddy candy and a crappy toy? I mean if the party’s fun, no one’s going to care. And on that note, I think for the most part kids parties are no different from adult parties: good, simple food, good friends (you know, people you actually like!), good music… Done! Also I LOVE the ideas about teaching kids to be gracious about both giving and receiving… To be honest, when people ask we what she wants/needs, I almost always suggest a donation to her education fund. She’s just so thrilled to have cupcakes and friends around she never notices that not EVERYONE brought a gift, and it’ll be so much more worthwhile in the long run.

  32. Alicia says

    Odd to see this posting because we are just coming off of a friend of mine just throwing a big “to-do” party for her daughter turing two. My son’s bday is in July and when she was over for a playdate she asked my husband and I what we had in the works for our son’s party. Honestly, we hadn’t even talked about it yet! We didn’t do a big thing for him turning one because 4 weeks before we had 65 people at our house for his baptism (had to wait until his grandparents on my hubby’s side, divorced, could both come up from FL). Even so, I agree it really is more for the parents at this age. So, I am pretty sure that we are going to have something at a local park. Most of our play friends have SAHM’s so I am even going to do during the week! I love the P&J sand idea .. very cool! I will make mini cupcakes too (chips, juice etc ..) and I am undecided on the goodie bag thing. I like to “Book exchange” idea too – my husband is freaked out to have even more toys in this house – LOL. We know super close friends and relatives will get him some things but really, he doesn’t “need” any more toys at two. Thanks for so many great ideas!