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Birthday Parties for Kids: An Etiquette Guide for Parents

Bethany Johnson
June 16, 2017

Finally, answers to your burning questions about birthday parties for kids. Do you stay or do you go? Etiquette and parenting experts weigh in.

Your kids are overjoyed with each birthday party invitation they receive, but your feeling are decidedly not so enthusiastic. You know your kids love a good birthday party: the sweets, the activities, the entertainment and the buzz of their excited peers. But when you think about attending birthday parties for kids, you ask yourself hundreds of questions: Do I drop my child off? Do I stick around all day? What kind of gift should we bring? Here's how to handle your kid's next party invite.

  • To Gift or Not to Gift?
    That is the question. The answer? Yes, bring a gift -- but determine early that you won't give in to feelings of competition among other families who lavish expensive items on the birthday child. "Most children respond very deeply to gestures of real affection and the simplicity of heartfelt values," says Davina Muse, a licensed counselor and training coordinator for Simplicity Parenting. So keep it simple.

    Emma Jenner, parenting expert and author of Keep Calm and Parent On, agrees. "Try finding out from the parent what are the birthday child's favorite things," she says. Once you've decided on the gift, wrap it and ask your little one to sign the card (or better yet, make a homemade card himself).
  • Should You Stay or Should You Go?
    If your child is under 5 years old, most party-planning parents expect you to stay with your child, says Bina Martin, co-author of two "Miss Manners" books. "Exceptions might be different if the party is at an activity center that provides additional supervision," she says, but don't be afraid to clarify. "If you are unsure," she says, "ask the host." The parents in charge will be glad you didn't try to wing it.

    If the host has been clear that you should leave your child, ask when to come back, and swap phone numbers with the host and other supervising adults. Show your child the way to the bathroom and who to talk to if he needs anything. Don't bolt right away. Stick around until your kid is acclimated and playing with his friends.
  • What If Your Kid Wants to Leave Early?
    Muse says that sometimes your child's demeanor might mean an early exit. "If your child seems anxious, clingy or tantrumy before, during or after a party, this may be a sign that he is overwhelmed by feelings he can't manage," Muse says. Overstimulation, confusing envy over the gift-unwrapping and the sugar rush of cake are a few of the many feelings he may need to process. If you need to step out of the party for a few minutes to let your child regroup or even if you have to head home before the party ends, that's okay, Muse says.

    Martin agrees. "If your child is tantrumy and you have made all reasonable attempts to calm him, then no one will be insulted if you take them home," she says. For emphasis, she adds, "No one." All parents have been there and will appreciate your decision to bow out gracefully.
  • When Is the Party Over?
    If you dropped your kid off and arranged a pickup time with the host, this part is easy. But, if you stayed with your child throughout the party, you'll need to decipher when it's time to go. Martin advises, "If the cake is eaten and presents have been opened and played with, that is your cue to take your leave."

    This is also a great chance to give your kid practice saying showing gratitude. "Your child may be exhausted or overly excited when it is time to go; however, this is a crucial teaching moment in manners," says Jenner. "Walk your child to the host and birthday boy or girl, have them look the host in the eye and say 'thank you.'" Above all, have fun at birthday parties for kids. Party planners love to see their guests relaxing, so enjoying yourself is the best thing you and your child can do.

Planning your own child's party? Check out these Creative Ideas for Kids' Birthday Parties.

Need some extra help organizing or setting up the party? Hire a babysitter or housekeeper to help out for a few hours.

Bethany Johnson, a professional writer from Washington, D.C., specializes in the quirks of family life and relationships. When she's not writing, Bethany and her husband raise both free-range chickens and free-range children on their organic farm in the suburbs.

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