Easy Birthday Party Etiquette

January 1, 2011

in 30-Minute Mommy

So, we had my six-year-old’s birthday party the other day (we will set aside for the moment the fact that her birthday was in SEPTEMBER).

I was amazed at the number of parents who apparently have never received an invitation to a child’s party before. I say “apparently” because based on their behavior, they’ve been living under a rock or with the Unibomber and never had the chance to learn proper birthday party etiquette.

So though I don’t claim to be Miss Manners… and though I don’t claim to be the queen of etiquette myself (I’m pretty relaxed about most things!), there are some MUSTS when it comes to parties. I’ll focus on attending kids’ birthday parties here, but these guidelines could easily apply to, say, Aunt Gertrude’s 79th birthday party or Lindsay Lohan’s “Hey, I’m Out of Rehab, Let’s Go Celebrate at the Viper Bar!” celebration. Tune in, read up, and ignore at your own peril:

1. “RSVP” means Respondez, s’il-vous-plait. That’s French for, “let me know if your kid is coming, dammit!” It is often confused with “Ignore this invitation and let it get lost under a pile of junk mail, forcing the hostess to call you the day before to figure out if you’re coming.” SERIOUSLY.

RSVP is not a suggestion. It’s critical to let the host know who to expect. If you DO NOT RSVP, don’t be surprised if you show up with your little darling in tow and she breaks down in tears because the host doesn’t have enough goody bags with $5 worth of SillyBandz and plastic tchotchkes from the dollar store.

2. Be very restrained about inviting additional siblings. Just like with a wedding, the invitation is intended for the addressee. Unless all five of your children are named on the invitation, don’t assume they’re all invited. In fact, assume they are NOT invited.

Sure, sometimes you are stuck. You would love for your kid to attend, but you’ve got another one at home you can’t pawn off on the neighbor or leave unattended for extended periods of time. If this is the case, you can call the hosting parent and ask. Now here’s the biggie: IF THE PARTY IS AT A PAY-PER-CHILD VENUE, like a movie theater, Build-A-Bear, or Gymboree, MAKE IT CLEAR YOU WILL PAY FOR THE EXTRA CHILD. Many of today’s kids’ party places charge upwards of $15 or $20 per child. It is absolutely NOT polite to invite another kid (or three) along and then expect the host to assume that cost. (If they wanted your three-year-old at LazerQuest, they would have invited him. Seriously).

3. If you say your kid is coming, your kid better be there. Of course, if vomiting is involved, keep him or her home. Seriously. (My favorite story from Callie’s party this week was the mom who violated #2 by asking if a sibling could come along. In a moment where good manners outweighed common sense and monetary concerns, I said “Yes.” Imagine my surprise when I get an email 30 minutes before the party saying, “We can’t make it.” I should have known better — if someone is rude enough to ignore Rule #2, they’re rude enough to cancel after the final numbers were given to the gym-play place, and after the food had been ordered).

4. If your kid cannot make it after you RSVP’d yes, you still owe a present. Period. If you decline the invitation, you don’t “owe” a present. But if you said your child was going to show up and he broke his arm the morning of the party, you had jolly well better deliver the gift you were planning to bring (yes, you can wait until the plaster on the cast dries).

5. If your kid can’t handle being on his or her own, don’t leave them with a host parent who has 12 other kids to keep track of. If you know your kid starts bouncing off the walls and throwing chairs when jacked up on Mountain Dew, don’t leave her unattended. By the same token, if your son cries when he’s more than five feet from you, plan to stay at the party. The mom and dad planning the party have a lot on their hands and don’t need to be worried about whether your child is going to crack someone upside the head with the SpongeBob pinata.

6. If the invitation says the party ends at 4:45, be there at 4:40. By the end of a kids’ party, most parents are ready to stick a burning candle in their eye. Don’t add to their distress by showing up 40 minutes late because you had to wait for your polish to dry on your pedicure. Get there, have your child thank the parents and the birthday boy or girl, and get on your merry way.

Whew. I feel better already! Every once in a while I have to take those gloves off and tell it like it is.

Now if I can just get up enough guts to send the URL to this post with the invites for my next birthday party. ;)

P.S. Got a great birthday horror story? Do tell! I might just send the winner a little somethin’ somethin’.

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  • http://libby.withnall.com Libby

    Great post Lain. Let’s hope the right parents read it and take note. I’ve been pretty lucky with kids parties but have heard lots of horror stories. The strangest we had was a 4 yr old girl (who hadn’t RSVPs) suddenly show up at the party in our home. Apparently her parents (who I had never met) had just dropped her off and left….. I couldn’t believe it. I wouldn’t even do this with my 12 yr old, but a 4 yr old – seriously?


  • Angie

    Seriously! Love. This. Post…..wish I could send it along with the invitations!! Is that proper etiquette?? LOL. The worse thing I have had happen is for my 2 daughters birthday party (both born in August, easier to do together), we invited FAMILY, as in OUR family. One of my husband’s Aunts (same age as us, kids our kids age) invited HER cousin (she is aunt by marriage) and his family. We were at a Water Park and had rented a cabana for the party. We didn’t know who these people were who walked into our cabana and started talking to the aunt as though nothing was wrong. They then proceeded to help themselves to our food and cake and enjoy the party….5 of them! at our expense. Oh. and I should mention, no gift for either of the girls!!! Still angry and this was 2 years ago!

  • Dawnica

    Aloha Lain,
    Here is Hawaii, things are a little different. Nobody RSVPs- ever. When you give that person a invite they almost always come. When you have a child’s party, there is no such thing as only inviting that one child. That invite is for the whole family. So always be prepared. We must have lots (I mean lots and lots) of food. There is always more people invited to your party, many times you don’t know the other people. Over here you get used to it, and we see it as the more the merrier. People love parties over here. The first birthday luau’s are huge.
    I have 6 children and many birthday we just have our own little party. It is so much work hosting a big party.

  • Tambur

    Girl – you crack me up! This article is so ‘right-on’ I want to print it and attach to all future invites I send out. I have 4 munchkins and party planning is stressful enough without having to hand hold, track-down and corral the parents of all the children invited to events. Thanks so much for sharing.

  • http://cherylblackwell.blogspot.com Cheryl

    I agree, people (in Georgia) do not know how to RSVP or even what it means. I am planning a party for a child in K-5 and of course, if you invite one from the class, you have to invite them all……but there is no way to contact them all to see who’s coming since they are from school and you have no phone numbers. Any suggestions? This post is so timely, I agree it would be great to add w/the invitations. I will comment on a friend who’s son was registerred at not one but TWO toy stores. Come on people…..

  • http://www.theconfidentmom.com Susan

    Thank you for sharing what we all would want to say! :-) I have older children, 10,14,18 and now a 1 year old foster child and have been frustrated with the drama associated with birthday parties! What happened to cake, games and presents after school – that is what I had when I was growing up (yes, I am old!!) but I am okay, I think! Or a small slumber party with a couple girl friends. Not only are the points you made here common issues, the other one is the over-the-top birthday parties. By the time a child gets to 7 or 8 years of age, they expect so much more. I can’t wait to link this post up to my readers next weekend – I know it will be well received!

  • Heather

    This strikes such a nerve with me. After 4 years of family only birthday parties for my daughter, I invited her entire kindergarden class to her birthday party. I received 3 rsvps. I assumed the others weren’t coming. One mom called the morning of the party, could she bring the older brother? Ok, I said. One mom called ten minutes before the party, their other plans had fallen through and they could come. One mom called thirty minutes into the party, was it too late to come? My mother and I had made very labor intensive specialized goodie bags, so we spent a large part of the party redoing the bags so that everyone could leave with something. The great news is that my daughter and her friends had a great time. The even better news is that I have been able to not have to have a party for the last two years by offering her visits to Disney instead of a party! I know now to be more assertive/aggressive in finding out if people plan to participate and to be easier on myself in the goodie bag department.

  • http://letstalkchaos.blogspot.com Jeannine B.

    Ok – this seriously cracked me up this morning! I love it! Several years ago we hosted a birthday party at our home for our daughter, who was then turning four. This was the first party among her peers that was planned at someone’s home. All of the other parties we had attended had been “venue” parties like gymnastics, Chuck-E-Cheese, Build-A-Bear, etc. At all of these parties – most, if not all, of the parents stuck around to watch their kids or to help the hosting parent. Knowing this, I made separate spread of snacks and drinks for the parents. Thank goodness I had recruited several adult family members to help, because not one parent stayed at our party! I’m not sure even one made it past my threshold as they dropped and dashed away! Remember, this kiddos were all three or four years old. Quite a handful for two hours or so! And, yes, we had a few “straggler” parents who should up 30-40 minutes late!

  • admin

    Oh my goodness. Hard to believe, isn’t it??

  • admin

    This is exactly what happens to me — I come up with this personalized goodie bag thing and then can’t complete it because we don’t know who is coming!

  • admin

    Thanks, Susan! :)
    I am in favor of the low-key party, too. We’ve been invited to some doozies, with custom-painted scenery in the backyard for a carnival, etc. etc!

  • admin

    WOuldn’t it be great to add it to the invites!? ;)

  • admin

    I love how the standards and traditions are different in Hawaii. So important to know — could you imagine if I lived in Hawaii and expected everyone to RSVP? And then was all freaked out when the whole family showed up?? ;) Ohana, baby!

  • admin

    Wild. People are wild. (Not always in a good way!)

  • admin

    Wow. Nothing brings out the differences in parenting than birthday parties, eh?

  • http://www.organizedbyjenn.wordpress.com Jennifer

    That was both informative and hilarious! Thanks.

  • Leah

    LOVE this post. I have a serious RSVP issue. It is actually a major pet peeve of mine. And yes, with 3 little kids, I have encountered ALL of those scenarios.

    The sad thing is that this totally goes for any party. My husband and I host an adult only Halloween cocktail party each year. We go all out with the it – handmade invites, food, drinks, etc. We invite over 50 people. This year I had about 15 not RSVP – no luck, I am not hunting you down, if you did not RSVP you are not coming. The day of the party I had 10 people cancel right up until about 2 hours before they were supposed to arrive. And one was supposed to bring food I was counting on! I also had people show up who had not RSVP’d!

    I love throwing parties so much though that I end up mumbling to myself about the rudeness of people and planning something else before I know it! So much for a learning curve : )

  • http://www.heathersdragonsden.blogspot.com Heather D

    I think you’re right on the money, with the exception of gift giving. Birthday parties should not be about loot. They should be about celebrating and sharing. Expecting a birthday present just feels greedy to me. That’s why I have been quietly stonewalling my kids about birthday parties. I don’t want anyone feeling obligated to bring a present in order to come have a good time with us. So we’ve had Halloween parties. Thank goodness it’s spring parties. Fourth of July parties.
    When they go to a birthday party, they go with a present in hand, happily. But I’m going to avoid hosting birthday parties as long as I can.

  • Judy


    I was rolling on the floor laughing. Thanks for making my day.

  • Kathy T

    Amen, sister!

  • Rebecca

    Ok, this whole post is why my husband and I HATE birthday parties. Who needs this kind of stress, really? Over a birthday. Seriously? Labor-intensive goodie bags? $20 per kid at a venue? I think the ADULTS need to re-think why we make this so difficult. Life is about the relationships. Not the goodie bags and the venue and whether or not somebody RSVP’d or brought a gift. My girls get a slumber party with 3 other girl friends to invite. We order pizza for dinner. I make cupcakes – from the box mix and frost them. I let my daughter’s decorate their own cake or cupcakes. They think that is the best part! In past years, I have asked parents NOT to bring gifts as I called it a slumber party and not a birthday party. Our house and my daughter’s rooms are overflowing with toys and we don’t need any more. They get gifts from us and their grandparents and that is enough.

  • Emily (bentobloggy.com)

    So timely! I found this post via Google search because I had a mom RSVP today for my daughter’s party tomorrow. RSVPs were due 4 days ago. She got the invite a month ago and actually told me they got back from a vacay a week ago but misplaced it. How about calling or emailing me? The kicker- I made all the gift bags last night with some peanut butter chocolates I decided to throw in because her child (with a SEVERE peanut allergy) wasn’t coming. Now, even if I did let them come, she couldn’t get a goody bag.

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  • Rita

    A little late to the ‘party’ but here are my 2cents… I have been at both ends of the kids’ party thing. As a parent of 3 and as a provider of parties – it was part of my job at the Y (I won’t mention where). For the most part, I loved organizing & running the party. It was a life-saver for parents but there were always a few occasions when one of the kids didn’t get picked up AND the birthday parents left… leaving me with the kid ~ who does that?! Thankfully, I didn’t need to adopt any… :)

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  • http://quirkyfusion.com Christy

    The RSVP thing is infuriating. We had a friend RSVP and then call the day before the party to say that her son was sick and that they wouldn’t be coming. Fine, right? The next day, they showed up at the party. She decided he was “healthy enough” to join us. She never called to say they were coming and it was clear to me that he had not really returned to good health. Not only that, but he has a dairy allergy and I didn’t have any cupcakes that were safe for him because she had said he wasn’t coming. I was furious because my son has food allergies and I know how important it is for them to feel included. I make extra effort to provide food that’s safe for all of the kids… if your child has special food needs, you have to RSVP on time!
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  • admin

    The RSVP issue is tough b/c if people DON’T RSVP, you cannot be prepared. Particularly with food issues, you’d think people would be more conscientious… guess not!

  • Lynne

    These are great. And so true. And I don’t have any idea where people started lacking in etiquette. Same with planning a party. When did we stop learning the difference between event and theme… Happy Anniversary is NOT a theme. Oops, am I being a little demanding?
    My Dad and I were the “Bad Guys” at my wedding when my husband’s extended family decided they could have a family reunion at our expense. And invited distant cousins and this week’s girlfriend, etc. I guess they never had been to a family event that wasn’t assumed to be a buffet. 5-8 more people are not a problem, right? Sheesh! Nope… it’s sit down dinner with seating arrangements. At least my friend from college who hitched a ride with my Good Friend from College understood and was happy to wait until after dinner to join the dancing.

  • Anonymous

    People never cease to amaze me!

  • Moonbeamstarr


    Your post is right on the money. I’ll be the 1st to admit I am always a late arrival at parties, do not bring uninvited guest and I do R.S.V.P. and not cancel.

    I do have an etiquette problem on invitations that I need to figure out within the next week to be able to deliver them within 3 weeks of the party.

    My son is turning 5, and is having a “Gilligan’s Island” themed party. I LOVE Gilligan too, my kid’s so cool! LOL!

    Since the kids get will have “pizza, pop and tokens” as stated on the invite and can cash in their tickets for lil prizes, equal to the junky quality of dollar store items, and yet more rewarding, they WON tickets so they actually WON their prizess! I think I do away with giving out party favors gift bags, however they children will each get a lei when they arrive, I’m hoping they will help us find them to round them up to eat, have cake/ice cream and gifts, they will also get a coconut cup (for their refillable drinks), that I will write their names on, I am going to ok the cups with the store first and see if I can just pay them for the amount of cups I actually use.

    I feel I either have to invite the whole preschool class, which is a total of 22 kids (counting my son), along with my best friends’ children which makes 6 more and a few other friends with 2 kids each. We are at a possible 30+ head count of invited children for a Chucki Cheese party! I am not reserving a spot (its is over $12/kid!), but plan on going on a Wednesday afternoon from 4pm-6pm, when it is not as busy. I’ll arrive earlier to order the pizza with my coupons that include tokens and drinks; as you can imagine this is already an expensive ordeal.

    That said, I am NT going to pay for any more tokens for anyone but my son (maybe) and I was hoping you could tell me of an appropriate way of letting the adults know that if their child(ren) wants to have more game tokens than I give them initally they are going to have provide the funding for them; if they choose to. I am unsure how to word that they will have to cover the additonal expenses.

    My son is having a “Gilligan’s Island” themed party. I do not plan on giving away gift bags, they children will each get a lei when they arrive, I’m hoping they will help us find them to round them up to eat, have cake/ice cream and gifts, they will also get a coconut cup (for their refillable drinks), thatI will write their names on, I am going to ok the cups with the store first and just pay them for the amount of cups I actually use.

  • Anonymous

    Sounds like a terrific party!
    One thing you might consider for cutting down in costs is inviting only the boys in his class. That’s something we’ve done before.
    As far as the tokens go, I would separate then into baggies or cups and hand them to the parents saying, “I’m going to give these to you to control because we don’t have any more.” That way it’s clear that they are in charge of metering the use, and filling the rank if it runs dry!
    Have fun!!!

  • Sharon

    invited this boy, the younger sister also shows up at the last minute. (along with both the mom & dad who all ate but that was their least annoying behavior) the mom says, “can she bowl with them?” all wide eyed & sheepish. Am I supposed to shake a finger & say, “no, she can’t. I can’t afford another $18 for a surprise kid!” I enthusiastically say, “oh but of course!” & we get her the big ball ramp so she can hoist that thing down the lane! oh and no problem stopping the whole party so we can install the gutter ball guards so that the sole 2 year old here won’t feel like a failure when she can barely lift the balls! At the end of the party when the mom rolls her eyes when there is no gift bag for said child, for a minute I thought she must have just forgotten that her kid did not RSVP in the first place! Yikes. Never again. Note to parents: event parties & party bags are COSTLY. Sorry I will not be caught dead giving out dollar store junk. My bags contained a ten dollar toy & nice candy! RSVP. RSVP. RSVP. it’s not a suggestion, it’s what you do! You should never be invited again, anywhere if you don’t. Don’t show up with uninvited kids. TACKY. Don’t linger around with your spouse and chow a half pizza! It’s a kids birthday party for crying out loud, make sure all the kids eat before you! Sadly, some people are only interested in the “get”.

  • Oiseau_bleu_mauvais

    After having multiple problems with parties for my daughter, this year I gave her an option of a party with her friends OR inviting ONE Friend to accompany us to a special place. She picked a water park.
    I am so thankful.
    After dealing multiple times with people who do not rsvp, rsvp and don’t show, don’t pay attention to the stinking invitation or whose children cause multiple problems….
    I’m somewhat done with a full out party for my kids.
    This is really sad because parties can be such a fun experience for children. But when people ignore basic etiquette, it becomes quite rude and hosts and hostesses burn out and stop throwing them.

  • Marie93005

    I had my 9 year old son’s bday party yesterday. We had about 15 people not RSVP. We had it at the house in the back yard and bought a big chocolate cake, ice cream and drinks. I figured that way whoever comes comes and whoever doesn’t doesn’t. The worst that could happen would be that we would have left over cake. My son has invited boys only for the past 3 years. We had about 8 boys and the weather was perfect. We also have a 6 year old daughter who was just hanging out. We have 2 neighbor girls across the street (ages 6 and 8) who we not invited but heard/saw the party going on and about 20 minutes into the party just arrived in our backyard. I didn’t tell them to leave because I felt like my daughter could use some company being the only girl there. The little 6 year old girl complained to me and said,”Can we go play in the house? There is a bunch of wild and crazy boys here.” To which I replied,”No it’s a beautiful day to be outside and this is my son’s bday party and this is how it is. If you want to be here you have to deal with it. If you want you can go with your sister and my daughter and go play in your yard.” I hear no further complaints from her and her and her sister stayed for 3 hours.(long past the time that the rest of the guests did) Did I mention that these girls parents never called or asked if they could come to the party, they just showed up. Later when the girls dad showed up he didn’t say anything to the affect of I hope it was OK that they where here or anything like that. I have had all of the above problems that the other posters mentioned with all the parties that I have had for my3 kids over the years but I think this takes the cake as far as rudeness! Just don’t understand where these people are coming from! I would never send my kids to a party that they weren’t invited to!

  • Marie93005

    I feel your pain. I always have mixed feeling when throwing bday parties for my kids! I also have multiple problems with all the parties over the years. Then when the time comes around then I get excited thinking that this time it will go better and it doesn’t! There seems to be too many rude people in this world!

  • Marie93005

    WOW! That sure is rude and stressful for the hostess! I thought I had seen/heard it all but I haven’t experience that problem before!

  • catwake

    Thanks a bunch! I actually haven’t been invited to a party in so long, and it is my daughters first invite, that I was really confused and had many questions. All of which with google I found your post and had all of my questions answered, well except what to get the birthday boy:-P. Lol. Thank you. Much appreciated.

  • Leah

    So, I need some advice on an issue you didn’t address in your article. My son is turning 4. He just switched preschools, and because birthdays were such a big deal with even 2 and 3 year old children at his previous preschool, I thought I’d invite the kids in his class at the new preschool, especially since they are old enough to enjoy parties now. To my surprise, not one parent has RSVP’d and the party is in two days. Because we had a “family” birthday party last weekend, I’m fine with not having another party, but I had hoped this would be a good way for my son to get to know his new friends, and for us to get to know the new parents. After all, my son is the ONLY new kid in the class this year. If nobody RSVP’s, what are my obligations? I refuse to call and ask the invitees if they are coming–that would look desperate, and desperate we are NOT! But if there is no party (because we assume nobody is coming) and make other plans that day and are not home–well, I worry someone will show up and think I am somehow rude or crazy for not being home after inviting them! Plus, I’m not going to order pizza and make goody bags and cupcakes for kids who haven’t said they were coming. THAT would be the crazy thing. What should I do? I don’t even know these parents’ last names or how to contact them to tell them the party won’t be held if, in fact, they were planning on coming and just hadn’t let me know. Ugh!

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