Children's Party Etiquette
Learn the answers to common questions about children's party etiquette such as how many guests to invite, how many games to play, what favors to give out, how to handle bad birthday behavior, when to write thank you notes and more.
Planning Party Games
Thanking Your Guests
Party Planning Toolbox
Who should be invited?
Many children would love to invite their entire class, all their neighborhood friends, their soccer pals, plus any cousins who live nearby. But this just isn't practical or affordable for most families, so where do you draw the line? First, ask yourself how many children you are comfortable hosting, and do
let your budget be a consideration. A manageable party will be more enjoyable for both you and your guests!
How can I include all my child's school friends in a manageable way?
- One common guideline is to invite only as many children as your child's age, plus one. So if your child is turning five, you would invite six children to the party. The idea behind this is to keep the party small when children are young so they are less likely to be overwhelmed. Then, each year your child learns to handle a larger group.
- Another thing to consider is whether the party will be indoors or out. Typically, it is easier to host a larger group of children in an outdoor setting. For a party at home, tailor the guest list to the space you have available. You may decide to hold the party at another location such as a recreation center, church hall, or a business that offers party packages, in order to invite more children. Also, be honest with yourself about how much time and energy you have for this event. There are times when you can handle a ten-guest party, and there are times when your sanity is best preserved by taking four of your child's closest friends out for a movie and ice cream sundaes.
- Whether you have a big backyard bash or a smaller destination party, do invite your child's friends, but do not feel obligated to include their friends' siblings. You should absolutely not feel pressured to invite the entire class. If your child is in school, you might consider inviting just the boys or just the girls for a gender-specific party, or just your child's closest friends that he or she spends the most time with.
Many parents worry about making children feel left out on their child's special day. This is especially true after a child enters elementary school, where class sizes tend to be larger. To keep you from overspending your budget, or winding up with more children than you can comfortably handle, we recommend asking your child's teacher if you can bring a birthday treat to class on your child's birthday, such as donuts, brownies, or cupcakes. This way the whole class will feel included in your child's birthday celebration.
What information should be included on the invitations?
Your invitations should be clear about the type of party being given, and the date, time, and location of the party. Begin by telling guests who the party is for at the top of the invitation. "Kyle's 8th Birthday Party", for example.
Next, give the date and time of the party. You definitely want to give both a start time and an end time to avoid confusion about when parents should return for their children. If you don't want other parents staying, wording such as "Drop off at 2:00 pm, and pick-up at 4:00 pm" should make that clear. If the party must start or end precisely at a certain time, such as one being hosted at a movie theatre, include the word "sharp" after the time.
What is the best time for a children's party, and how long should it last?
- Be specific about the party location. If the party is being given at your home, give your street address. If the location is somewhere else, such as at a restaurant or church hall, give the name of the location (e.g. City Bowling Lanes, or First Step Ballet Studio) and the street address. It would also be helpful to give the phone number of the location for any guests who may want to call for directions.
- Be kind to your fellow parents! Let them know on the invitations if the children should dress for messy activities, bring a swimsuit and towel, etc.
- If you will be providing a meal, put that on the invitations, too. This is really helpful to parents when a party starts or ends close to a normal mealtime. Just add a few words like "Lunch will be served" or "Pizza and Cake."
- If your party will be held outdoors, you need to have a plan ready in case of bad weather. If you can't move most of the activities indoors, and would need to postpone the party to another date, you should include instructions such as, "If rain is forecasted, we'll call you with an alternate plan" or "Rain date is xx/xx/xx."
- Finally, give information on how you want guests to reply, such as your phone number or email address. Here are the most common RSVP formats used on invitations:
- RSVP to Debbie at [phone number] or [email].
- RSVP by June 1 to Debbie at [phone number].
- Kindly respond to Debbie Jones at [phone number].
- Please reply to Debbie Jones at [phone number].
- Regrets only, to Debbie at [phone number]. (Please note that "regrets only" means that you only want people to call if they cannot attend. You assume everyone else is coming.)
- Some people use clever RSVP lines that match their party theme. For instance, with a farm or cowboy party, you might say, "Yeahs or neighs should call [phone #]."
- Should you ask guests to respond by a certain date? Yes, because you really do need to know how many people are coming! To do this, simply put "RSVP by [date]" on the invitations.
- We suggest your RSVP include a deadline that is about a week before the party. This gives you time to purchase any extra party supplies or favors you may need, and, if necessary, provide a guest count to a party facility. Make sure to mail the invitations two to three weeks before the party so you can get an accurate head count and shop for supplies.
For babies and toddlers up to three years old, when naptime is still a consideration, a one-hour party is long enough. When children are four to seven years old, plan on one and a half hours for the party. By the time children are eight to eleven years old, they can easily handle a two-hour party. Children twelve and up can entertain themselves to some extent, so they will likely want an evening party or sleepover.
The best time of day to have a baby or toddler party is probably 10:00am–11:00am. This lets you work around nap time, and is long enough for some free play and cake. As children get older, parties are usually from 1:30pm–3:00pm or 2:00pm–4:00pm. This gives plenty of time for games, snacks, and cake.
What if I want a parent to stay?
Sometimes you may want other parents on hand to help you supervise the children during the party. This is often helpful when you're hosting a group of kids five or younger. To make this request clear, you can add wording on the invitations asking that the invited child come with one parent. A good time to confirm this request is when the other parents call you to respond.
How do I handle RSVPs, and more importantly, the ones who don't call?
If you ask guests to RSVP by a specific date, most parents will call. For the rest, you will need to get on the phone to find out who is coming. Just because a parent hasn't responded, don't assume their child isn't coming to your party! And you really do need a head count for planning purposes, because you want to have enough food and party favors for every child who attends the party.
How should I address the envelopes?
- When making the call, you can say something like "Hello, this is Maggie Jones. Will your son Kevin be able to join us for the birthday party this weekend?" To keep track of responses as you speak to the parents, print a copy of our guest list sheet and keep it near the phone.
- You should also be prepared to answer a common question from other parents, which is "what gift would your child like?" Responding with "it doesn't matter" won't help the other parent, so be ready with a few ideas. You can say something like "Thank you for asking. Jack really loves Lego bricks, dinosaurs, and books about cars."
Address each invitation to the person being invited. If you want little Bobby to attend, but not his siblings, address the envelope to Bobby Smith.
- Keep in mind that children under the age of five will usually bring a date—their mom or dad. Many children this age are not ready to socialize at a party without a parent nearby. These parents will linger in the background, and will most likely be willing to help in any way. Let them help you serve cake and clear away dishes.
- If you do want entire families to attend the party, address the invitation to "Bobby Smith and Family", or "The Smith Family". Or you could write "Siblings Welcome" inside the invitation.
Planning Party Games
Are competitive party games a mistake? And how many games are enough?
Some parents worry about games that result in winners and losers, but competitive party games still have their place at a kid's birthday party. The key is to make the prizes fairly small, so the other children aren't tempted to feel jealous. Consider giving small packets of candy
, or stickers
as prizes. Be sure to include non-competitive activities in your party, too, such as a craft
or a group game where the children work together in teams.
Laurie Wrigley, founder of Birthday in a Box, adds this great advice:
"On the subject of competition, I think that children four and under are probably too young for competitive games in which there is a single winner or players are eliminated. While most may be able to handle it, there may be one or two who cannot. Instead, I would advise that each young child be given a participation prize or be made to feel like a winner. For instance, with a musical game, the adult can ensure everyone wins by stopping the music appropriately. Or, if there is a broad range of ages, you may want to pair younger children with an older partner or an adult who can share in the win or loss."
- When planning party activities, always add two more games or crafts than you think you will need. These extra ideas will rescue you on the party day if the children finish a game more quickly than you expected. For a toddler party, it is generally accepted to let the kids play freely most of the time, so one or two games are all you will need.
- For other age groups, plan 3-5 crafts or games if your party will last one-and-a-half hours. For a two-hour party, you will need 4-6 activities.
- Don't push the children to finish a game that they are enjoying. If you've hit upon a winner, the kids may want to play it again! Forget about getting through your entire list of games, and let the party flow at its own pace. This is how Laurie Wrigley learned the value of letting the kids set the pace at a party:
"I remember trying to entice preschoolers out of the sandbox to play one of the many games I'd planned for my youngest daughter's party. My husband laughed and asked, "when do they just get to be kids?" And he was so right—they were perfectly happy playing together in the sand. I didn't have to force it!"
How can I prevent the birthday child from behaving badly at the party?
Talk to your child before the party about your basic expectations, such as saying hello to each guest as they arrive and being friendly to everyone.
At what age can children attend parties without a parent?
- Be forgiving if she forgets her party manners at times, but do remind her to thank the guests as they leave and hand each child a party favor.
- Set expectations early and increase those expectations each year. Each year your child will be able to handle a little bit more responsibility during the party, building good social skills along the way.
- For many children, the day of their birthday party is one of the happiest days of the year. They have been anticipating the party for weeks, and as excitement builds, the chance of a meltdown increases. If this happens to your child during the party, be kind! Children can be overwhelmed at birthday parties, and your job is to help your child calm down and get back to the fun.
- Don't show anger or say anything to ruin their happy day.
When your child is a guest, plan to stay at each party he attends through the age of four. Kids this age really do need a parent nearby at social events like birthday parties, no matter how independent they are at home. Many children become overwhelmed by the excitement and the crowd at a party, and you can't be sure your little darling won't have a breakdown.
By age five and up, most kids are ready to go it alone at a party, provided they know a few of the guests. The best way to decide is to simply ask your child if he wants you to stay for a while. Your child will let you know if he is ready for you to drop him off and leave!
What can I do when guests behave badly?
Keeping an eye on a group of excited children is challenging, to say the least. We recommend asking another adult to help you on the party day. This can be a good friend, a relative or a favorite babysitter. Birthday parties, with high levels of excitement and the possibility of too much sugar, can result in children who break down in tantrums, tears, or wild behavior. This is when you'll be glad if you have another adult to step in and help.
- Try to be patient and stay positive.
- If the child's parent is there, ask that they handle the situation. If not, try offering another activity to redirect an upset child and dry those tears.
- Some children may need to be taken to a quiet spot to calm down before they are ready to rejoin the party.
- When wild behavior is the problem, try redirecting the child to another activity, or ask that child to help you gather the guests for the next game.
Thanking Your Guests
Do I need to send thank-you notes? Are they really that important?
Yes, thank-you notes are necessary. When someone has taken the time to choose a gift for your child, they deserve to be thanked. The note doesn't have to be long or wordy; it should just mention the gift and something positive about it, and thank the giver for coming to the party. Ideally, the notes should be handwritten and sent within two weeks of the party.
- If your child receives a duplicate gift or one that isn't liked, be creative! Try saying something like, "Thank you for the fairy doll. No matter how many I have, I love playing with them all!" And for the gift that isn't popular, try something like, "Thank you for the new shirt. I'm glad you came to my party."
- For children who cannot print yet, you should write the note and have your child draw a picture or sign the bottom. As ability improves, let your child write more of the note. Take a look at our personalized thank-you notes and fill-in-the-blank style thank-you notes for a great selection that will make this task easier for you and your child.
- Getting those thank-you notes out the door requires having a list of the gifts and who gave what. Be sure to assign this task to an adult before your child begins opening the gifts. To make this job simpler, create a list of the guests' names before the party, and then jot down each gift beside the giver's name as they are opened.
Party Favor Ideas
How should I handle the favor bags? And who gets one?
Providing party favors, often called goody bags, is pretty standard at children's birthday parties. A favor is basically a small thank-you gift provided to each guest for attending the party. Each favor bag typically contains a few small toys and candy.
I'm tired of junky party favors! What else can I do?
- You need to prepare the favor bags before the big day, and place them near the party exit. That way they will be right where you need them as guests begin to leave.
- Make a favor bag for every child attending the party, plus one or two extra in case any unconfirmed guests are suddenly able to come at the last moment. (Yes, this happens all the time.)
- If a parent arrives to pick up their child and a sibling is with them, do not feel obligated to provide that sibling with a favor bag. However, if you are asking some parents to stay during the party, be prepared for some of them to bring along other children. In this instance, you may want to have a few extra favors on hand so siblings in attendance don't feel left out.
Some parents complain that the toys marketed as party favors can be of poor quality or are quickly discarded by their child. This waste prompts them to look for other parting gift ideas.
Instead of a bag full of little toys, try finding one item that relates to your party theme. Here are some ideas that have worked for other parents:
- CD of children's music
- A stuffed animal
- A children's book
- Box of crayons and a coloring book
- Personalized bag tag or luggage tag with a themed border.
- Water toy (summer party)
- Flashlight (spy/detective party)
- Small football (sports party)
- Frisbee (summer party)
- Wings and a wand (fairy party)
- Sword and shield (knights party)
- Cowboy vest and hat (western party)
- Sand pail and shovel with each guest's name written on it (beach party)
Another popular option is to let guests make their favor as part of a craft activity during the party. For example:
- Paint a flower pot, and fill it with a plant.
- Paint or otherwise decorate a wooden birdhouse (found at craft stores).
- Use permanent markers and stickers to decorate a plastic light-switch plate (found at craft or hardware stores).
- Decorate a plain T-shirt with fabric markers, puff paints, and sponge paints.
- Make a picture frame from popsicle sticks and spray paint it silver. (If possible, take a group photo during the party, and quickly print copies to insert into the frame as each guest leaves.)
- Look through our selection of craft kits for additional ideas
In some communities, the giving of gifts and goody bags has been replaced by book exchanges. Each guest brings a new, wrapped book to the party (instead of a gift), and everyone goes home with a new book, including the birthday child. The book exchange becomes one of the party activities, with each child choosing a wrapped book to keep.
Party Planning Toolbox
Use the links below to quickly find more planning tips, printable checklists, and advice from our party planning experts.
- Gift Opening Tips: This article includes common questions and answers related to party gifts and some gift game suggestions.
- Developing a Party Theme: This article has common questions asked about developing a party theme as well as how to incorporate the theme into your party.
- Party Planning 101: Our useful party planning guide includes cake ideas, party etiquette tips, a printable guest list, and much more.
- Parties Under $100: Use this guide to celebrate in style without breaking the bank!
- Party Budget Estimator: Download this guide to help budget your expenses.
- Birthday Theme Ideas: Browse our list of over 130 themed party guides to find tips for your child's next birthday! Each guide includes ideas for invitations, decorations, food, favors, games and more.