Birthday Party Protocol

Who knew the world of kiddie birthday parties could be so complicated - especially at this age? We asked some experts for their etiquette tips when it comes to celebrating the big day. And we're confident we've solved the five stickiest birthday bash dilemmas.

Birthday Party ProtocolQ: Do I invite all her friends?


No. At age three and four, kids are still transitioning from parallel to interactive play, explains Alyson Schafer, a Toronto-based parenting expert and author of Honey, I Wrecked the Kids (Wiley). “So a birthday party can be a pretty big developmental task for them.” If your child is in daycare, Schafer recommends planning an activity at the centre, if permitted. If not in daycare, just a few guests at home or a party place is best, she says.

If your child is turning five or six and you’ve chosen to keep numbers down, ask him who he’d like to invite and get input from his teacher or care provider about which children he plays with most and extend the invite discreetly. Chynna Laird, a mom of four kids under eight from Edmonton, says she allows her children to invite the three friends they want to have over and invites them one-on-one or by email. “We haven’t had any hurt feelings yet because we usually try to invite just those friends our kids actually play with.”

Despite your best efforts to shield some kids from disappointment, the truth is very few kids will keep an invite a secret, and nor should they be expected to, says Schafer. “That is the reality of life. When I have a dinner party I don’t invite every single person I know or that I was ever friends with. Getting excluded helps kids learn about the power of being inclusive,” she explains. “These are the first little bumps of social life.”

Q: He’s going to a party. Do I stay or do I go?


At age three and four, expect to stay unless told otherwise. By age five, kids are generally good on their own. If you are hosting the party, let parents know upfront whether you want them to stay to avoid any confusion. If your child has been invited to a party but clings to you like a leaf on a tree at social events, Schafer suggests phoning the parent to explain the situation and offer your services as a volunteer. “Alternately,” says Schafer, “you can also use this as an opportunity to say, “The choices for you right now are to go to the party without me or to stay home. So I need to know now so we can RSVP.” If your child agrees to go, let the host know (out of your child’s earshot) that if she’s upset after you leave, you’ll come pick her up so the party can continue.

Q: Does anyone open presents at parties anymore?


Presents are often carted home or inside to be opened after big parties, but kids like to see their friends open their gifts. “My kids always picked or bought the gifts and were pretty disappointed when it wasn’t opened because they’d chosen something personal,” recalls Schafer. But if grandma is giving a bike, it might be best to ask her to give it at a separate time.

Q: No gifts required or just a donation? Really?


Yes. “The parents who are requesting no gifts likely believe their child has everything he needs and don’t want to burden their guests with the expense,” says Louise Fox of The Etiquette Ladies in Toronto. Tracy Muxlow of Toronto found the amount of gifts her children, Matthew, 8, and Sarah, 6, were getting was overwhelming. In lieu of gifts, she now asks party-goers to bring a gift-wrapped book or toy worth $10, which the guests then exchange. As for donations, if you’re planning to spend $20 on a gift, the same donation would be appropriate, says Schafer. And if you just can’t stand the idea of coming to the party empty- handed, Fox suggests offering to bring something in the way of party favours or food.

Q: Are thank-you notes really necessary?


Yes. Preschoolers should already know how to say thank you when they receive a gift and at age four or five, they should also be included in the thank-you card process, even if it’s a simple drawing, says Fox. “Nobody expects these cards to be perfect, but the receiver will feel appreciated and the child will eventually grasp the idea of expressing gratitude.”

CF’s senior editor Robin Stevenson is still trying to figure out the rules of her five-year-old daughter’s birthday party circuit. And don’t even get her started on loot-bag excess.

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