Kids’ birthday parties: Who knew your social life was headed for such a nuanced (and busy) season? In case you hadn’t noticed yet, the birthday parties of the 1980s and ‘90s which included a few balloons, a homemade cake with thick white icing, and a pack of kids tossing confetti through the house are behind us. 

Navigating the world of over-the-top fetes, Pinterest-worthy details, and so many friends, there are bound to be questions of etiquette that come up. Whether you’re hosting a child’s birthday party or attending one, these are your most asked questions, answered.

Kids’ Birthday Etiquette for the Host

Do we need to invite my child’s entire class to the party?

The question of whom to invite can get dicey, especially once your little ones start school, but the simple answer to this question is, “no.” There is no one you have to invite, outside of the friends your child most wants to celebrate with. Take into account your budget and stress as well; there’s a big difference between inviting 10 kids and 30.

If you decide not to invite the whole class, be careful to invite only the handful of children yours is closest to. In a class of 25, for example, it would be unkind to invite 20 of them. Also, invitations should be delivered to the homes or email inboxes of those children’s parents then. Only send invites into school to be distributed by the teacher if everyone in the class is invited.

How do I tactfully avoid a family bringing extra kids or adults to the party?

Your wording on the invitation is your number-one defense in overcrowding at your child’s party; clearly address the invite to just the invited child. To be even more specific, you can say, “Annie plus one grown-up.” If you’re sending a virtual invite, most sites will allow you to create a total number of people invited. In this case, add one or two, depending if you plan to have the children dropped off, or accompanied by an adult.

Can I throw a kid’s birthday party on a weekday?

You can do whatever is best for your family. With sports, religious school or church, and other weekend obligations, it can be hard to find a good weekend date. If planning the party for a weekday, try to keep it near the neighborhood or school most kids will be coming from. If children are old enough for boosters or to be carseat-free, offer to shuttle anyone who doesn’t have a ride. Also, know that not everyone will be able to attend. However, if you do it around 4-6 PM, throwing in pizza, fruit, and a physical activity can actually be a huge help to busy parents. 

What kind of food should I serve at a child’s birthday party? Is a proper meal necessary?

This is entirely up to you, but be mindful of when you time the party. At 10am, around noon to 1, or at evening parties, guests will expect some semblance of a “meal.” If you’d rather not cook a full meal or do major catering but are planning for lunch or dinner time, ordering pizzas or nugget and fries trays is a solid option. So are plates of Uncrustables, with snacks like Goldfish crackers and pretzels. Morning parties can include a bagel bar and fruit. 

If you’d like to keep the food simple and affordable, plan for an afternoon party between 2 and 5pm. Parents will have fed their kids lunch already, and plan to serve them dinner after. In this case, a few salty snacks in bowls followed by cake are perfect. 

Do we have to hand out party favors at a kid’s birthday?

Nope! You can, but most of those plastic things housed in a favor bag end up in a landfill (after spending a few weeks on the floor of someone’s minivan). If you want to do a favor, try something useful like a customized dough play kit or sensory jar, a pack of crayons, or a bubble wand. Another idea is something consumable like a cookie that fits your party theme, or a bag of little candies. If you’re strapped for time and/or cash, skipping the favor is just fine. 

How much should I spend on my kid’s birthday party?

Your budget determines your spending, and good friends won’t judge you for doing a lot or a little. Throwing a simple party at home is an inexpensive option that can be just as fun for the kids as doing it somewhere flashy. 

If you’re hosting on a budget, consider printing out coloring pages and setting those up throughout the space with crayons everywhere. Bake the cake and let your little one help you decorate it. Shop your local craft store for easy decor with a coupon in hand!

On the other hand, if you’ve carved out the cash to throw a pricy fete, go nuts. At the end of the day, kids won’t know or care what’s spent, but just how much fun they had. If you are worrying about being judged for going over-the-top, it’s probably the friend group you need to reconsider, and not your own party plans.

Should my child open their gifts during the party?

This is a party etiquette question whose answer has changed over the years. It was customary to open the gifts at the end of a birthday party for decades. However, today’s parents are a bit more tapped into little one’s psyches and emotional needs, and the general mood now says that opening during the party is not only not necessary, but can be detrimental.

First, the practice puts pressure on the birthday child to be watched while receiving these items. If they don’t like something, they will have to perform for an audience and be careful not to give visual clues. The same goes if they already have the item, or if they thought it was one thing when they started opening it, and it turns out it’s something less exciting. 

Second, it’s hard for the other children, especially kids under 10, to sit for a stretch and watch another child opening presents. And harder still if their present gets less buzz than the other gifts. It’s best to thank each guest as they hand over the gifts or set them on a table. Plan to send a written thank-you or a text with a photo of your child using or wearing their gifts later, and do not worry about opening anything in front of the guests. 

Kids’ Birthday Etiquette for the Guests 

Can I bring siblings to a kid’s birthday party?

This really depends! If the invitation was specifically addressed to one child and not the family, or if the party is being hosted at a place that requires tickets or a per-guest fee, like a trampoline park or movie theater, the answer is probably “no.” But if you’re in a childcare bind and not sure you can bring just the invited child, it’s usually okay to reach out to the parents and explain. They’ll likely tell you to bring the sibling along, or offer for you to drop off the invited child. If you have more than two children, don’t plan to bring the whole crew unless your entire family was invited. 

Is it appropriate/necessary to drop my child off at a kid’s birthday party?

Most drop-off parties will state that they are such, and it varies from person to person, but these typically start at or after age 6. If you’re unsure, it’s best to plan to have one adult accompany your child. If the invite says “drop-off” and you or your child don’t feel comfortable with that option, you can reach out to the host family and ask if they’d mind you staying for the party. 

What do I bring if a child’s birthday invitation says no gifts?

“No gifts” means, “no gifts.” This is a hard one for many, in a culture so saturated with gifting opportunities where we are hard-wired not to show up anywhere empty-handed. If the invitation says “no gifts” and you really cannot help yourself, reach out and ask if the child has a cause that matters to them (animal welfare, global warming) and make a charitable donation in their name. Print out the donation information and place it inside a handmade card from your child. 

Other “no gift” ideas for the parents who can’t help themselves are a National Geographic subscription, naming a star after the child, or placing an ice cream gift certificate inside their card. These are waste-free, thoughtful ways to honor the birthday child and the parents’ request to not have more stuff entering the home.  

Can my child bring their own snack to a kid’s birthday party?

If your child has allergies or major food aversions, it is usually alright to bring along a treat they can enjoy while the other kids are eating cake. As far as a whole meal, feed them ahead of time. If you’re bringing something special, let the host know in advance that due to dietary restrictions, you’d like to bring X for your little one. They might surprise you and already be planning to serve something that your tyke can eat!

How much should I spend on a kid’s birthday gift?

There is no right or wrong answer here. If you’re on a tight budget, a coloring book and crayon pack or sticker sheets is a great gift. That said, $20-30 is an average range to spend for most kids’ birthday gifts. For family members or very close friends, spending more (up to $50-100) is completely appropriate, if your budget allows.

Do I have to RSVP to a child’s birthday party?

Yes! It is nothing short of rude not to. If you cannot attend, the hosts don’t need an explanation of why. A simple, “Sorry to mis it!” says it all.

More Birthday and Party-Planning Tips:

About Jenny Studenroth Gerson

Jenny Studenroth Gerson is an Atlanta-based lifestyle journalist and novelist (Let Me Let You Go, 2020). Her work can be seen in publications including HuffPost, Cosmo, and WSJ, among many others. Jenny has researched thousands of baby names, combed through hundreds of nursery designs, and curated dozens of baby shower guides, making her absolutely the mom—and writer—you want to talk to when planning for Baby. When not meeting deadlines, she is chasing toddlers or chugging coffee—or both! Find her on Instagram @ourlifeinrosegold for mom hacks and more.

View more posts tagged, birthday

Have questions about a Happiest Baby product? Our consultants would be happy to help! Submit your questions here.

Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.