Children's Birthday Party Host Etiquette

African American girl holding gift at birthday party
JGI/Jamie Grill / Getty Images

Is your child's birthday coming up soon? Do you spend time thinking about the theme, who to invite, what to serve, and what to do during the party?

If so, you're like most parents. You'll do whatever it takes to make this a fun event for your child and all the guests. But you probably have some questions as well.

Child's Perspective

One of the things children look forward to more than anything is their birthday party every year. They get to have a bunch of friends over, eat sugary treats, open presents, and have the day be all about them. What’s not to like? And as long as you're there to make sure everything runs smoothly, what is there to be concerned about? 

Most younger kids don’t realize that this day isn’t free or that it requires a tremendous amount of planning on the part of their parents and the parents of guests. Even back in the day when all you did was serve cake and ice cream and play pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, you still had to send invitations, prepare food, and make sure there were enough adults to handle the excited children who bounced all over the place from the sugar rush. 

Times have changed with expectations growing and parties becoming more elaborate. However, the basic host etiquette rules still apply.

Before you plan your child’s birthday party, consider some important factors to make the experience as fun as possible. You want your child to come away from the day with fond memories, and it’s always nice if his friends have a good time too. Even if you have taught your child good manners, take a few minutes and refresh his memory of proper etiquette.


Before sending out invitations, sit down with your child and discuss who all he wants to attend. Make allowances for close friends and family members. Then list all the other possible friends your child’s age.

Basic invitation rules to consider:

  • A good rule of thumb for toddler parties is having the number of the child’s age plus one more. For example, if your child is turning three, allow her to invite four guests.
  • Once the child starts school, things can become tricky. Think about the Golden Rule and don’t leave one or two children out. If you invite less than half the class, that is fine. However, if you invite half or more, you should include the entire class, or feelings will get hurt.
  • If money is an issue, there is nothing wrong to sticking with cake and punch refreshments and simple games that don’t cost anything. Even though you'll lose some bragging rights for creativity, the kids will have just as much fun.

Allow for enough time in advance for the guests to make plans. If you send the invitations two weeks ahead, they should have plenty of time to get back with you. Include and be very specific on the RSVP request, but understand that some people will not respond. If you still haven’t heard back several days before the party, call or email to ask if they will attend.

Some parents may want to send electronic invitations. This is fine, but it removes the child from being involved in addressing them. If you choose an electronic invitation, double-check the email addresses before sending and use a blind copy rather than expose everyone’s address to the entire group.

Opening Gifts

Most children enjoy opening the gifts during the party. Typically this happens as the guests are finishing their refreshments. Before the party, have a discussion with your child and let him or her know the importance of being thankful for every single gift, even those they don't like. Instruct your child to thank each person as the gifts are opened.

Don’t drag out the gift-opening segment of the party. If your child has a difficult time pulling off the wrapping paper or packaging, be there to offer a hand. After all the gifts have been opened, remove them from the room and go back to the planned activities.

Jot down each gift and the name of the person who brought it. Immediately after the party, sit down with your child and write thank you notes. Get them in the mail as soon as possible. This establishes a good habit early in the child’s life and will be a benefit later.

Party Favors

Most children’s birthday party guests take home party favors of some sort. If you can afford a goody bag for each child, hand them out as the children walk out the door to make sure no one leaves it behind.

If you choose to make favors as one of the activities, put them aside after they finish. Make sure they are labeled so you can hand them to the right child as they leave. Have a budget and stick to it.

There is nothing wrong with shopping at a dollar store for birthday party favors. In fact, these stores have many items that are identical to higher priced stores. The children will appreciate any small toy, treat, or other item to help them remember the event as long as you keep age appropriateness in mind.

Additional Considerations

All sorts of unexpected things can pop up before, during, or after your child’s birthday party. Be prepared with a backup plan. Most importantly, keep a positive attitude and remember that if something not so good happens, there’s always next year.


  • Someone may get sick right before the party. If it’s a guest, assure the parent that the child will be missed. If it’s the birthday boy or girl, call the guests as far enough in advance as possible. Try to plan a makeup date.
  • Someone may get hurt at the party. Have a first aid kit and enough adults to help out so all the children will be supervised, even if you have to tend to the injured child.
  • Have a big enough cake or enough cupcakes for at least half the children to have seconds. Most won’t ask for more, but if they do, it’s nice to accommodate them.
  • During the party, make sure everyone is involved in the activities. If you see a child standing alone, not participating, find a way to pull him or her into whatever you are doing.
  • Equip your child with conversation starters or play an ice-breaker game. If the children don't already know each other, they can each have a turn stating their name and something else about themselves, such as name their favorite pet or the name of their favorite movie.
  • If a parent brings the sibling of one of the guests, be gracious. You may find that even the uninvited guests have something to contribute to the party. Having an extra set of party favors will be a welcome surprise for the child.
  • Have a backup plan for each activity. Some things don’t go as you expect. An extra game or two can fill the time and be fun for the kids.

Have Fun

The most important thing to remember is that this is a celebration. Smile and show your child that you're having fun. Joy is definitely contagious.