Birthday Party Etiquette: Invites, RSVPs, Gifts, Oh My!

fernbdayHaving a child in school means that you will be invited to and attend a decent amount of birthday parties. And, at some point, you will probably host one for your own child. I know during the planning of the last three parties for my oldest, there have been some unforeseen issues that have arisen. From invites to siblings to special requests, I hope to cover some major points that have come up and how I decided to handle them.

The Invitations and Guest List

I bet you’re thinking, “Oh this can’t be that difficult. I’ll just invite friends.” But, did you know that many schools have a policy that says if invites are handed out during class, the whole class has to be invited? So if you wanted to just have a small party with one or two friends from school, you will have to send the invites by mail or email. And while thinking about invites, make sure to check with your party venue on the number of children allowed per party. Many places have a set number and any child attending over that number is extra, which brings me to my next point.

What to Do With Siblings?!

This is a hot-button issue. If one child is invited, are all children in the family invited? My answer is no, not unless the invitation says so. Most of the children’s parties I’ve hosted or have been to are at places where you pay per attendee. By bringing along another child, you are adding on an unexpected expense to the host. I’ve never heard of a place charging for an infant or baby to attend, but it’s always nice to ask before bringing along extra guests. If the invitations says “Mary Schoolmate,” then it’s probably safe to assume the mom isn’t budgeting for Mary Schoolmate’s siblings to attend.

Does Anyone RSVP Anymore?

So many times I’ve hosted a party and the biggest stressor isn’t coordinating my color palate or finding the perfect cake, it’s figuring out how many people are actually coming! I’m not sure what is so hard about committing to attending a party, but I find that it’s this fear of commitment that has people leery of saying yes or no. Again, knowing how many guests are coming helps the host with determining budget, food, party favors and even activities. So please, people, if the invite has an RSVP on it, respond.

Special Requests

I like to be accommodating, especially if there is a real need to be. If your child has a nut allergy, I’m happy to make sure I don’t order a triple peanut butter cake and a side of Chick-fil-a nuggets to serve my guests. But the accommodations can only be taken so far. If your accommodation is for purely personal reasons such as you find a gluten-free diet healthier or you are raising your child vegan or you don’t allow your child to have sugar, then please don’t ask. If you want to bring your own food so your child doesn’t feel left out, that is totally acceptable.

The Gift Debate

Of course, it’s always difficult to figure out what to bring or how much to spend, particularly for classmates you don’t know well. Here’s a list of our ideas for birthday parties, and it’s acceptable to spend whatever you feel comfortable (generally $10-$20 seems average). I find including a gift receipt appropriate for most gifts, except when it was a special order, monogrammed, or otherwise child-specific gift. If you bring a toy from Target or clothes from Children’s Place, put a gift receipt in with the gift. And, if the host asks for no gifts, please don’t bring a gift. Believe it or not, there are people who truly do not want their child showered with more stuff.

Are there any etiquette rules you would add to this list?


  1. The “no siblings” is a great general policy, but please be mindful when there is a twin sibling. Twins can be in different classes and know all the same children. Particularly in the early years, excluding a twin is difficult. I’d say the one exception to the no sib rule is when there is a sibling or siblings in the same grade but different classes.

    • This is definitely one of the trickier aspects of parenting multiples! I have never assumed all three of my boys (in different classes) are all invited to a party, and I actually cherish the one-on-one time I get if only one is invited.

      When all three are friends with the honoree, generally, all three are invited. And I use my judgement – if the party is at the Cool Zoo, I only bring the invited child. If it’s at someone’s house, I will ask if it’s okay to bring the others along.

      Ahh, it’s not fun explaining to the other two when they don’t get to go to a party, but that’s life! 🙂 (And yes, it definitely works better with older multiples – fortunately they were all in the same class up until the fifth birthday parties started rolling around, so we didn’t have to deal with it when they were younger than that.)

      • Pam…if all 3 of your boys are invited to a party, do you send 1 gift or 3? Or do you spend triple the amount for 1 gift? My twins have a party to go to next weekend & I am unsure of what to do. (and I don’t want to break the bank!)

        • Hi Nicolle,

          Sometimes I will send 3 small gifts, and other times I will send one slightly bigger gift than I would if it was only one child. I don’t spend 3x what I’d spend on one kid, but maybe a little more. I see it as one gift per family, not per kid.

      • I appreciate your recommendations and I do believe that prior to first grade, this is a very difficult situation. And, having triplets may help because TWO children have to stay home and not just one. One of my daughters was just invited to a joint bday party for 4 kids. It’s a SNOW party. They will have a snow machine and have a snow party! My daughter will be estatic! How do I exclude one child when neither of my children have ever seen snow? I have not told either about the party and haven’t decided if we will attend. Since it is at someone’s home, I probably will call the host and explain our situation. It’s horribly awkward and I have come to dread birthday parties. When planning parties for little ones, please think about including a twin or triplet. You have no idea how much this gesture will be appreciated by the family.

  2. I get that some parents don’t want more “things” for their kids, I’m sort of in the same boat myself as our family has grandparents who are overly generous at Christmas time (quantity, not necessarily quality, either), but I always take the opportunity of a birthday party to take my kid out to specifically pick out a gift for the birthday friend. It helps reinforce the idea of giving to others. My son, without a doubt, always arrives at the party and wants to personally hand the birthday kid the gift (and not place it on some cart in the party room). He says, “I picked this out for you!” He’s looking for that instant reaction of appreciation or excitement that little kids don’t always see in the other ways they may give (whether it be something at school for the elderly, the hospital, or at a church/temple.) I, the parent, will deal with the over indulgence at another time, by removing old or unused toys from the house. There is always a kid or a program in need of these things.
    Like I said, I get it why some parents don’t want gifts brought, but I just wanted to state another point of view on the subject.

  3. I also don’t always like the “no gifts” idea. If you don’t want gifts, then don’t have a big giant party. I just don’t get that logic that is half minimalist, half extravagant….

    • Just to play devil’s advocate … I think that a birthday party is a celebration of life and a way to gather people together and honor a guest. I think it’s possible to like throwing a party for an occasion (birthday, new house, job, whatever) and to gather people together in one room BUT not to expect gifts in return. I don’t personally say “no gifts” BUT my son has 28 kids in his class and 28 more things is a lot when really my son is thrilled just to eat cake and see his friends in one place. I don’t think either approach is right or wrong, but I don’t think the act of having a party is necessarily extravagant in and of itself. Sometimes it’s as simple as a public park and a birthday cake even. I am a serial party thrower and truly just love gathering people together for the sake of doing so.

  4. When should invitations be mailed out? I am a firm believer that they should be mailed out 3-4 weeks prior to the party. I cannot tell you how many times I receive a invitation 1-2 weeks before a party, sometimes causing my family to have to change plans because it is a party”we have to attend.)

  5. Jennifer- I’m with you, in that invites should be handed out 3-4 weeks in advance.

    Pam- That was not a thing when we were kids at all. In the words of Tracy Jordan, “Give to charity? Please no! PRESENTS!”

    As far as the no gifts rule goes… I think Ashley said it perfectly. I have not had a no gifts party but I see the practicality in it. I did go to a party where the host asked everyone to bring a child’s book to be donated, which was a nice idea.

  6. I personally love the idea of donations. I have a friend whose 7 year old daughter actually asked for donations so she could send money to children who didn’t have a bed or a safe place to sleep instead of gifts. When I read about this I was so touched to hear of a child that wanted to do something like this!

  7. This is a great and well though out post! As the mom of two and the owner of an indoor playground who has hosted hundreds of kids’ parties, the issue of not RSVPing and siblings is such a big deal that we finally changed our party packages to include 25 kids. It is so stressful when parents don’t know how to plan for the number of people who are coming to their party. They worry about favors and food and not to mention the price of “additional” children. I truly believe parties should reflect your personality and we should only do what feels natural. Kids just want to have fun!

  8. When I have been invited to donation parties, I get a gift and donate. Kids look for gifts and I can’t not bring one. One event asked for books for underprivileged kids, so I bought the same books for the child.

    I would never break up twins. My son has twins in his grade and we invite both. Also, certain families we do siblings if my son is friends with more than one of the kids. But I think people should assume that siblings are not invited unless stated.

    We had a family member with NO kids show up with 5 kids to one of our sons parties.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here