In the lives of children, birthday parties can be currency. Some children plan for them all year long, carefully keeping track of who will and will not be invited. But many parents are opting out of traditional birthday parties for their young children. What are some options for children's birthday parties and how do you decide what is right for your family and child?
Traditional Birthday Party
Even as I write "traditional," it's important to recognize that the traditonal party comes in a wide range of variations. In general, we are talking about
one child as the center of attention with invitations to a handful (or large group) of friends. Cake is a standard, some sort of food and activities are
generally provided and guests generally bring presents. This can take many basic forms -- in-home parties, party facilities (bouncehouses, play gyms, bowling alleys, etc.), sleepovers and more.
I've heard the "rule of thumb" that a child should have as many guests as they are years old, but I have never found that to be terribly practical. The number of guests at a party is often tied to complex variables in school attendance, family proximity and budget, just to name a few. The right number of guests is the number that best meets those needs.
It's important to remember that until about age 6 or 7, parents generally expect (and are expected) to attend with their children, and hosts should make some accomodation for siblings (older and younger) when possible. Being clear with language in the RSVP ortion of the invitation to express your expectation or the options available to guests is a great way to nmake everyone as comfortable as possible.
For younger children, it may be best to open gifts after the party in a more private setting, especially if the party is large. Older kids will generally want to see their gifts opened by the birthday boy or girl and some preparation can help this go more smoothly. (see my related articles linke below, "Should Children Open Gifts at Birthday Parties?" and "Gift Opening Tips for Children.")
Ice Cream Social or Casual Celebration
If a traditional party is out of the budget or impractical for other reasons, a small, casual celebration can be a great option. Meeting at a local park for
cupcakes after school or a shared activity, meeting up at the local ice cream parlor or other similar occasions is easy and still allows a child to feel the
part of host or hostess. At a party like this, some guest may bring gifts and others may not, so it's best to accept them in a low-key way and open them privately at another time.
Invitations are often issues for parties of this nature by mouth or via email or evite. Even though it may seem uncomforatble, it is important if purchases
are involved to be clear up front on the plan (for example, "I was hoping you might be free on Wednesday to join us at XYZ ice cream. I'd like to treat a
few of of Johnnie's classmates for ice cream in honor of her birthday." vs. "We're having an ice cream party for Johnnie's at XYZ on Wednesday afterschool.")
Guests are generally very understanding if only a child's friends and not parents or siblings are being hosted, but if things are clear up front, it can create discomfort that will take away from the birthday child if things are left unclear until that time.
Special Family Outings or Gifts
Some families prefer to celebrate with children at special activities or outings in lieu of a traditional birthday party. For example, families may take kids to Disneyland or other amusement park, on a trip, horseback riding, or any number of other activities. Some children will opt for a special gift that can be afforded if the expense of a birthday party is passed up. Sometimes kids may be able to invite just one or a few closef friends to join them.
The tricky part of this is that other friends can feel left out or assume that there was a party and they were not invited. If the child is in lots of activities, it can be helpful when allowed to bring cupcakes or other appropriate treat to celebrate at those time so that the birthday child and their friends are able to celebrate there. Signing up to bring snack at scouts, soccer, etc. on a week surrounding their birthday is a great way to prepare for this. There are also parents who "keep score" and will exclude a child from their son or daughter's party if there was not a reciprocal invitation. These issues shouldn't make the decision, but are worth considering when deciding if this kind of party is right for your family.
As children get older, it's helpful to offer children freedom within the limits of the family budgets and practical needs to help decide how best to address the needs of their own personal and sometimes complex social world. This will help ensure that children truly feel special on their birthday.