It happens all too fast: one minute, you’re wiping up the crumbs from the first-birthday cake smash. A few whirlwind years later, your precocious preschooler brings home a stack of birthday party invitations penned by parents you’ve never met. Party e-vites invade your inbox. Your child has hit the birthday party scene, and it’s hoppin’.

Given that kid birthday parties are big business — the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions reports that kids’ party venues charge an average of $370 per party. So, it’s understandable that parents want to get it right.

That’s easier said than done, though. Parents bring different expectations, cultural norms, communication styles and budgets into the party planning process. Etiquette can fall through the cracks. While there’s no formula for the “perfect” party, avoiding party planning pitfalls keeps the focus where it belongs — celebrating your not-so-little one’s big day.

RSVP Reframe

In today’s highly-connected world, responding to party invites has never been easier; email, texting, or simply checking a box on a web-based e-vite takes all of 30 seconds. But these days, many guests mistakenly consider RSVPs optional, says Jacqueline Whitmore, an internationally-recognized etiquette expert, author and founder of The Protocol School of Palm Beach. This leaves the party-planning parents having to guestimate attendees or query parents about whether their child will attend. And nobody has time for that.

“If you’re fortunate enough to be invited to party, respond as quickly as possible,” Whitmore says. Whether you can or can’t attend, respond to invites — including e-vites and text invites — within a week at the most. And if plans change and your child can’t attend, contact the host ASAP so the food, activities and party favors earmarked for your child can be repurposed.

Tiny Glitterati

A top parental pet peeve: Supersized (or super spendy) soirees that make your casual neighborhood cupcake-and-juice fête look ho-hum by comparison. “I’m tired of over-the-top parties that make my kiddos wonder why we don’t spend five grand on their birthday,” says mom of three Lynne Williams. “We went to one a few years ago that had two bouncy houses, hired entertainment, catered food, full bar, craft projects …. all for a 3-year-old.”

While the size of the budget and guest list are personal preferences, you can skip some stress (and save green) by focusing on party details your child will notice and remember. One way to dial down the crazy is to only include activities and entertainment that can reasonably fit into a 90-minute party — roughly the party attention span of a kindergartener — with enough schedule space for cake and relaxed socializing. That means you don’t need the bounce house, band, slip n’ slide, pizza-making station and petting zoo. One or two “main event” activities, with a quieter option like crafting or coloring for overstimulated kiddos, is festive without feeling forced.

Scale back on decorations, too, says mom of two Yin Chang. “Kids either completely ignore decorations, or they look at them for five seconds.”

Skip the Sibs

As soon as invitations go out, the “are siblings welcome?” queries come in. And some parents will show up with their entire brood in tow. This stressful scenario stretches party budgets and party hosts’ patience, because some parties are simply more enjoyable on a smaller scale.

“We do small birthday parties at our house, and if a child comes with a sibling or two and both parents, the party triples in size for food, gift bags and activities,” says Gretchen Coulson Smith, a mom of two.

Avoid this sticky subject by clearly addressing paper invitations to the invited child, says Whitmore. This gets trickier for e-vites, which may not allow senders to specify which child the invite is for. In those cases, a quick email or text with “We hope Ameila can attend Jake’s party!” can spare an awkward back-and-forth later on.

On the other hand, “the more the merrier” parents can let guests know that siblings can attend with a simple “siblings welcome!” note on the invitation. When you’re not sure — because of limited space at your venue, for example — write “please inquire about siblings” to head off sibling surprises. And if sibs aren’t on the guest list, consider making the party a “drop-off” celebration (also, of course, indicated on the invitation); parents with young kids may not be able to stay for the party if their children can’t attend.

Goodie Bags Gone Bad

Goodie bags filled with dollar-store junk irk mom Amy Hussey. “Keep it consumable so it doesn’t add to the clutter!” Or skip goodie bags entirely — most families won’t miss them.

If you just can’t abandon giveaways, consider a copy of the birthday child’s favorite book, a packet of seeds or a bulb to plant, a single can of Play-Doh, crayons and a small notepad, or a take-home craft like a hair barrette or bookmark. A party favor that fosters family time or quiet play after the excitement of a party will be welcomed by guests’ parents — who may be inspired to reciprocate when their child’s party rolls around.

-Malia Jacobson

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