Bucking a Trend: Birthday Parties and More

Bucking a Trend: Birthday Parties and More


This week’s HerTake question is seemingly about birthday parties, but it’s really about so much more.

Nina is always accepting anonymous questions so keep them coming!


Dear Nina,

I’m planning a birthday party for my almost 3-year-old son. I started to make a list and if we invite entire families (which others in my community have done), we are looking at around 100 people.

What is the etiquette for who to include? My son is in preschool, however, my husband and I are closer with some parents. Is it okay to invite only some of the kids in the class? Do we need to invite entire families? If we invite one child is it assumed that siblings are included? Do we need to invite friends of ours if they do not have kids our child’s age? We don’t want to offend anyone, and while we realize not everyone will come, the list seems excessive for a child’s birthday party.




Dear Carly,

I chose your question because while on the surface it’s about the details of a birthday party, it’s really about so much more. It’s about creating your own path, a more reasonable, and yes, less excessive path, even in a situation where others in your community and in your kid’s class (the majority even?) have made a different choice. Your question is about knowing that you might offend some people and making that choice anyway, not because you are wrong, but because people are too easily offended to be quite honest. Your question is about bucking a trend and about serving as an example for others in your community who would like to do the same, but are not brave enough to even ask questions such as “What are we doing here?” And “Why do we go to such lengths to make sure nobody will be upset with us?”

I speak from experience. As a mom with kids ages 10, 8, 5, and 3, I have hosted every kind of party imaginable from the big ones at Pump it Up and Build-a-Bear (talk about excess) to the medium-sized ones with just the girls or just the boys, to the type with only a few kids invited.

Full disclosure: I have regretted the big parties both for the expense, for the message it gives to my kids that everyone should expect to be invited to everything, and because of the reality that my kids have usually been miserable at their own large parties. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the same thing happen to other people’s kids. I once heard a child say of her American Girl Doll party (at the store’s fabulous restaurant), “This was the worst party ever.” After my daughter’s party at Pump it Up a few years ago she said, “It didn’t feel like my birthday.” More often than not the child in the center of all that chaos, the one for whom this excess is happening, is having some kind of meltdown. With that many people, the birthday kid does not know who to play with!

Now it’s time to address the specific questions for your son’s birthday. No, you do not need to invite the whole class. Take advantage of this moment when the kids in the class, including your son, do not know the difference. Keep the list to the kids your son talks about, maybe 5 kids at most. Explicitly say on the invite (or email or evite) that you are hoping one parent stays. My 3-year-old had 3 kids at his “party” this year. He loved it and so did I.

Also, siblings are not included. If this means a particular child cannot attend because the parent does not have arrangements for the other children, then that is totally okay. You as the party planner will graciously understand that not everyone can come. And I insist on assuming (because I like to assume the best) that the invitees will also understand that nobody should be expected to throw a 3-year-old (or any child) a party with 30-60 guests or even 20 guests. You can let siblings come, and I would make that decision on a case by case basis. I’m just saying not to include them on the invitation.

Keeping the party small also means you will probably need to keep your own friends off the list, too. They will not be offended when you explain that you are having a very small party with just a few friends from your son’s class. If they are offended by that, you’re in store for a world of drama in the coming years with these particular friends. I’m serious. The older I get I have found that the least desirable trait in a friend is one who is too easily offended. The ability to give others the benefit of the doubt (and therefore be less offended) is skill that most of us (I include myself) need to work on often.

I want to make an important point: It is not wrong to have a big party for your son. It is certainly not wrong to invite the whole class. Plenty of people do it and will continue to do so. It is simply not necessary, is all. I’m trying to establish that there is another way even if big parties are the norm in your community.

Personally, I am always relieved, not offended, when I hear that a family has moved from inviting the whole class to hosting a small party with a few friends. My older two kids have been aware of not getting invited to some of these very small parties. Were they a little sad? Yes. But listen, they were only upset at first. And it’s okay for a kid to experience feelings, to not be protected from sadness at all times. I talked through the situation in each case, and it was a great opportunity to remind my kids that it is simply not possible to be included in every single thing their friends do. We talked about financial realities as well. And I pointed out that when they have small parties it certainly does not mean they dislike the other kids and how it’s no different when someone else plans a small event.

I want to end with some tips for planning small parties. You have a few more years to worry about some of these details, but maybe this will help readers with slightly older kids.


  1. Invite just the girls or just the boys.
  1. Do not under any circumstances give out invitations or thank you notes at school.
  1. Small means small. If you’re not going to invite all of the boys or all of the girls in a class, then keep it to 3-4 kids.
  1. Tell the parents of the kids who are coming that you only invited a few children and to please encourage their kids not to talk about it at school.
  1. Although I want my and all kids to learn that not everyone can be invited to everything, they still need to learn to be sensitive to others’ feelings. Remind your child that if you hear there’s been talk about the party at school that you will cancel the party. But you have to follow through!

Good luck, Carly! Bucking a trend is not easy. Please report back (you can use the anonymous form) and let me know what happens.

All the best,


Ask (1)  If you have an anonymous question for Nina, use this form!


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  1. Stephanie, thanks so much, I’ve been there for sure! It’s so tempting to just invite everyone because most of us are empathetic people and we simply don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings–especially those of kids. So that’s the bright side. The dark side, though, is that this model of big, expensive birthday parties every year, for every kid is just not sustainable. It completely sends the wrong messages for everyone involved, and pressures people into a keeping up with the Joneses scenario. So glad someone addressed this.

    • Nina says:

      That’s well said! The big parties DO come from a good place to be inclusive. I was careful to say those parties are not “wrong.” It’s just that for people looking for an out, I wanted to share that I believe one exists.
      Nina recently posted…Invite the Whole Class?My Profile

  2. Orit says:

    we are lucky our oldest is born in the summer. We give her the choice- we can rent the park and she can invite as many people as she wants, but it will be a no presents party- or we can do a fancy Pump It Up party with a 10 kid limit and that includes cousins and siblings. So far we’ve had a large park party every year and whenever she realizes she didn’t’ get invited to a party of someone who was at her party we talk about how she chose the big party and maybe they chose the small party. Even with our big parties- we’ve never invited an entire class- she has friends from the neighborhood, her public school, and her synagogue plus cousins. We don’t do goody bags and we don’t decorate. We hire teenagers to keep an eye on the little kids on the playground and one to organize a game of soccer or tag. Parents are welcome to stay or go and younger siblings are invited as well. I suspect our younger child will choose smaller parties when she’s older because she’s less outgoing than her big sister.

    • Nina says:

      That’s an awesome idea and a great way to be all-out-inclusive without spending a fortune. My husband still brings up that Build-a-Bear party I did with THE WHOLE CLASS and then some. We split that with another family, but still, it was like 90 times more than he thought we should spend, and I think he was right. The kicker was when several kids asked about a goody bag. Um, the bear is the “goody bag” kiddos!

      My oldest has a summer birthday and it is the most liberating thing ever. For the past few years he has invited a few friends for a day on the lake with his grandparents.
      Nina recently posted…Invite the Whole Class?My Profile

  3. Dana says:

    This is a great question, and answer, Nina! I’m all for small parties and I speak from experience (sorry in advance for a long response).

    When my daughter was nearing two years old, my husband wanted to have a family party for her – re BIG. I was hesitant. Our girl was introverted and did poorly in crowds and loud noise. But for some reason I agreed, and we had a BIG party and it was a disaster – for my daughter. Everyone else seemed to have a nice time. As everyone was leaving an understanding guest said, “we go with a rule that says invite one more child than the birthday age.” I nodded vehemently while my daughter clung to me. Yes, I thought, definitely!

    We did that for two years to great success and since then have kept things small.

    In fact, she has a birthday approaching and after reading this column, I realized I had pushed her into inviting a few more people than necessary (out of my fear of upsetting/offending other kids and parents) and I said, honey, let’s only invite the kids that YOU want the most, and she burst into a big grin and nodded.

    Thanks Nina 🙂 for this wise reminder.
    Dana recently posted…Starting AgainMy Profile

    • Nina says:

      Really loved hearing your perspective, Dana, and you brought up something I had failed to mention. Every child is different! Some really do love those parties (as one commenter pointed out below), but I think it’s good for parents to realize that some really do not and just because it’s what “everybody” is doing it doesn’t mean you have to.
      Nina recently posted…Invite the Whole Class?My Profile

  4. A wholehearted yes to this, Nina: “The older I get I have found that the least desirable trait in a friend is one who is too easily offended.”

    I’ve distanced myself from friends who create drama by being offended and that’s made a world of difference.
    Jackie Cangro recently posted…The One With TurquoiseMy Profile

  5. Alissa says:

    The guideline we have always followed is that if you are going to invite more than half the class, then invite the entire class (unless you are doing gender specific – but then if you invite more than half the boys (or girls), invite all of them). Otherwise, keep it small, as Nina wrote.

    I have had childcare situations where I need to bring a sibling in order to for my other child to attend. I always ask first and am not offended if the reply is no. I also make clear to the host and to my non-invited child that there is no expectation for them to participate, get a goody bag, etc. I usually bring a book or something to occupy the other child and they sit in the sidelines with me during the party. As the kids are older and parties become “drop off” this is less of an issue.

    Finally, I’d just note that big parties seem to get a negative rap, and I completely understand the reasons why. But I have thrown both big parties and small parties for my children and they truly have liked both of them. When we did a big party at Bounce U, my son said it was the best party ever. And then the past two years he just wanted a small family party with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins and both times he loved those too. Both types of parties have merits and both type of parties can be wonderful for the birthday child, friends and family.

    • Nina says:

      Yes! I think that it is very important that small means SMALL. If you’re even close to half, then I think it’s the whole class or just a few kids or just family, perhaps.

      Oh! And I don’t think most people care when siblings come along. I for sure do not care at all. I was just trying to point out that “Carly” did not have to outright throw a whole family party, which would make the guest list really crazy. And yes, drop off parties are the best once they begin! My youngest, the 3-year-old goes to so few parties because with all the other stuff we have happening on a weekend neither my husband nor I can really be out of commission like that for a few hours on a Sunday.
      Nina recently posted…Invite the Whole Class?My Profile

    • Nina says:

      Oh! Meant to add that I agree that both kinds of parties have their merits and it totally depends on the kid and the family. I was trying to help “Carly” see that just because many families in her class or community have gone the big party route, it did not mean she had to as well. But yes, for families that love it and where money is not an issue . . . hey, whatever works!
      Nina recently posted…Invite the Whole Class?My Profile

  6. The Atomic Mom says:

    As a parent, I hate it when my kids are invited to parties. We decided long ago, that we were not going to do big parties, so when we get the invites to parties it just confuses our kids, and truthfully, they have never come away from a friend’s party with good experiences. It’s always tears and disappointment — no thanks. Add to that our food allergies and I am fine to not be invited to things. I also dislike the party bags my kids come home from school with. It just creates contention with the kids who did not get a bag at school and usually they are filled with trinkets that end up in the garbage by the end of the day. Growing up we only had a small gathering of family with cake and ice cream. We survived and, I actually would prefer it if society took all of the parties, celebrations, etc. down a whole lot. Simplify, simplify.

    • Nina says:

      I totally get it. And I have written a whole post for Brain, Child just about goody bags. Actually a few people got really insulted and unfollowed me because of it. Who knew it would be such a heated topic!?
      Nina recently posted…Invite the Whole Class?My Profile

    • Nina says:

      I love how you said that about quality over quantity. It’s a life-long lesson that many of us need to keep learning because it’s natural to feel left out when we know things are happening without us. But truly, we cannot be at all the things with all the people!
      Nina recently posted…Invite the Whole Class?My Profile

  7. Kristen says:

    Sound advice, as always. Now 7 parties in, we have been staunch small party advocates/throwers (all in the backyard–though I appreciate that we luck out weatherwise given it’s a Sept birthday and we have a yard). Immediate family (grandparents, cousins, aunts/uncles–it’s only about 10 folks) and less than a handful of friends. I could get philosophical as to the whys of why we’ve chosen this path (even in spite of the really big party lifestyle we seem to be living amongst), but I will refrain for brevity’s sake. I think it’s really been great for my daughter to see/process/navigate having to choose who’s closest to her and invite-worthy, and we give also her wide berth to decline attending those “entire class” parties for people she wouldn’t invite to her own. Maybe once before she’s 18 we’ll throw her a “big” one, but for now, this works just fine because she’s someone where less really is more (less noise/stimulation, more time to really play with her best buds, etc.) I’m fully on board with your approach/rationale, Nina!
    Kristen recently posted…Lowering the BlindsMy Profile

    • Nina says:

      I love seeing another example that acknowledges that each child is truly different and for some a certain kind of party is really too much, even if the parents have no issue with it in some cases.
      Nina recently posted…Invite the Whole Class?My Profile

  8. I completely agree with you. I never, ever invited the whole class to any party for my children. I encouraged them to ask just the people they feel closest to; sometimes it was a difficult decision, but I really felt like it was a good experience for them to learn that one doesn’t have to have dozens of friends-a few good, fun and loyal folks are just perfect!
    Jennifer Wolfe recently posted…Toasts: The Perfect Words to Celebrate Every OccasionMy Profile

  9. LAuren Apfel says:

    This is perfect. I agree wholeheartedly. Also, as somebody who values intimate relationships with fewer people, I like to teach my kids that they don’t *have* to be friends with everyone in the class. That it is totally normal to connect with one or two kids rather than ten, if that’s their instinct, and it’s not even a matter of ‘not liking’ somebody or somebody ‘not liking’ them. Though, of course, there are kids who are naturally more gregarious and enjoy bigger groups (I have both types). For me, birthday parties are/should be a reflection of a child’s actual friendships.
    LAuren Apfel recently posted…mothering in the rainMy Profile

  10. Stacey says:

    I love, love, love this! Our girl’s parties have run the gamut and we keep coming back to the smaller parties. It just feels right for our family- which I think is the important part. If you are a family who loves big shin digs than for all means go for it but if you are having a big party so that other people don’t get upset, I would re-consider. And I love your line about letting our kids feel sad for a little bit. Those moments are where our kids learn to be grown ups.
    Stacey recently posted…How to Keep Your Home Library CurrentMy Profile

  11. Justine says:

    Love your sage advice as always, Nina, and I can relate to wanting to simplify. When my older daughter was turning one, a friend told us about her “invite the same number of friends as the age your child is turning.” We followed that handy rule for a few years. My favorite was her fourth birthday, which was actually covered by Apartment Therapy (!): http://www.apartmenttherapy.com/post_109-171658

    The 1-friend-per-1-year rule worked until last year when my daughter turned six, and we realized it was already becoming too many. In fact, she was the one who prompted the change; her birthday falls later in the school year, and she was able to see that at large parties, the birthday girl always ended up crying. Now we stick with a 5-friend guideline (plus an extra sibling or two if they are friends of our family). If it were just me deciding, we would plan an intimate event with 1-2 friends, but we tried it my way last year, and she was disappointed at the lack of “party” vibe. She’s always been a ham and loves action and noise, the opposite of me. This year, at her seventh birthday, she would like to have a party at a jump place. Fingers crossed that no one cries!
    Justine recently posted…read * hear * say * see * eat {4}My Profile

  12. Nina says:

    I agree with Nina so much on this. A ‘large’ party for us is 50 people, and that’s only because my husband and I have 11 siblings combined! That was us being somewhat exclusive! Because of that, I have had to always buck the trend from the start. Now, I’ve taken it even further and not even had birthday parties but rather outings to celebrate with just my kids and husband. We’ll go to an amusement park or some other fun outing they don’t usually get to do. It’s fantastic—less expensive, less stress.

    It was interesting reading how kids don’t even enjoy their big parties. I think this stems from our own personalities and temperaments. If a kid blossoms in the limelight, then a big party may work, but for many of them, all the chaos, attention and people are too overwhelming.
    Nina recently posted…How to Deal with Gender Disappointment During Your PregnancyMy Profile

  13. Great advice, Nina. We actually take my 5yo to the beach each year for his birthday (he’s a July 4 baby so nobody is around anyway) and have never had a kid birthday party. This year, he’s requested a Ninja party and I have no idea what to do. It complicates things further that he has few friends and some of them have special needs and some do not (he’s in a mainstream kindergarten) – the kids whose parents I know (and like) the best are from his preschool autism classroom and may not all enjoy a Ninja party. So we’ll see what happens closer to the date but I am not not not having a party with 30 – 40 kids because it would suck for all of us! Thanks!
    Kristi Campbell recently posted…Early Intervention Evaluations and the St. Patrick’s Day that Wasn’tMy Profile

  14. Gail Freedman says:

    Nina, I like how you brought up folks who are thin-skinned as a sub topic in this b-day post. Myself included-I have to keep this defect in check. It’s simply hard to be in circles with people who are easily offended for they are unable to deal with life’s ups and downs. Sometimes the smallest things can get you down after a rough day. Saying no to a party at a flashy noisy place is easy enough for me, but I can see how that would really be tough for folks with big families and a child in a large class.

  15. Jenn says:

    When we did our party, we invited my son’s friends. We didn’t bother inviting the classmates he doesn’t play with or talk to outside of school. Only one person seemed offended at it, and I told her we only had the space, and the budget, to feed and entertain 5 kids. Parties can get expensive, really fast!

  16. Don’t be swayed with worry and doubt that hiring an event coordinator is not cost effective or necessary. A professional event coordinator can benefit your planned event in many ways, not least of which is actually delivering the event you have in mind.

  17. Mr. Khosi says:

    Nature can make a great outdoors ideal for garden parties, water games, messy projects, and sporting events which are the best of all.

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