What is the etiquette with children’s birthday parties?

S and I are currently half-way through a 6-week stretch where she has a birthday party every weekend. This weekend she has two in the same day. 

I’m not complaining about my child being invited to so many parties – though as an introvert I do find it somewhat exhausting! When I mention this long run of birthday parties people tend to let out a low whistle and exclaim at the expense – but I don’t mind that either really. I like giving presents and enjoy choosing them with S.

But all of this time spent perched on seats around the outside of church halls and function rooms did get me thinking about the politics of children’s birthday parties.

S has had two birthday parties so far in her life. Both times I have allowed her to list the children she wanted to invite – even when that meant she didn’t invite children whose parents I got on well with! I felt bad about not inviting the other children, but with both parties we had a limit on the number of children we could invite, and there were other children outside of school/nursery we needed to invite – cousins and other people we couldn’t leave out of a birthday party!

Do parents invite children to birthday parties based on other things?

One mum I spoke to (not from our school so not involved in our recent spate of parties) was convinced that there had been occasions where parents had invited children based not on whether their child was friends with them, but on whether they wanted the parent to come along. This mum remains convinced that there’s a certain element of social climbing surrounding children’s birthday parties, where children are invited just so that the host parents can say the parents were there. Perhaps my friend’s children go to school with the children of celebrities or something! Either way, it does raise a question: do parents give out party invitations on a more political basis than simply “my kid is friends with your kid” – is there something more going on? Do they invite kids whose parents they want to become friends with, whose social circle they want to be a part of? 

I know several mums who will make sure that when it comes to their child’s birthday party, they make sure any child who has invited them to a party gets an invitation – a quid-pro-quo approach to birthday parties to ensure fairness. Perhaps I should have done the same with S. But I tend to think that children’s friendships can be changeable and a child who invited you to their birthday party six months ago may now be your arch enemy.

Another question that has come up lately: is there really a rivalry between parents as to who can throw the best party/spend the most money? 

This hadn’t occurred to me until a friend mentioned it, but it seems that some parents do try to out-do each other on the organising of birthday parties. Both of S’s parties have been very cheap in comparison to others, but children and parents alike do seem to have enjoyed themselves (unless they were lying, of course!) I’ve learned from experience that kids this age don’t even think about how much money was spent; they care only if there’s something for them to kick/jump on/splash in/shout at.

S has been to many parties, all very different. She’s seen magicians and puppet shows; she’s been to different soft play places; she’s been on bouncy castles and diddy cars and in swimming pools and last weekend she even went to a pyjama disco. 

I tend to think that when planning a birthday party parents probably ask their kids what they would like, look at what they can afford and then aim for a compromise between the two. But do some parents feel pressure to perform? Do they worry that they they need to put on a good show, for the parents as much as for the children in attendance?


When I was growing up birthday parties were held in the living room; we played pass the parcel and musical bumps and if we were lucky, we got to play The Chocolate Game before sitting down to a tea of warm cucumber sandwiches, sausages on sticks and of course jelly and ice cream. One year we all had Coke floats, and they fizzed over and ruined the paper tablecloth. That was about as exciting as our parties got in the 1980s. These days nobody seems to have parties in their homes; they hire a hall or a leisure centre or a soft play centre. We hired a farm for S’s 4th birthday party!

Do parents feel pressured to put on a good show?

One friend told me that she got together with a couple of other parents in her son’s class whose children had birthdays around the same time, and they had joint parties all the way through primary school. Pooling their resources meant the parties weren’t such a big expense, and they could afford to have bigger, better parties. One year they had a disco for the whole class; another they took all the boys in the class go-karting. But did their clever pooling of resources mean that other parents felt they needed to do more than just put on a few rounds of pass the parcel when their turn came?

I often feel like when parents put on overly lavish birthday parties they don’t do it to show off but rather because they are anxious that their child should have a good time. Everyone wants their child to enjoy their birthday party, especially around this age when it’s likely to be the first birthday party they remember as they’re growing up. I’d like to think that nobody thinks “I’m going to spend a fortune and show everyone else how it’s done!”

Personally I think I’m just a bit too lazy/busy for birthday politics. We invite whomever S demands we add to her list, and unless we’re otherwise engaged, we accept birthday party invitations with gratitude. I don’t feel terrible if I hear of a birthday party to which S is not invited, and I don’t tend to feel bad about not having invited children who have then gone on to invite S to their parties. I don’t have space in my head for such shenanigans, and I had assumed nobody else did either.

What is your experience? Have you ever thrown an amazingly expensive and over the top party for your child just to show off to other parents? (does anyone ever do that except in the movies?) Do you ever feel that you have to invite a child to a birthday party because your child was invited to theirs? Does this sort of thing get more political as children get older?

… Let’s not even get started on the party bags…


Vicky Charles

Vicky is a single mother, writer and card reader.

1 Comment

Kim Carberry · 05/07/2017 at 09:17

There is so much pressure when it comes to children’s parties….
Both of my girls have their birthdays over the summer holidays so we tend to just have a day out. Organising a party when they’re off school just doesn’t work for us. Phew!
When my girls were little they were invited to more parties. When the parents used to invite the whole class. Now they are older especially with my teen it is just a select few who are invited x

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