10 Thoughts on Simplifying Kids’ Birthday Parties

Celebrating a child’s birthday doesn’t have a to be a crazy fanfare (or at least a fanfare filled with waste and stress). If a big party isn’t for you, consider some of the following suggestions for a simpler and more relaxed birthday party for your little ones. 

Several years ago, I shared about my stance on kids’ birthday parties. Admittedly, we hadn’t attended many, but I wasn’t too keen on them for a variety of reasons. I received some thoughtful feedback on the post from readers who respectfully disagreed with me.

We are now veteran attendees of kids’ birthday parties. The boys get invited to loads of “invite the whole class” parties, many of which are hosted at play spaces and activity centers. We attend all the birthday parties to which we are invited, provided we are available. The boys have fun, and I also don’t ever want to be the parent who contributed to an unpopular kid’s birthday party being a bust. That might be an unwarranted concern, but I would feel so terrible for the child and the family if no one showed up.

We also hosted our first birthday party for T when he turned 5 last summer, hosted J’s first party a few weeks ago, and just had T’s 6th birthday party yesterday.

While I still have some hesitations about kids’ birthday parties, I’ve embraced them and appreciate certain aspects of them. We have also figured out some guardrails for ourselves to make sure we stick to our principles.

Attending Birthday Parties For Other Children

I’ve come to appreciate how much fun my boys have attending parties, especially when they are hosted at play centers or houses with lots of planned games and activities. At younger ages, I’m not sure my boys got all that excited about this, but they certainly look forward to the parties now.

Attending these parties can be a little stressful for parents, but we’re happy to appease our boys with a fun afternoon activity and contribute to the special day for the birthday child.

Enjoy The Party As Offered

Birthday parties at activity centers tend to have video or arcade games available for an extra fee. I’ve taken a hard stance with my boys against paying additional money for video and arcade games at these places. I don’t take issue with other parents allowing this, but it’s not for me. I want my boys to know that the activities included in the party are plenty of fun, and spending extra money is not only wasteful for us but not the best use of the activities paid for by the host family.

I always remind my boys about this expectation before we arrive at the party, which has been really helpful. At the first few parties, they asked to play these games anyway, especially when watching other kids play. But now, they don’t even ask because they know our family rule.

They do sometimes ask why other kids get to play, and I simply remind them that “different families have different rules.” It’s a fact of life that will return to discussion time and time and time again, and probably something easier to learn at a younger than when the boys are older and their requests are off much bigger value or higher stakes.

Get To Know Other Parents

These parties are a great way to get to know other parents, at least while our boys are young enough that parents stick around. It’s helpful to hear new perspectives and insights on what’s going on at school and in the community. Some parents are far more “in the know” than me about the events at school or resources for kids in the community. It’s also helpful to hear perspectives from other parents in similar situations dealing with behavior issues, dinner battles, sleepless nights, and all the other things that come along with parenting, particularly when those parents have children a year or two ahead of our boys.

From a professional perspective, it’s a great way to build a network outside of the office and without interruption of family life. Parents of students at our boys’ schools have all sorts of interesting professions and expertise. This is one of several ideas I share about 15+ Networking Ideas for Parents You’ll Actually Want to Try (and will have minimal impact on your family life).

Gifts For Other Children

With respect to gifts, I always buy books. My boys have asked recently if we can buy something other than books, but I can’t get behind buying another plastic toy to clutter the child’s playroom (especially because I don’t often know what they like). I explained to them that books are always a great gift and these kids don’t need any more toys.

If you’re not sure which books to buy, I put together a list of great picture books as gifts for kids that nearly all kids will like regardless of their gender or play preferences (and I add to it periodically as I find more books that fit the bill).

Thoughts on Regifting

I’ve heard parents discuss regifting previous birthday presents at future parties, but I’m not sure that really accomplishes my goal of being an advocate for less “stuff”. At least in appearance, it doesn’t reinforce my values of fewer toys. In some respects, it “dilutes my brand” as a moderately minimalist mom. I’d like to be the change I want to see in the world, lead from where I am, as cliche as that sounds. Regifting definitely doesn’t convey that message at all.

Simple Gift Wrap Solutions

I keep on hand one roll of brown kraft paper and three rolls of twine (one would do, but I happen to have red, blue and natural colored ones from many years ago) that I use to wrap all the presents. This works no matter the season or gender of the child, and I love how simple and clean it looks.

Admittedly, our present doesn’t look anything like the rest of the gifts from other families. The gift table is often piled high with large gift bags adorned with popular kids characters (and I’m assuming filled with toys). It takes some getting used to, knowing we’ve chosen to be the outlier, and I’m not judging other parents. We have, however, chosen to lead from where we are and do what feels most appropriate based on our values without compromising to blend in or keep up with the Jones’.

Birthday Parties For Our Kids

When They Are Old Enough To Ask

We’ve only hosted one birthday party for our kids and have one upcoming soon. That is largely due to my motto that we would have birthday parties for our boys when they were old enough to ask for them. T asked for a party last year, so we invited six of his friends and their families over to our house to play outside, eat cake, and socialize.

J didn’t ask for a birthday party last year… until about 48 hours after his birthday. Haha. I told him he could look forward to his party next year, and that finally happened. Like with T, we told him he could invite a few friends and their families over to our house, so we had four little boys come over with their families to play games, build LEGOs, and jump on the new trampoline we got him for his birthday.

No Gifts, Please

Many parents try this to no avail. Honestly, it drives me nuts when families disregard this request. While I respect other families positions on the social acceptability of showing up to a party empty-handed, we’ve given specific permission to bring nothing but themselves. We made the “no gifts” request intentionally. If we asked people not to bring their shoes in to our house, they would think nothing of respecting that request (and would probably think it’s rude to disregard our house rules). Yet the collective “we” has established this odd social custom that it’s appropriate (and best practice) to disrespect a family’s house rules about birthday gifts at parties. Why??!

Not only do we end up collecting things in our house we don’t want, but showing up with a gift also makes the families that respected the request feel uncomfortable. That’s completely unfair!

To be clear, I have no issues with other parents accepting gifts for their children. I don’t mind bringing a few of our favorite books to a birthday party for the guest of honor. I’m not judging other families’ choices. Instead, I wish we could recognize and appreciate more that different families have different preferences. I’ve respected that family’s preferences with respect to gifts, and I wish we could trust each other to return the favor.

Last year, instead of the standard “no gifts please”, I wrote “No gifts please. (Really, please do not bring a gift.)” to reinforce my request. I knew it had the potential to feel a little abrupt, but I hoped parents would appreciate our request. We succeeded with all but two families… one of whom brought a t-shirt and the other an Amazon gift card. For J’s recent party, we had a 100% success rate. No one brought any gifts (thank you).

The Platinum Rule Applies To Birthday Party Gifts

At our wedding, M’s uncle talked about The Platinum Rule as opposed to The Golden Rule. Instead of treating others the way we want to be treated (The Golden Rule), treat others the way they want to be treated. It’s a small adjustment to the principle but makes a massive difference by acknowledging that we don’t all want the same things in life and it’s better to give others what they want than assume they want the same things we do.

If a family doesn’t want gifts, save your time and money, friends, and do as they request.

As an aside, some argue that a “no gifts” requests is a formality and not a genuine request. That’s ridiculous! If it is the case (which may be true from time to time), then that’s an idiotic game to be playing and the family ought to not receive gifts for being so misleading and cryptic. Maybe I can’t relate, but that scenario is nothing but obnoxious. What world are we aspiring toward (and what examples are we setting for our kids) when we can’t even be honest with each other about gifts at children’s birthday parties?!

… ok, getting off my soap box…

Small Guest Lists

I know some families invite the entire class and certain schools request this if invites are sent to school. That seems like too many kids for our style, so we have allowed our boys to each invite five or six friends and their families. I definitely don’t want one or two children feeling left out and ostracized, so I wouldn’t allow all but one or two kids to be invited. Inviting such a small group, however, leaves enough children not invited that I think it’s fair for families to know the exclusion was not personal.

No Party Bags for Guests

Just about every party ends with a bag of party favors, most of which are poorly made pieces of junk my boys won’t touch after a few hours. I feel a little mean saying that because so many parents give party favor bags, but it’s really one of my pet peeves.

I’ve seen two families give away books as party favors, which I thought was a great alternative. For T’s party last year, we just scrapped the whole idea all together. We had one little boy ask at the end for his bag, and I kindly told him we didn’t have them for anyone. He was a bit confused, but moved on after about 10 seconds. I just can’t do party favor bags, so I’ll take whatever repercussions come from other families who might have had a different expectation. (Knowing my audience, I suspect not one parent could care less and some might be grateful the junk doesn’t get lost in the backseat of their car before they even arrive home.)

So What the Verdict?

All in all, I really don’t mind the birthday parties. Sometimes I cringe a little bit at how wasteful they can be, but I remind myself that what works for me, doesn’t necessarily work for others. Often the waste is in exchange for convenience, something I know is very valuable for so many families.

I have the ability to make modifications or set ground rules for our family that help make the birthday parties work better for us. Hopefully, the more I share about the ways we make small changes to reduce the environmental or social impact of our parties, the more other families will find ways to do the same within a construct that works for them.

Do you have any tips or ideas for making kids birthday parties a little more socially conscious and environmentally-friendly? Share in the comments!

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