Birthday Etiquette

Party Planning Dos and Don’ts


In my house, the countdown to the next birthday party begins almost immediately after the last one has just ended.


“Mom, you know what I want to do for next year’s party?”


Even as we are walking to the car, arms loaded with presents and leftover cake, riding the high of a successful birthday bash, my kids are planning their next birthday celebration. A child’s excitement over a birthday party is almost palpable: the fun, the games, the food, the presents and the goody bags! For kids, it’s a celebration of the senses like no other.


But how do you balance the fine line between enthusiasm and utter craziness to make sure that your birthday boy or girl is cool, calm and collected before and during the big day? 


Snezana Pejic, founder and program director of the Etiquette Academy of New England in Brookline Village, stresses the importance of helping kids keep on task – written checklists of chores and responsibilities are helpful – to stay focused and in control before the big day. “Remind him that the whole family is like a fine-tuned clock. If one person doesn’t do his duties, the clock won’t work,” she says.


Renate Devin, founder of the Boston School of Etiquette in Cohasset, agrees. “Prompt your child ahead of time on what is expected by role-playing courteous behavior,” she says. Practice things like shaking hands, making eye contact when speaking with adults, saying “please” and “thank you,” how to graciously accept presents from guests – no snatching or grabbing – and proper table manners. The best way to ensure good behavior is to make it part of a child’s routine, and to offer positive feedback when he or she displays good manners. “Children find pleasure in doing the right things and positive reinforcement is the most effective and enduring form of discipline,” says Devin.


At the same time, parents shouldn’t expect their kids to be perfect. “The reality is that at a party, kids are going to use behavior that is a little looser,” says Pejic, who recommends giving elementary-aged children three special rules – the behaviors you deem most important – that they need to follow during the party, and letting go of the rest. This creates a less stressful atmosphere and allows both parents and children to have a positive birthday party experience. 


Pejic also suggests tailoring the length of the party to your child’s age. “They can only be good for a certain amount of time,” she says.


Children should be reminded that a party is a group celebration, not a time to retreat to the corner to check out a best friend’s new video game. The birthday child, Devin says, should spend time talking to each guest and introduce friends who might not know each other. “Your child should understand this is a group affair and should not play exclusively with best friends,” she says. “Everyone should be included.”


To help children understand when they aren’t  being polite, Pejic advises that you put them in the other person’s shoes or gently remind them of a time when they may have felt left out.


Another way to help children be accountable for their behavior is to encourage them to take part in the party-planning process. Ask them how they’d like to spend the day. Let them create the goody bags or decorate the party room. Ask for their help when transitioning between party activities. “The more ownership they have over the process, the more responsible they are going to be,” says Pejic.


And when it comes to gifts, whether you open them during the party or not, experts agree written thank-you notes – from the child, not the parent – are necessary and help teach children how to show gratitude. “I find it helpful to create a sample thank-you note and have the child change the details section for each note he writes,” says Devin. Children too young to write notes themselves can help by decorating them with stickers or simply signing their names.


Perhaps one of the biggest tips to encourage good behavior from your child in a social setting such as a birthday party is to practice what you preach. “I guess we have to remind parents to remain cool, calm and collected,” says Pejic. “We have to show them [the child] our manners. They will mimic whatever you do.” 

For more ideas on planning your child's next party, check out our July issue online!  


Michelle Xiarhos Curran is a freelance writer and mother in Newburyport.


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