Cake, Candles & Chaos

Birthdays are a reason to celebrate, and many kids rate their birthday party as the highlight of the year. But sometimes, that party can bring about hurt feelings, considerable expense and a parent’s vow of “never again!” Here, we look at the rules of engagement when it comes to birthday parties – whom to invite, how to handle a rambunctious guest, when to open the gifts and more.


You’re Invited (or Not)


Invitations do more than introduce a party theme. They can make one kid’s day or make another child feel left out. Send your invitations well in advance by mail, e-mail or simply by making a phone call.


Q: My child doesn’t want to invite everyone in his class. I like the idea of a smaller party, but how do I pull it off without hurt feelings?

– Anxious in Antioch 


A: It’s OK to selectively invite classmates to a birthday party, but be sure to mail the invitations to the guests’ homes or e-mail them to the parents. Never, ever send your child to school with a fistful of invitations to distribute at school – especially if everyone isn’t invited. If only one or two kids are omitted from the guest list, speak to your child and see if she can’t be convinced to include everyone. A birthday invitation can mean a lot to the kid who is always left out.


Q: I sent out the invitations two weeks ago, but only one person has RSVP’d. Is it pushy to call to ask if they are coming?

– Impatient in Pacifica


A: Call them. Be nice as you explain that you need to know how many to expect at the party. That’s just common sense – as is RSVPing.


Q: OK, I’ll say it. One child on my son’s guest list is a monster. I am worried that he’ll be too much for me to deal with and ruin the party.

– Frantic in Fremont


A: Don’t wait until the kid throws cake and torments your dog. Be proactive by involving the child before he has a chance to act out. Ask him to help hand out prizes, move chairs or blow up balloons. If there are other parents at the party, enlist their help. If all else fails, take the child aside and threaten to call his parents. And if that doesn’t work, make good on your threat. You also have the option not to invite this child. Weigh the consequences of not sending an invitation.


Q: What if someone asks if they can bring younger siblings to my daughter’s party? I don’t want my 9-year-old’s bash overrun with 6-year-olds.

– Reluctant in Redwood City


A: Younger siblings can increase the head count, the expense and the chaos. Prevent ambiguity by addressing the invitation to one specific child. Write: “Tommy is invited to a party!” instead of “Come to my birthday party!” Of course, wily guests might still show up and wreak havoc on even the tightest guest list. Short of hiring a bouncer to stand at the door, the best solution is to be prepared with several extra goody bags and enough cake for everyone.


Q: Should I stay with my young child when she’s invited to someone else’s house for a birthday party?

– First-time Mom in Mill Valley


A: Always check with the hosts to see if they are expecting you to drop your child off or stay. In my opinion, parents of children who are older than 5 should simply drop their child off at the party and go shopping for stemware or to an R-rated movie. Parties are much easier to host when there are only 6-year-olds to impress.


Gimme, Gimme, Gimme


Used to be that you spent $10 on a birthday present and that was that. Today, it’s a little more complicated. Nothing costs $10; parents are questioning the lessons taught by parties that culminate in a gift orgy; and kids often expect substantial gifts.


Q: We’ve been invited to several parties that request “no presents.” While I admire the philosophy, my child is expecting presents. How do I make sure that she doesn’t seem greedy?

– Material Mom in Millbrae


A: Birthday presents are a time-honored tradition, one that can teach valuable lessons about graciousness and tact. Speak to your child days before the party and review how to react to each gift so that everyone leaves the party feeling special and as if they brought the perfect present. You can even practice scenarios: “What if two people give you the same gift?”


Q: How can I keep my daughter’s birthday from becoming a huge “gimme” fest? We’re inviting her entire class to her party, and I dread the accumulation of 24 new toys.

– Already Overloaded in Alamo


A: If your daughter is old enough to reason with, speak to her about your concerns. Be prepared to make a deal. Maybe she gets the big party – but there’s a no-gift clause. You can also head off extravagant presents by talking to your guests’ parents when they RSVP and stressing the concept of small, inexpensive gifts, such as books or art supplies.


Q: Is it okay to open presents in front of the guests, or is it better to wait until the party is over?

– Curious in Cow Hollow 


A: It’s your call. Some parents think that making a show of opening presents during the party makes guests feel uncomfortable. But kids who bring presents often want to see the birthday child’s reaction to their gift. You can take a vote at the end of the party: “Do you want Clarissa to open her presents now or would you rather play Jungle Tag?” Another approach is to open each present in a one-on-one encounter as each guest leaves.


Q: If my child politely thanks each child at the party, are thank-you notes still expected?

– Call-Me-Lazy in Lafayette 


A: Yes. I know, it’s painful to sit with your child and make him scrawl out a note of appreciation but, part of the reason we have birthday parties is to instill basic social skills in the next generation, and thank-you notes are one of the most basic. However, e-mail notes (with an attached picture of the guest at the party) are acceptable.


The Menu? A Piece of Cake


Birthdays usually mean cake and ice cream. But they can also mean trying to take into account the many food preferences and allergies kids have these days. To keep the party successful, keep the food simple.


Q: My son is inviting a friend who is allergic to everything – wheat, milk and nuts. What should I serve?

– Worried in Walnut Creek


A: Tailor your menu for the majority of the guests. Although it would be super-thoughtful for you to have a special, gluten-free cupcake to accommodate the allergic child’s diet, most parents of children with life-threatening allergies pack their own snacks. When in doubt, call the child’s parent and figure out what will work for everyone.


Q: Do I have to provide food for parents who stay at the party even though I didn’t invite them?

– Reluctant Hostess in Redwood City 


A: It is customary to offer food or drink to those who visit your home, even if they are not invited. Have a pitcher of iced tea or lemonade and some easy finger foods – veggies and dip, cookies or chips and salsa. Offer a slice of cake, too. You’ll be glad you don’t have leftovers.


Fun and Not-so-fun Games


Q: I don’t want to scar kids for life. Are competitive games a no-no? What about prizes?

– Gold-medal Mom in Moraga 


A: Competitive games can be fun for older kids – just make sure that everyone wins at something. For younger children who haven’t grasped the concept of being a gracious loser (and who has?), skip the prizes for the winners and award everyone a little token for participating and for having fun.


Carol Band is a regular contributor to Dominion Parenting Media.






The Food

• Frost like a pro. Coat your cooled cake with a very thin layer of frosting and let it sit and harden before adding additional frosting and decorations. This is especially important for chocolate cakes with white or colored icing.


• Bake your cake a day before, wrap it in plastic and freeze it. You’ll be able to trim the edges with a sharp knife for a perfectly proportioned cake.


• Popcorn is an inexpensive (and fairly healthy) snack. Have bowls of it available instead of chips.


• Contact your local ice cream truck and arrange for it to stop by at the end of the party.


• Party at the park? Bake no-mess cupcakes in flat-bottomed wafer ice cream cones and cut holes in the top of a pizza box for easy transport.


The Décor

• A wide roll of gift wrap makes an easy and colorful table cover.


• Make your own confetti from shredded newspapers. Add glitter for additional sparkle.


• Store your birthday candles in the freezer, and they won’t drip when you light them.


• Use a piece of uncooked spaghetti to light hard-to-reach cake candles.


• Lifesavers make great (and edible) birthday-cake candle holders.



• Four-year-olds are generally OK to be dropped off for a short party. But get parents’ cell phone numbers in case of an unexpected meltdown.


• Plan an activity to kick off the party that engages kids and keeps them occupied until everyone has arrived. A craft project related to the birthday theme is perfect.


• How many guests to invite? The rule of thumb is the birthday child’s age, plus one. Six kids for a 5-year-old’s party.


The Games

• Plan several extra activities in case you have additional time or if one game bombs.


• Hire an extra set of hands. A middle- or high-school student can help run games, pass out snacks and assist with hand-washing and bathroom visits.


• Designate a party photographer to document the day. You’ll be too busy hosting to be able to capture those special moments.


The Clean-up

• Think of the clean-up when menu planning. Red juice or clear? Decorate your own cupcakes or watermelon?


• Award tiny prizes to helpful kids – those who clear their own plates, wipe the table and pick up trash.


• Stock up on heavy-duty garbage bags, big sealable bags and aluminum foil for leftovers.

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