Podcast: All things birthday parties!

I have four children. Like clockwork, they each have a birthday, every single year! And we want to celebrate. Of course, in certain slightly competitive communities — to say nothing of the Instagram/Pinterest era — birthday parties can become a source of angst. How can parents who don’t have all the time in the world help their children enjoy their special days while also staying sane?

This week’s podcast covers these topics. A few highlights:

Consider a turn-key option. You know the places: trampoline parks, bouncy houses, Go-Kart establishments, etc. They do 15 birthday parties per Saturday. Why not be one of them? Generally all you have to do is invite the people and then possibly provide the cake. Or maybe not even that. While such options are theoretically more expensive than hosting at your house, that may not wind up being the case, depending on what you spring for. 

If you host at home, make sure you have adequate supervision. Ten 6-year-olds in your backyard is no joke. Especially if you’re not sure how many parents will stay or not stay, consider hiring an extra set of hands or two to help with crafts, games, and keeping people out of places they shouldn’t be. I know a family with a pool who hired a lifeguard. Very smart. We have hired sitters to come to the party to help out with smaller children, so we can enjoy the birthday experience with the birthday child him/herself. 

Think about the adults. We have always gotten fruit and veggie trays to complement the cheese pizza. If you’re at home, stock lots of beer alongside the fruit punch. One “family fun center” in our area has a bar attached. This is a great benefit for whatever parent has gotten stuck bringing his/her kid. Although I don’t actually consider it getting “stuck.” Birthday parties are a great way to meet other parents in your community. Over time, you may be able to upgrade some of these people to actual friend status. 

Big experiences can work too. For my eldest’s 9th birthday, we took him and three friends to a Phillies game. I think we will start doing more of these bigger-things-with-fewer-people as the kids get older. Experiences can make good gifts in general. For the 8-year-old’s last birthday, I took him to an Eagles game. I took the 6-year-old to the American Girl Place in NYC. They both have great memories of these (vs. more plastic stuff…although I did technically buy plastic stuff at the AG store…). 

Speaking of plastic stuff…Do everyone a favor and think critically about any goodie bags you distribute. I’m a fan of doing a real gift, like a book, which might be cost comparable to bags when you figure the cost of lots of small things (kid paperbacks might run $5-8). Or do consumable craft stuff, like crayons, or a set of watercolors. Or something related to the event. We did an indoor sky diving birthday party once, where the favor was a photo of you jumping. Perfect! 

Have a go-to gift. If your child is really good friends with someone, you can have him/her pick out a gift your child knows the other child will enjoy (use Amazon Prime – you don’t have to go to the store!) However, if it’s a classmate he/she doesn’t know well, consider having a go-to gift for a general age group. Think gender-neutral Legos, a set of books, an art kit, a board game, etc. You might even buy half a dozen of these (and wrapping paper) in anticipation of the birthday parties you’ll wind up going to! (A side note: I have two kids with early fall birthdays, so we are always inviting kids who don’t know our kids well — that’s part of having brand new classmates. So I really appreciate when people are willing to come despite not actually knowing our children!) 

Adults have birthdays too! I am turning the big 4-0 in December. I’m looking for ideas to celebrate. I talk about my brother-in-law’s 40th birthday trip to Napa and Sonoma, which was memorable for many reasons, it turned out later (before I get any notes on that, I’d like to point out that I’m such a lightweight that I didn’t drink that much  – a sip or two of any wine). Sarah suggested I do something on a boat, which is great, except I live in Philadelphia, so anything on a boat here would have a more Washington-crossing-the-Delaware vibe than a party vibe. Maybe I’ll go to Miami instead. How do you think I should celebrate?

24 thoughts on “Podcast: All things birthday parties!

  1. I love this topic! I have recently discovered your site (thanks to Modern Mrs Darcy) and podcast and am enjoying both! Thanks so much!
    Happy early birthday! I too a, turning 40 this year and was talking with friends about how we should celebrate. We live in NJ so I’m curious to hear what you end up deciding!

    1. @Megan – happy early birthday to you too! I’m so glad you discovered my site and podcast – and I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying both. If you come up with anything fantastic in this area, please let me know!

  2. My 40th was amazing. The week before, My husband & I hosted breakfast at a cafe for about 30 family & my closest friends. Breakfast is low key and kid friendly (handy as the guests included about 10 kids including a few that still need naps). On the weekend of my birthday a friend and I went on a girls weekend to Alice Springs in Australia. We went hot air ballooning at dawn, did an evening/night trail run (turning our head lamps off and seeing the stars and lights of the other runners was very special), some sightseeing and relaxing breakfasts in the botanic gardens. On the actual day of my birthday, we did a 30km trail race in the ranges near Alice Springs. It was perfect and so memorable to start running in the dark and see the sun rise over the desert.

    I have to admit to being pretty happy to see the back of my 30s so it was great to set my self a goal and achieve it.

  3. Never underestimate the power of a group gift for kids parties. Somehow the the tradition rose up at our school where everyone can contribute $20 and one parent coordinates with the birthday family to get the child something they really want. We’ve seen AG dolls and furniture, sports tickets and cool clothes all he anchor gifts with fun extras too. It’s a great way to minimize the plastic junk and win some social capital with the friend group.

    1. @Calee- this is a great idea if you’ve got a tight-knit community that can pull it off. I guess the one etiquette tight spot is that it needs to be as you described it – someone else coordinating (not the birthday family – since you don’t want to be seen as expecting presents!)

  4. I’m flabbergasted that “we” seem somehow to have decided that birthday parties for little kids (sometimes really little kids) are a “thing,” and that we do them — so I resist. We didn’t do any birthday party at all (outside core family) until DS was 4. Though I totally get the value of outsourcing, where outsourcing loses me in my community is that we all live in one town where all my son’s friends are within about 15 minutes of our home, but all outsourcing options involve a 30- to 45-minute (or more) drive each way (or stay) to outskirt locations where space for such things is cheap, and I don’t want to put that on the other parents. So I don’t. We’ve ended up with in-house stuff and though we provide some play activities/items, honestly mostly at this age (your oldest kid’s) I think it’s the kids’ problem to figure out what to do for fun (our last bday party included a kid-suggested-and-organized game of capture-the-flag, for example). In our community, approaches do seem to vary, ranging from the outsourced to the bounce-house (simple or fancy) at home, to the invite-one-friend-to-a-movie-or-sporting-event, which is nice, as it doesn’t suggest (to the kids) that there is one “right” way to do this, and we don’t all seem to be trying to “outdo” one another (as I’ve heard can happen). As for my own birthday, I’ve got a big one coming up this year and am considering how if it all to organize an event (we usually do adult parties, basically meaning a nice dinner + cake, as just core family also). Mine falls between Thanksgiving and Christmas, which complicates matters as most people are already pretty tied up with events during that interval. We’ll see.

  5. Have you considered an escape room with good friends, followed by cocktails and dinner? It’s fairly low-key but still novel!

  6. My girls birthdays are 4 weeks apart so we totally have a season at our house. My youngest daughter has a leap day birthday, so Sarah’s mention of 8 weeks out had me grimacing as that is right after christmas and I need at least two weeks to recover. I was proactive this year and made a decision in early december. This year I outsourced both girls parties. Both places even handled the cake! One year we hosted a party at home (me with 14 six year olds – needed some extra hands). Last year I convinced them to wait and rent out the local pool for their party. I like the suggestions of experiences – I’ve made a list of ideas. My 8 year old would probably be game for something like that. As for the milestone birthday I was planning a trip to Hawaii for my 40th. But the ideas Sarah mentioned have me thinking that I might do something locally. What about doing your party at a local museum or the library? Thanks for a great episode! I need to listen again when I can write stuff down!

  7. Laura- what about a Korean spa with close girlfriends? They are so fun- esp in winter. There is one in Flushing NY and one in north jersey which are great.
    My husband, baby, and toddler have birthdays within 10days of each other. We shall see how we navigate this one because basically the invitees are the same for all 3 at this stage (6mos and 3.5yrs). We held a joint bday for my husband and daughter when she turned 2- it was mostly adults and was also a nice way to get our friends together 3 months after we moved back to the East Coast. It happened during a busy season so we did no decor and no cooking! We had big platters of Greek takeout, a cake, and adult beverages- it was great!

    1. @Virginia- I see no reason not to keep doing joint family parties for a few years. But probably by the 5th or 6th birthday your eldest will have her own ideas.

      Possibly the spa concept could work!

  8. I just felt compelled to share that my first “smaller” birthday party (maybe my 13th?) was taking 3 friends to see The Cutting Edge!
    “Toe pick!”

  9. For my 40th I requested a trip to Disneyland with the cheesy coordinating shirts and everything 🙂 I dressed my girls alike, took all the photos I wanted, and we had a great time. My husband had a more grown-up party for his 40th several years ago – we booked a private room at our favorite fancy restaurant, the same place we got married, and invited current friends as well as his parents and a childhood friend who flew in from AZ. I created a ‘get to know you’ game for the cocktail hour so people would mingle and chat, and it was really lovely.

    My girls’ birthdays are 3 weeks apart so I’ve been making them have one party 🙂 The one year we outsourced was SO easy – it was at a little art studio in Seattle that did kids’ art parties, so it didn’t feel crazy like the bounce house thing. I’m not sure what we’ll do this year. My 5yo LOVED her friend’s party at a climbing gym but the 8yo wants no part of that 😀

  10. I didn’t do anything big for my 40th, so I”m actually planning a party for this year, which is a random non-special number, just because. I was going to do the escape room and dinner before or after for a group of friends. We are about 8 weeks before so I should probably start planning…
    For my kid with the October birthday, we have been doing a park party and its been super easy because they literally just run around the park. We have a pinata at the end of the party. We order pizza for adults & kids and have water bottles, juice boxes and boxed wine. The “favors” are things that they can play with at & after the party (super hero capes, light sabers, legos). The late December birthday boy has to have a party at a location (we’ve done play space—ok, our house—disaster, karate studio—awesome), but last year he didn’t want a party at all, so we planned a trip, and we’ll see what he wants this year (he’ll be turning NINE! maybe a movie with a friend?)
    Our first drop-off party invite was an evening basketball game for a classmate’s 7th birthday. My son (7 at the time) didn’t feel comfortable going alone, so we RSVPed no, but the party boy’s parents told us that a lot of parents were coming because the kids weren’t quite ready so my husband ended up taking him. My 6 year old has been to a drop-off party at a neighborhood friend’s house, and it seemed to go fine.
    I don’t know what we will do this fall—I like socializing with the other parents at parties, and lots of his friends have younger siblings, so it may be “drop off optional” but still providing enough pizza (and wine) for parents.

  11. I liked this episode! I am new to the kid party thing and had not thought enough about how to handle siblings for our first big party last year. I was shocked when someone RSvPed for two kids! We were already close to the max number of kids the place could accommodate so I was super stressed but it all worked out. To be honest I think 3 was a little young for the size party we did – she was pretty overwhelmed but enjoyed parts.

    A couple thoughts – in our area 8 weeks is probably not enough time to get your choice of time and date at any sort of play space or kids gym. I am planning to finalize booking 3 months ahead of time or more next year.

    Also I loved that you guys brought up joint parties. At our daycare most people invite the whole class (12-15 kids) and then you also have cousins and other friends so it’s a lot. 4 families with kids in the same class joined forces to throw a huge bash since so many of the same kids would be invited and it was awesome. Each kid did have their own cake but I think it helped a lot with costs too. I would definitely consider that for the future.

  12. I have 40th birthday party ideas! For the wife, I and two other friends helped coordinate a party at a bar. We had an open bar for party attendees (everyone got a big star sticker to wear so the bartender could add it to the tab), a signature cocktail, some light snacks and a nice cake. Her husband made a playlist and the bar let us play it that night (It’s a small bar, and we know the owners). So if you like dancing, that’s an option! Another friend turned 40 last year and we all went to a mountain cabin for the weekend with our kids. His mom came and watched all the kids so the adults could go out to dinner. It was early December so it was nice to get away before the holiday madness. I turn 40 in a few years and I’m already trying to come up with an ideal plan. I love dancing so I’m thinking a dance party of some kind is in order.

    As far as kid birthday parties, I’m definitely one of the crazy ones who likes having them at home and planning games etc. My son just turned 6 at the end of March and we had 18 kids between 3-6 years old in our backyard. We did a dinosaur theme so there was a dino egg hunt, pinata, and two toss games. I had a tight schedule to keep the party going and then let them do free play for the last half hour. Beer and nice snacks for grownups. I think we had the same dino egg favors as Sarah described in the podcast!

  13. We have started giving experiences instead of gifts and parties for our 3 children ages 17, 14, and 7. For the 7 year old bday we chartered a boat for three hours for our family only and sailed along the coast (brought cookie cake etc on the boat), for the 14 year old’s bday we spent a night at a hotel, watched a show as a family and let the kids to the all you can eat buffet (not my favorite but unlimited food is basically heaven to a teenage boy) and for the 17 year old’ bday I took her and the 14 year old to see Phantom of the Opera (we left the 7 year old behind for that but made up for it later with a round of putt putt golf).

    These experiences each cost about $400 and so far, we all seem to prefer this to a friend party and gifts, and I think I’m probably coming up even as far as spending or maybe on the plus side. Plus, it’s like a gift for the whole family because we all get to enjoy. The only challenge has been finding activities appropriate for both a first grader and the teenagers. We have been doing a cake for each child on their actual bday and then telling them what the experience will be, since it hasn’t been feasible to do a boat ride, play etc on their actual bday… the event usually falls a week or so after.

  14. My son is still a toddler so I haven’t gotten too deep into the world of birthday parties yet. But, I wanted to share how a friend of mine approaches parties, which I think is great! Her kids go to a small school and the parents decided that every month, there would be a joint birthday party for all the kids whose birthday was that month. The parents/kids for each month pick the location and parents split the cost. They get one big cake. No presents. All kids in the class are invited. If a child is alone for a particular birthday month, they can join the month before or after. I thought this was great so you don’t have to go to a birthday party every weekend, you cut down on all the excessive gift giving, and no kids are left out.

    I think this works well for the early elementary school age kids. Of course, this does leave you with the problem of what to do if you want to invite cousins, or friends from extracurricular activities to your party. in some families, they have dealt with this by having a separate family party. For those who don’t have extended family nearby, this is not an issue.

  15. You guys talked about organizing gift cards – I’ve used this little card holder for years for all my membership cards, reward cards and gift cards. I use a small wallet daily (going to work and back) and when I have a bigger day out I will either take what I need from this thing or just drop the whole thing in my bag. It is so so useful and I never lose anything.
    http://www.muji.us/store/pp-card-holder-3-rows-60-pockets.html

  16. I love talking about birthday parties.

    My twins had a joint party right up until last year when they turned 8 and they wanted individual parties. They both enjoyed it more but we, the parents, decided to never do it on the same weekend again as we were knackered.

    I refuse to pay exorbitant venue fees and buy into the Instagram/ Pinterest craziness so I always (except for one year) do at-home parties.

    For my 40th, I couldn’t decide between a lunch at home with friends or a trip to the beach, so I did both. My birthday was on a Wed that year, so the lunch with 20 friends was on the Saturday before and then on the Monday, we flew to the beach and spent 5 glorious days as a family. It was perfect – I only wish I could do both every year 🙂

  17. Hi Laura, I am catching up on your blog and just listened to this episode. Wanted to share a fantastic party favor idea from an adult friend’s party but that could work for kids too. My friend had helium balloons and at the end of the night each guest took one down. Attached to the ribbon was a slip of paper that said something like, “Congratulations! You are treating Max to a cocktail evening!” or “Congratulations! Max is going to take you on a picnic!” etc. – so sometime in the coming year he had that many – novel – social events (instead of just meeting up for coffee as usual). Would love to do something like this for my kids too with really simple things (let’s go for ice cream, let’s do a time capsule together, etc.).

    1. @Caitlin – that sounds fun! Though I’d probably put it all on myself – I would feel bad giving a guest a note saying they were required to take me out for cocktails. Now a note saying I was required to take them…that would be fine!

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