Kid Birthday Parties: Guest Etiquette, Gifts, & Parent Socializing

kid birthday party guest etiquetteOnce your kid reaches a certain age — and especially if you’ve got more than one — you’ll find yourself taking him or her to a lot of children’s birthday parties… and as you’ll also find, that comes with a lot of funny kid birthday party guest etiquette questions and purchasing tasks. First, it means someone in your house has to remember to buy a birthday card in time for your kid to sign it (or get your kid to make one), then decide how much money to spend on a gift, and what to get (and in my case, making a last-minute trip to Target to buy it). Kids’ birthday parties also give you a chance to socialize with fellow parents, which may or may not be your idea of fun, depending on whether you get to hang out with mom friends (or other parents you like), or you don’t know anyone there (even less appealing when you’re an introverted mom) … or you just don’t like the birthday party guest etiquette

Psst: We’ve also talked about celebrating our own kids’ birthdays as well as the best default birthday presents for kids.

The main questions that come up when your kid attends friends’ birthday parties are these three:

What do you get for a gift? For my son’s last birthday party or two, a couple of parents asked me what he might like for a gift (while they were texting me to RSVP for their kids), which also happened to Kat with her older son’s last birthday. I felt kind of awkward answering the question, and when I listed a few things he’s into, I usually added, “But anything is great!” or “He loves books too!” Still, I’ve started doing the same thing — might as well get the kids what they want, right? (I guess this won’t be necessary as my son and his friends get older — he’s 7.) Kat listed some reliable choices for children’s gifts in our post on the best default birthday presents for kids you don’t know well, and readers offered additional suggestions in the comments, including puzzles, dress-up costumes, board games, art supplies, and science kits — plus gift certificates for things like movie tickets or mini golf. A couple of readers mentioned using Fat Brain Toys’ Gift Bot for customized ideas.

How much do you spend? When my son got old enough to start being invited to friends’ parties, I was surprised that many parents seemed to be spending $25 and up — all that I had to compare to was my own childhood in the ’80s, and I’m pretty sure not many parents were spending that much back then (in this context of kids’ friends, that is). In the comments on our last birthday-related post, readers’ responses to what they spend on gifts for kids ranged from $10 to $25. One of my son’s friends once gave him a Toys “R” Us gift card for a birthday present, which of course my son liked, but that strategy doesn’t work if you don’t want the parents to know exactly how much you spent (which I have a weird thing about for some reason).

What do you do if the invite says “no gifts”? And what the heck is a fiver party? “No gifts” parties can be awkward — it can feel weird to show up to a party without bringing anything (and also, are they counting books as gifts, or just toys?), but that’s what the parents are requesting, after all. If you (and/or your kid) really want to give the child something, one option is to donate to a charity in the child’s name. Some kids explicitly ask for donations in lieu of gifts — at a nonprofit I worked at, kids frequently came in hauling lots of items from the organization’s wish list. One new trend is the “fiver party” (which doesn’t seem to have hit my area yet). Instead of being expected to buy a present, each guest is encouraged to give the birthday boy or girl a $5 bill so that the child can buy something he or she really wants, instead of a big pile of unneeded toys. Has your kid been to one of these parties, or others that focus on something other than toy gifts?

What do you typically spend on your kid’s friends’ gifts? Does your kid help you choose the gift? Has he or she ever been invited to a party that asks that guests not bring gifts, or specifically asks for books only? Have you ever heard of a fiver party, and do you think it’s a good idea?  (Also: are you really into wrapping things nicely for kids’ birthday presents or do you just do the gift bag + tissue paper route?)

Working moms discuss kid birthday party guest etiquette -- tips and tricks like how much to spend, how to socialize with parents you don't know, and more.


  1. Kathy says:

    In my limited experience with kids’ birthday parties (my oldest is only 4), I’d say about 85% of parents specify “no gifts” on the invitation. I have yet to have a real party for my own kids (the blessing of a having Christmas/New Years birthdays), but I plan to do the same. No gifts (and definitely no “fiver” party, Lordy). We live in a high cost of living city, among other high-earning families, and I find it somewhat distasteful to ask for gifts given our fortunate financial situation and those of our peers. Once the kids get old enough, I’ll have them pick a charity or cause that resonates with them and possibly tie in their birthdays to that (i.e. diaper drive, etc.). Of course, I’m fully aware this is a personal decision and others may feel differently. Curious to see other responses!

    • shortperson says:

      i dont want to deal w thank you notes and we dont need more stuff in our house, but this is, at bottom, the reason we say no gifts. i hope i can convince my daughter to keep it up as she gets older. so far she has not noticed at parties 1, 2, and 3.

      when we are invited to a no gift party my daughter usually colors a card and we give a sheet of stickers.

  2. Blueberries says:

    I’m in Silicon Valley with kids under 5 and the invitations for the vast majority of parties say no gifts, please. We put the same line on our invitations. I love this practice because it’s easier on the guests and the hosts! In my experience, most people are on board with not bringing gifts. If my kiddo feels like it, we might bring a homemade card.

  3. Cookie says:

    We just did our kid’s first birthday and said “No gifts.” It starts to get expensive.

    Guys, can we make this a trend?

    • I’ve yet to actually have a birthday party for my kids yet, but the oldest is turning 4 in May, so I think we’re going to start. I definitely plan to request no gifts. We have one close friend family and they always want to get the girls something for Christmas/birthdays, and it makes me feel uncomfortable. I think I’ve decided on using the theory, “Gifts are for the parents to give. Friends just come to the party to have fun.”

      Of course, my oldest also doesn’t like any sugar (except for Dum Dum lollipops), so I’m already going to be the weird mom who doesn’t have a cake. I’m not putting effort into a cake that the birthday girl won’t even eat.

      • um, what did you do so that your kid hates sugar? i wish i didn’t like sugar! in my elementary school one year they had a styrofoam cake and dum dums placed in it and a few of them were colored on the bottom and if you picked one of those you got a prize. could be fun for your daughter’s party.

        • It’s not anything I did! The 2-year-old likes sugar, but the 3-year-old just doesn’t want it. I saw her eat a piece of cake once, and it was like a miracle. But every time I offer her something sugary, she says no. She LOVES fruit, though, so we give both of them lots of fruit. I’m sure people think I’m the mean hippie mom when I tell them she won;t have cake, but we’d love some extra broccoli on her plate.
          I was thinking of carving a watermelon into a cake, but a dum dum cake could be cool too. Especially if the party is not at my house and I don’t have to deal with the aftermath of sticky handprints.

  4. Mrs. Jones says:

    I usually spend $15 or so on a puzzle or fun t-shirt. I LOVE when the invitation says “no gifts”, although I can’t get my son on board with that.

    • NewMomAnon says:

      Kiddo had a huge meltdown when I suggested no gifts for her party, so we negotiated a settlement – she would get a special party game she wanted but then we wouldn’t “have time” to open gifts at the party. Since we weren’t opening gifts at the party, I wrote on the invites that parents should skip the gift. About half brought something anyway. But kiddo LOVES cards and stickers, and would have been really happy just getting a dozen cool birthday cards.

      I will not be participating in the fiver trend either. It seems greedy but also…. kiddo is 4 and has no idea how much things cost, so I would prefer not to take her shopping for something she “really wants” in a set price range.

  5. HRHNYC says:

    Honestly as a kid I loved getting birthday gifts, and I don’t have any intention of taking that away from my kids. (Although we did “no gifts” for year 1, since they didn’t appreciate them anyway.) None of the preschool parties I’ve been to by me have been no-gift parties (that seemed to die off after age 1 or 2). I aim to spend $10-15 on a gift that usually costs $15-25, by buying in bulk when I see something good on sale. I try to get gender neutral gifts that parents won’t hate (this year, for turning-5 parties, I have been doing science kits).

    • Anonymous says:

      Bascially exactly this. We do parties because they are standard at my kids’ daycare. And we don’t say ‘no gifts’ because my kids see all their friends getting gifts at their parties. I do try to give low key gender neutral gifts – puzzles/lego/playdoh/art supplies.

    • POSITA says:

      My issue with “no gifts” is that my 4 yo would be really upset if kids didn’t bring her presents. She has brought gifts to many (though not all) birthday parties over the past year. Half the time in the car on the way to the party she offers to skip the party if she can keep the gift. She finds it REALLY hard to give those toys away, but eventually does it with a smile. I can’t even imagine her reaction if she didn’t get gifts at her party. It would be really hard to explain to her that the other kids didn’t bring her presents because mommy thinks she has too many toys already–yikes.

      We tend to spend $10-15 for daycare friends and $20ish for family friends.

      • Anonymous says:


        I would like to sign up for one of the magical children who don’t mind not receiving gifts after having to bring gifts to all their friends almost every second weekend all year long.

      • This thread is bringing up so much of my angst. I don’t want my kid to feel left out and that she’s the only one who doesn’t get gifts at her parties. But I also don’t want another influx of CRAP into the house. Even when I make a small, curated Christmas list for the kids, I still end up looking at the stuff and wanting to throw it away. They really don’t play with all the things.
        I also don’t want to have to buy gifts for other people’s kids. It’s not that we can’t afford to, but I just don’t want to spend the time and emotional effort involved in picking something out. And I don’t want other people to feel obligated to buy for us, especially after we move to Silicon Valley, because I know we’re going to be around some huge income disparities there.
        It’s also worth noting that 100% of gifts is on me. My husband does none of it. He will not give gifts. The one thing he bought for me for Christmas (off my list) is still sitting in an open Amazon box in his office. I refuse to bring it up with him, and am considering just ordering it for myself out of spite. I have photo albums printed for Christmas every year, and order one for each of his parents, but I refuse to handle any gift giving for his side of the family. Not my problem.

      • This is the way it has worked for me so far. I pick and wrap the present, carry it in my bag and give it to the kiddo when we attend parties that don’t proscribe gifts. My kids don’t really notice most of the time. Occasionally my 6yo will ask what it is and I’ll say it’s some boring thing that you didnt want anyway (I don’t explicitly lie usually, but am vague). Some of the other parents also specify no gifts and I make a big deal of talking about that. I’m usually able to avoid gifts until age 3 or 4 this way. In kinder and above it becomes harder, unless we do an experience type party (at a gym or other place) where the kids are so focused on the activity they’re not thinking about the gifts.

    • Emily S. says:

      I’m on board with gifts, too. I like buying gifts for kids (it’s not without stress, but fun), so I would be disappointed with a no gifts policy. I also believe kids are kids for such a short time and we’re always trying to get them to do better and be altruistic 364 days of the year, let ’em have that one day, with the excess sugar and presents. The toys and books that friends and family kindly have given us have been well-used and/or donated, and I hope the toys and books that I choose for friends are, too.
      I spend about $20 for friends and $35 for family.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I sent out the evite for my kid’s first birthday party and specified no gifts. I’m getting texts from friends saying “but seriously, what should we get him?” So far I’ve responded that I am serious and if they MUST bring something to the party they can bring alcohol (it’s a casual party at our house). I appreciate their generosity, but I feel like it puts me in a weird place. I’m not trying to be a downer, my kid just has tons of toys that he doesn’t even play with – his favorite activity is emptying my spice cabinet which I’m perfectly fine with.

  7. The “fiver” concept gives me hives, even if it would be much simpler on me as a parent! It just seems rude.

    Around here, a few people have requested no gifts and people seem to follow that. When we give a gift, it’s around $10-15. I usually buy art supplies or books because so few kids actually need more toys.

  8. EB0220 says:

    The fiver thing is weird.

    If they specify ‘no gifts’, I comply because I 100% get it. We usually get an awesome card with stickers for no-gifts parties.

    For gifts parties, I spend about $20, get something gender-neutralish (game or melissa and doug “profession” dress-up clothes). I always go to Target right before the party to get it.

  9. So we are fairly new to parties, my son just turned three. But the first two parties we have been invited to, even though the invitation said “your presence is your present,” everyone brought gifts anyway!!

  10. Cornellian says:

    What about having people bring gifts to a local charity (i.e. a set of PJs in a kid’s size, or their favorite book)?

  11. Anonymous says:

    So I think I’m the mom with the oldest kids replying (9 & 7). The “no gifts” thing was awesome (didn’t work completely but did reduce clutter) until kid was aware that gifts were a thing (awareness started in the 4 year time frame but because my kid has a summer birthday and it was mostly our friends, it wasn’t until 5th birthday that kid got to be excited about presents.

    And…honestly, I LOVE LOVE LOVE getting presents (still today!). Which is a value in direct conflict with my anti-clutter value. And with my stress that all the kids of MY friends, who are now only a subset of my kids’ friends, NO ONE NEEDS ANYTHING and we are all just too wealthy and it’s stupid to just give and get more stuff. But it is fun, and especially around age 4 or 5++ when they start to really get into GIVING and thinking about what their friends might like, etc…

    But then I also think about the friends my kid has made at the very poor school and many of them don’t have too much stuff and I would love to give them stuff. But, then there is the pressure that those parents must feel to bring presents to my kids’ parties, and I would love to say “no presents” because truly – there is no need; we’d just love to have the kids play.

    I don’t have an answer nor enough time to craft a more coherent reflection on cross-class friendships and anxieties.

    But, one useful tip, because actually shopping for toys for giving to other kids is a bit of a nightmare scenario for me (takes hours for them to ponder the choices and they end up making a list of what THEY want for their birthdays in 8 months!): I keep a stocked closet of generic but good gifts that I get on sale (Lego sets, science kits, board games) and then I let my kids “shop” that closet to pick out a gift for their friend.

    • Agreed re the gift closet/stash. It also comes in super handy when the invite comes last minute, or you just never get around to shopping.

  12. D. Meagle says:

    I’ve mentioned it here before, but share your wish dot com is very popular in my community for birthdays. It was created by a local couple who wanted to move the focus away from receiving to giving. Its a comprehensive site – you create and send the invite through them, and instead of gifts, the kid selects some charities. You select a split – 40/60, 50/50 – and the donations are then divided based on your selected split, some to the charity, some to the kid. At the end, the group sends a certificate to the kid about how much they raised (and in some instances the charity sends a thank you), which makes it really exciting. Plus they get some money for what they want. And you can send a thank you through the site.

    Its pretty easy to use as the party planner, and as the guest its great because no need to remember to get a present. Also, you can make your donation silent as to amount.

    Highly recommend checking it out.

  13. Sea Hag says:

    Ooh I have a question! Our 3 yo just started getting invited to birthday parties. We have been to 3 and at each one, there have been gifts but the birthday kid didn’t open the gifts at the party. This is not what I remember from my childhood, so I was just wondering if this is the norm now. We have a small sample size to go on, so I can’t tell if it’s just coincidence or A Thing. Thinking back to my childhood, I totally understand why this would be a preferred route to avoid stress/meltdowns for both givers and recipients.

    • I’d say most of the birthday parties (at least in my area) don’t involve opening gifts. We always take home the gifts for my son (7) to open there.

    • Absolutely no opening of gifts at the birthday party. It is completely outdated. (Think about how terrible it is for all the other kids–thank goodness it has ended.)

    • That’s the norm in my experience. Kids’ attention spans are just so short, and guests lists are so long these days. At parties with five or so guests, I’ve seen gifts opened, but where the party has 20+ kids as guests, opening the presents would take nearly an hour, create a huge mess, and lead to drama as each kid tried to play with everything that is being opened.

      That said, cards can get separated from gifts when they are taken home from the party, so I tend to write in my kids’ card to the birthday kid, “Happy birthday, we hope you enjoy the X,” so they know what present came from us.

    • Minnie Beebe says:

      Yes, no gift opening at the party. I’ve never seen this.

      And this is why gift bags are the best way to wrap the gifts– they are much easier to carry home!

  14. We do “no gifts” parties for our kids (ages 10 through 6 right now). Do they sometimes say, “I wish I was getting presents!”? Yes, but then I remind them that we have plenty of things and that they will indeed get birthday gifts from us, from their grandparents, from their aunts and uncles. This is enough gifts. They have always agreed. I don’t think you need to worry about denying your kids this experience.

    We have learned that parents in our newly-adopted Midwest city are not as familiar with “no gifts” as the Boston families were. Therefore, we’ve asked people to bring a canned good or a used book or something else they have lying around that we can donate. This seems to solve the problem that parents feel awkward showing up empty handed, and it creates a nice opportunity for my child to see that they are doing good for those who are needy. We have visited the food pantry where the food ends up and this is a powerful experience for the kids.

  15. That 85% just struck me. Unlike yours, my kids a very materialistic. I have a 12, 4 and 1 year old, and all they want is presents 😁 But seriously, what’s the point of investing over $400 into a party if it doesn’t even try to pay off? Get me right, I’m not expecting it to pay off 100%, it never does, but my kids would eat me alive if there was no presents. Aren’t birthdays celebrated to make a child happy? If a bunch of boring parents and kids that destroy your house/venue is your idea of celebrating your child, then I’m really sorry. And if you’re so into charity, why not spend that money on said charity to start with? I once asked our guests to donate to Bunny World Foundation for my daughter’s 7th birthday in lieu of presents, and we raised exactly $30, that’s with our own $$ included. Instead people felt like bringing a few useless cheap gifts. Must I say my daughter wasn’t happy about either one? Now my 4 year old son is even worse, he’s asking for prizes to go potty. Please educate me on how to raise kids so discouraged that they can’t experience the pleasure of receiving gifts 😑

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