I am hosting a birthday party for my son next month at a local children's party venue. A lot of my son's friends have siblings, some younger and some older, but he is not friends with all of them and I am paying per-child participating. Do I have to invite the siblings of my child's friends to his birthday party?
—Party Planning Mama
Dear Party Planning Mama,
The short answer is you don't have to do anything when it comes to children's birthday parties. After ten years of navigating the minefields of these parties, I have embraced a "you do you" approach. With that said, there are ways to think through what is best for your child and family.
I remember the last time I was excited about the idea of planning my child's birthday party—it was before I actually had to do it. Children's birthday parties end up full of hand-wringing decision points that can drain the joy right out of the planning. At the peak of birthday party stress? The guest list.
I have not found a realistic how-to guide for planning children's birthday parties, but after my years of trial and lots of error, I use some common-sense guidelines for whom to invite and how:
Consider the Child's Age
The most important consideration for whether to invite siblings of your child's friends is the age and stage of your party-goers. I remember in the days of toddler and preschool birthdays, it was a given that my younger child would be in tow. Often, places that are charging a per-child fee do not include babies and toddlers, and the hosts are already planning to feed the parents, so it shouldn't be much of an extra burden.
In the case of bringing older siblings to these young child affairs, the venues usually do not appeal to their older siblings, so if they tag along, they may end up as helpers. I have actually appreciated that older children accompanying their younger brother or sister entertain the younger kids without needing more than a slice of pizza and piece of cake in return.
As your child gets older, however, it is fair to limit the invitations to friends only. The clearest dividing line is when you hit the magical stage of "drop off" parties. In my social circles, this has occurred somewhere between ages 5 and 6, also depending on the venue and party size (i.e., you don't want to be individually responsible for 20 six-year-olds roaming a family fun center).
Let's Talk Budget
Although the general age and stage of your child and their siblings can be an important factor, let's be honest about another one: money.
The cost of birthday parties is real. (Real high!) So when we as the party hosts have that looming cut-off number before the price doubles, it's stressful. That's why when I get an invitation begging for RSVPs by a certain date or implying there needs to be a limited number of attendees, I understand. Hopefully, we are all giving each other grace that as inclusive as we want to be, there are logistical limits.
Once you have decided whether or not to invite siblings, based on venue, ages, cost, etc., it's really okay to just tell the other parents! I have received birthday invitations both ways—"siblings welcome," or "we can only accommodate a limited number of children." I don't judge either way, I just want to know.
Exceptions Can Be the Rule
If someone straight-up asks, "may I bring his younger sister," it's fair to review on a case by case basis. If it's not possible, explain why, but if it helps that friend be able to come, granting an exception doesn't mean you have to open it up to all. Because we have all been in that place—maybe our partner is gone for the weekend, or we don't have a partner, and we really can only bring our child if the sibling can come.
If the sibling limit is due to the cost, you may wonder if you should give parents the option of paying for the extra child. Your response depends on your comfort level and what’s typical in your community. I may be more likely to give this option to a group of parents I know well in very specific circumstances. If a parent offers to pay for their extra child to attend, unless there are clear reasons to not include the child, it would be more awkward to refuse the child’s attendance than to accept the money. Whenever possible, though, hosting without an exchange of money is probably best!
Put Yourself in Your Kids Shoes
I haven't even mentioned the famous birthday meltdowns. These events induce so much excitement and stimulation, it can be essential to keep the crowd contained. Some children are more vulnerable to being overwhelmed, and it's okay to prioritize your child's comfort level over inviting everyone.
Birthday parties are stressful enough, but the guest list doesn't have to be.
Submit your parenting questions to 'Ask Your Mom' columnist Emily here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.
Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.