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How to Stay Sane with Kid’s Birthday Parties

When my son turned 3 years old, I couldn’t wait to throw him a party. We invited 5 friends, scheduled 2 hours of time, and had a cake baked and ready to go. Well, I learned 5 minutes into the party that I had planned way too much for a group of 3 year olds! What was I thinking? I think I was a bit too excited, suffering from First-Time Mommy Syndrome. We still had a great time, but I’ve learned a few tricks since then helping me stay sane.

My Top Kid’s Party Tips:

1. How many is too many?

Only have as many children at the party as years the child is turning. So if your child is turning 3 then only invite 2 friends, turning 5 then invite 4 friends. We now have siblings that want to join in the party fun, so take them into account as well. It’s takes a lot of energy to entertain kids, at any age. So limiting the number can help you give them the attention they need.

2. How long should the party last?

If your child is under the age of 6, I suggest no longer than one hour. I had five 3 year olds for 2 hours and we whizzed through all the games I had planned in 20 minutes. Once your child is older, the kids are better at taking their time with the games and opening presents.

3. What should we do?

Decide if you want to have the party at your home or at a Party Place. I’ve been to some great parties held at Backyard Adventures and Kangaroo Zoo. Those will cost more money, but everything is taken care of.

If you have the party at home, you want to divide your time into sections. I like to have the kids color or play with balloons until everyone arrives. Then gather and play between 2-4 games. I like to coordinate our games with the theme we picked. Also, remember that the games always go faster than you think they will. What I thought would take 20 minutes finished in about 5. Then we sing and eat cake. After cleaning up the, we open presents. I like to do this last so the kids can play with the new toys until their parents come back.

4. What theme should we pick?

I say “we” as my son has tried to pick some pretty crazy birthday themes. We’ve had pirates, cowboys, dinosaurs, and Care Bears. Check out Problem Solvin’ Mom’s post on picking a birthday theme. Tip Junkie also has some great ideas for party themes.

5. How much money should I spend?

You could spend your life savings on a party or even a few dollars can make it great. This Birthday Party Budget post by Cathe Holden as a guest mom on Design Mom has great ideas on how to have fun while saving money. For my parties, I try to make most of the items needed. We make our invitations from art paper, bake the cake ourselves, and games are put together from supplies around the house. Part of the fun is crafting and getting ready for the big day.

6. Should I serve cupcakes?

I don’t know why, but small children don’t know how to eat cupcakes. They dive in right at the top, not bothering to take off the liner, crumbs go flinging everywhere, and they only end up eating the frosting anyway. And for some reason, I keep making them for every birthday. But I’m wising up for this next year of birthdays, trying a few alternatives that will still keep the kiddies happy.

Mini Cupcakes – I found this mini cupcake pan that’s perfect for small mouths.

Here’s a few more cupcake alternatives:

Okay, now we need to hear from you. What tips and tricks have you been using to make your birthday parties a success?


  1. I got some great ideas from your Star Wars themed birthday and we are trying our own next weekend. I thought I would read up on some of your tips and I too was going to make cupcakes (in addition to the small cake)- I love the idea of mini cupcakes and will definitely try that! Thanks so much for your ideas!

  2. I saw someone bake the cupcakes in ice cream cones, and then frosted them like ice cream. It was kind of a two for one idea, but you wouldn’t have to worry about the liner that way – that’s my plan for my girl’s 4th coming up soon. We’re doing a polka dot theme. I’m excited for it!

  3. Great topic – I will definitely be bookmarking this for when Sweetpea is a bit older and ready for parties with friends. We have at least one more year left of the family party, as she will be turning two this year. Even with our family parties, there are 6 other littles of various ages in attendance, so I’m always looking for ideas to entertain them while the adults chat.

    How precious is your son, and I love his theme, totally adorable!

    Thanks so much for the link! Oh, and my coworkers are still raving about your rice krispie treats with sprinkles recipe ;)

  4. Henry turned four this year and we’ve never bothered with games or structured activities at any of his parties. We usually have a very mixed age range and getting even the majority of kids to do the same thing at the same time seems like way more work than I want to deal with. Right now we treat birthday parties as extended playdates with more food and a cake.

    The kids play for an hour or so and the adults graze on food, we sing happy birthday, we eat cake, and the kids run around for another hour or so and burn off the sugar. Around here it’s about 50/50 on whether presents are opened at the party or not. We don’t do it, the kids are usually having fun playing with each other and it gives the birthday kid something to look forward to after the party is over.

  5. Love the tips! I’m doing a cookie theme for my son’s upcoming second birthday and we plan to pull a “Midwest Airlines” and fresh bake cookies for our guests (all family). I’ll serve them with milk and offer ice cream with chocolate syrup for the true sweet teeth out there. Plus, I’m hoping the smell of baking cookies will make the theme. We like to keep it short (2 hrs) and sweet and at home, at least while he’s so young.

  6. Kim – I love the birthday idea of offering them the money spent on a party instead! I’ll have to do that as they get older.

  7. These are some great ideas… I only have one problem… we have a REALLY Big family so there are always a lot more children! I think we’ve done well with not trying to “structure” every minute, but rather have things set up for the children to “explore” on their own or with the help of a parent. I always have parents stay, just because it’s mostly family anyway and they want to celebrate as well. This past year, both of my kids did invite a couple friends as well… but we are also close with their parents!

  8. Great tip. I would just for fun let you know how I do birthdays in Norway. A normal birthday lasts two hours. We open the presents after everybody has arrived. They are not played with but put on a shelf or something. Then hot dogs or pizza is served. Then they play something free. Run around exploring. After about one hour I serve the cakes and the candy. Usually they don’t really have time for that. Normally one game is prepared and organized. Mostly birthday are at celebrated at home. At the end most kids get a bag of something small and candy in a bag. I don’t like to do that – I leave lots of candy on the table. They hardly touch it.

    I love reading about your birthday experiences. I’ll be back.

  9. when my son turned 4 we had a party and opened presents last –in two seconds the presents were everywhere -lost, destroyed and my son was a wreck over sharing his new toys. Unless your kid is laid back I would save one last thing “to do” after presents.

  10. We have decorated cookies with frosting and sprinkles – because we have a b-day close to Christmas. That seems to replace cake. I agree totally about keeping it short! Even an hour and a half for a six year old party was too much. The games were declared “stupid” by an older neighbor and the rest of the kids promptly poo pooed them. That was when I decided to keep parties short and small (for next year!)

  11. We did a monkey birthday party this year for my 4-year-old. We got some fun monkey books from the library and I read them to an AMAZINGLY attentive audience. Then we painted monkey suncatchers, showed a clip from Curious George, and made a mural outside by stepping in paint (like Curious George). Then the kids each got to decorate their own cupcakes, which was a huge hit.

    My biggest suggestion is invite another adult to help you run the party. Otherwise there can be too much going on–especially with young kids.

  12. Every year we do a family party with all the cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents – where we do cake and ice cream. Once upon a time, we did dinner and luckily, it has evolved to just desserts as it was a lot of work to do dinner as well in our large family. One year, we actually had cake and “blizzards” using our milk shake machine, and another we had a make your own sundae bar. My SIL has done cupcakes every birthday for a while, rice crispy treats a few times and more – and the kids always love it as long as it is a sweet treat, it seems.

    Now that our kids are a little older (ages 10yo, almost 8yo, 5yo, almost 3yo and 7 months), we’ve started offering more. Starting at their 5th birthday, the kids get the option of having a friend party or of getting $50 from mom and dad. They can then spend the $50 however they like (aside from paying $5 tithing). That allows them to buy a gift they would really like to have and is less money out of pocket than we would spend on a friend party (and lots less work on mom!). I think we have had one party ever since we started offering this. Most recently, the three biggest kids pooled their $50 each from birthdays, some other birthday money they received and some money they had from working jobs with grandpa and purchased a Wii for the family. It is a great lesson in savings in our household. In addition, they get to pick a place to have dinner out for their birthday and decide if they’d like to go with just mom and dad or if it will be the whole family. It is a nice balance of fun, and they still have a great play time with all their cousins at the family party.

  13. Hi Marie!
    Great post and all so true!
    I had my son’s 1st & 2nd b-day at home. Luckily we lucked out with the weather. He’s the oldest of most of my friends with kids so it was more like an adult party- both times w/ kids toddling around and infants. His b-day is Nov 2nd and weather can be a hit or miss! For 3rd & upcoming 4th I’ve done party places b/c I can’t see having kids running around & parents everywhere – if it rains! All in my house- yikes! And it’s so stress free!! But it does cost at least $400 or more…that’s the part that stinks…
    I’m going to save your ideas b/c I hope to have a traditional “at home” party with silly games, crafts & opening gifts …where the parents leave…maybe for the 5th bday? Thanks for your tips!

  14. I know that the alternate year for friend parties is all the rage these days, but the eight year old in me wants to cry.

    We do a party every year, but who says it has to be work or expensive?

    I planned activities and games once and then realized that all kids want to do (under the age of 6) is run around and be nuts. Perfect! They run around, they eat, a candle is blown out, everyone has some cake and then the party is over. We don’t open presents with the other kids around because it invariably makes the other children a little upset and jealous–this may change when they get older.

    My expenses? Balloons, lots of them. Kids love balloons, they’re activity and decoration in one. I make my cakes.

    There’s no need to be elaborate, kids are just happy getting together and running around.

  15. I do the mini cupcakes and think they work well. Also, if you take the paper off the big cupcakes I have noticed that it isn’t as much of a problem- it seems they eat the tops because they don’t know how to remove the paper. I always have wipes around so cleaning up sticky hands is a breeze.

    I don’t mind the ‘headache’ of a birthday party because it is one day, their day, and then it is over. I also don’t stress out, so maybe that is why I don’t mind it- ha!

    Growing up we alternated a friend party every other year. On the off years, we got to do fun stuff with one friend, like go to a movie or rent something and make treats. We all loved that.

  16. Great tips!

    The main way I stay sane is limits! We don’t allow our kids to have a “friend” birthday part every year. Too expensive and too much of a burden on others. We set up certain ages we thought would be good to have friend birthday parties: (I define a birthday party with friends when there are at least 4 kids there).

    age 6 (Kindergarten)
    age 8 (baptism)
    age 12 (gradutation from Primary)
    age 16 (dating)
    age 18 (hs graduation)

    We might change some ages if we need to, but I think this will work well! My parents did this when I was growing up and I really looked forward to parties, much more so than my friends who had parties all the time.

    On the off years I would have no problem if my kids wanted to invite one friend over to celebrate, but we won’t do the whole shibang with friends…only with our family!

    I think doing it this way really helps kids appreciate parties, and the gifts they receive. We have been doing this for 3 years and it has worked out great!

  17. We are doing those cupcake sticks from bakerella on friday for my little girls bday, they are the perfect size!! I personally LOVE the decorations the Martha Stewart ones that are at Wallmart and Micheals Crafts. I feel like i can use them again and again for adult parties and little kids.
    Growing up my mom kept herself sane with bday parties by having the rule every OTHER year you get to have a friend party.

  18. I have never thought about doing anything but a birthday cake. I love the idea of cookies! Even better – make them in a “to go” bag!

    My daughter went to a party once where the kids got to make their own pizza. (the crust was ready – they just had to put their own toppings on) This was great b/c it was somewhat low cost. It took up some time and they actually ate what they made.

    I agree with you about limiting the number of kids – keep it simple!
    However I do think for the most part you should stick with an even number. I have found that if you have an odd number some one gets left out – especially in groups of 3 or 5.

    In our family we also celebrate the adults birthday. We want to teach our children how to celebrate for others. It’s not always a big party – but we do decorate and make a cake. I want my kids to think of others first – always.

  19. I totally agree with the cupcakes! We made some on Saturday just for fun, and I feel like I’m wasting half a cake when I see the tops (frosting) eaten off and a mess to clean up.

    This is totally off-topic, but where did you get your son’s Captain Hook hook? We’re going as a Peter Pan group this year for Halloween, and I need to find one. Thanks! Amy

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