Hosting my first-ever birthday party - and it's for a preteen!
May 6, 2008 10:57 PM   Subscribe

I am throwing my first birthday party ever, for my pre-teen niece. Needless to say, I'm completely out of touch when it comes to kids' birthday parties (having not attended any since the 1980s) and don't know what's considered typical and usual. Please share your experiences and advice.

This is probably an easy AskMe, but I'm really clueless when it comes to logistics of a kids' birthday party.

1. Cost. How much do these typical things cost? We were thinking of a budget of $150 for the party and another $20 for the cake/ice cream. Is that realistic for a girl of her age, or is it on the low side? Guest count will likely be 6-15 people.

2. Goody bags. Are they still required/expected, or are they passe? If they're still expected, what kind of stuff to put in male/female goody bags for 6th-going-on-7th graders that costs less than about $30 total?

3. Invitations. There's no rule at her school about having to invite everyone in her class, so how do we do this? Her birthday is in July and school finishes on May 22nd -- do kids use "save the dates"? Or how is it that kids relay the information about the birthday party back to the parents BEFORE we're able to give them an ACTUAL invitation?

(We can't send out specific invitations because what we do depends on how many kids can attend. We basically have to test the waters to see how many kids can likely attend and then we pick the party location, sending out the invitations when we know for sure.)

4. Unexpected guests. Is there a way to word the invitations that indicates that we're only reserving/paying for the number of people that RSVP and that any unexpected arrivals -- including parents who want to stay for the party -- will be asked to pay their own admission, or is that poor etiquette?

5. Opening gifts. Are gifts opened at the party? Do they have to be? Should they be? If they are, should the birthday kid still send out "thank yous" or is opening the gifts and thanking the gifter in public sufficient?

6. Bringing in the birthday cake. Most of the places allow you to bring in a birthday cake. One of the party ideas we have is to send the kids to a matinee movie. Has anyone ever tried doing the birthday cake thing in a mall Food Court? Is it better to get forgiveness (at the time, surrounded by a dozen pre-teens) rather than permission (where it could easily be denied)?

7. Is there anything that I'm missing that is considered standard at parties nowadays? The poor kid has been through a lot; I want to make her birthday as normal, usual, and predictable as possible.

Also, a caveat: I do data analysis for a living. I also single-handedly planned our wedding for 120 people. It is entirely possible that I'm overthinking this whole process.
posted by parilous to Grab Bag (20 answers total)
$170 sounds low. You need to feed the kids and give them drinks. You've got to have goody bags ($2-5 each, if not more). You need prizes, if you do that. And admission to the movie and popcorn and drinks there. If you had six kids with $5 worth of food, $3 goody bag, $2 prize, and $12 movie/popcorn/drink, that is still $132 and you haven't accounted for the adults, decorations, paper plates, invitations and so on. Ask your movie theatre if they have a party room and a party package.

If you want to be polite about the admission, you could make invitations that look like tickets and say "Admit one! Admission, popcorn and a small beverage for for 's blockbuster: Jane's Nth Birthday Party! Date, Time, etc." You can be a little more creative.

Gifts are usually opened at the party. Around here, most people thank you in person, although some people send cards.

posted by acoutu at 11:17 PM on May 6, 2008

Nb: "need" is open to interpretation.
posted by acoutu at 11:17 PM on May 6, 2008

I did this last year for our niece (same age as yours), who was here visiting us in New York City during her July birthday.

We spent time the day before making her cake, as well as ice cream cone cupcakes (big hit). Then we borrowed a video projector and had all her guests come over for a DVD projected onto a huge white sheet in the backyard. We served popcorn, soda, the works. All told, it cost about $100, including the DVD rental and a few dozen helium balloons.

I also took digital photos of guests before the movie started and then projected them in a slide show on the same laptop/video projector setup after the DVD had finished.

I don't think goodie bags are de rigeur, but we did give everyone a balloon and a little card with the Flickr address where all the photos would reside.

And our niece still says that was the best birthday she ever had.
posted by yellowcandy at 11:23 PM on May 6, 2008

Most birthday parties I remember going to around that time (which was only 5 or 6 years ago, so I have some more up to date information than you do :) ) involved sleepovers, IIRC. Sometimes we'd go see a movie first. Don't worry about gift bags unless your niece wants to do them for whatever reason... actually, have you asked her? If she's been to a friend's birthday party or heard them talk about them, she probably knows what's normal. And what you most want, as a teenager, frankly, of any age, is to be normal. And to be left alone. So, movie, cake, maybe some pizza and definitely some space. The more you can do to make your 12 or 13 year old feel more mature and stuff, the better.
posted by MadamM at 11:23 PM on May 6, 2008

I'm a college student, so while I haven't planned any of these parties I think my experiences with them are recent enough that they might be relevant.

2. Not sure if they're expected at that age. If you make some, I would get cheap novelty candy and trinkets like those you can find at party stores (e.g. wax lips, bouncy balls, candy necklaces, "bite-size" candy packs).

5. It seemed typical to open gifts at the party and to send a thank-you follow up note. I think the kids would be disappointed if the gifts weren't opened at the party; it's one of the best parts.

6. Birthday cake in a mall food court sounds strange to me, if we're picturing the same mall food courts. A large open area with a lot of people and so not a lot of room or relative quiet? It sounds difficult, and moreso it doesn't sound very "personal," which can be offputting on a kid's birthday. Then again, my family always did the candles-and-singing thing, so take my advice with that in mind. Can you return home for cake, or have it earlier?
posted by Solon and Thanks at 11:26 PM on May 6, 2008

IMHO you are over-planning. For my daughter's 11th birthday it was a sleepover for 8 w/ a rented movie ($4), simple dinner & pie ($25). 2 dozen helium balloons ($30) & a digital camera provided hours of fun. They had a gift exchange of used books and CDs (no presents, no swag bags, ($0)). I made popcorn, they played apples to apples, and had a good time. The only scheduled time was at lights out. These were all her choices, so If your niece wants a disco party for the whole class, well....
posted by TDIpod at 12:14 AM on May 7, 2008

I don't remember going to any 13th birthday parties with 'cake & icecream' or goody bags. For my 13th I had a big disco but other parties around that age (and older) were sleepovers with rented movies and take-away pizza or a cinema trip and meal out.

The best person to ask would be the birthday girl - presumably with such a late birthday, she's been to all her other friend's parties, she'll best know what the other kids her age are doing. Plus its her party - ask her what she wants to do.
posted by missmagenta at 12:14 AM on May 7, 2008

I'm not sure what your weather will be like in July, but outdoor parties are awesome, especially for large groups. Meet at a large park with picnic tables and grills, bring a stack of frisbees, wiffle bats, footballs or whatever sporting equipment you think they'll enjoy and turn them loose. Have a picnic lunch. If you want to do favors, buy enough outdoor toys for everyone to take one home.
You could also plan something more organized and outside like capture the flag or a water fight, but be prepared for it to devolve into chaos.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 5:37 AM on May 7, 2008

Followup from the OP:
I appreciate the suggestions for parties -- particularly because it helps me understand where the money goes for a party -- but we already have five ideas (niece-approved) that vary depending on number of guests. They include having parties at a small amusement park, at the bowling alley, at the water park, have everyone go to a movie matinee, or we have a grassy park nearby where we can serve cake/ice cream, cook hotdogs, and let them go wild. My niece loves the possibilities and understands that we have a budget and would have to choose a cheaper activity if more people are coming. I just don't know if my budget of about $170 is realistic or if it's stingy.

How do you do invitations when it's a summer birthday, given that she's only been in this school for a few months and I don't know any of the parents? Also, if you don't exactly know WHAT you'll be doing (because it depends on who wants to come), how do you feel out how many kids are likely to be there? Suggestions for wording about last-minute guests who don't RSVP?

I'm all about sleepovers, but I'd rather not do it in a party form and would prefer to limit it to one other girl. I seem to recall that sleepover parties always left at least one girl crying because the other girls were mean to her. :(
posted by parilous at 6:16 AM on May 7, 2008

Also: She hasn't been invited to any birthday parties since she's been with us (maybe she's not very popular?). She was, of course, invited to previous parties - this is why she approves of our party possibilities.

The weather will have high temperatures of 105+ degrees and humid (right before monsoons).
posted by parilous at 6:20 AM on May 7, 2008

I have a pre-teen daughter. Parties she attends tend to be roller skating or bowling where the facility has a package deal and takes care of the whole thing for you. Wonderful for a harried adult and the kids like it.

You bring in the cake. They set aside time for cake, pizza and gift opening in a separate room and manage it all. $170 actually sounds about right for how much I spent on her last party (we don't live in a big city--it was about $12 per kid plus my own other miscellaneous expenses).

Goody bags - go to the dollar store with her and let her pick out stuff for them.

Never had a problem with uninvited guests, nor invitations. We only sent out a few more than we expected to attend.

They seem to prefer this and it seems like the standard option among her friends. If I organized my own, I suspect it would involve a fair amount of eye rolling on her part. Sigh.
posted by idb at 6:27 AM on May 7, 2008

Party bags: Oriental Trading will sort you out for tuppence. You can get bags or cool boxes and shove them with crap - putty, yoyos, candy, all that good cheap stuff. Don't forget you'll need plates, cups, etc.

I believe you are over complicating this by planning various activities depending on how many people RSVP. In essence you are making a simple two-step process into a many-more-steps process that will complicate things and lead to disappointment. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

Do yourself a favour and send out invitations for a matinee birthday party in July, or a trip to the bowling alley birthday party. If you can only aford to take 20 kids to the bowling alley or 12 kids to the movies, than invite 25 kids to the movies or 15 kids to go bowling. Pick one and just go with it. Then call the families who RSVP to remind them a week or so before.

At the alley, you bring the cake. At the food court, see if there is a Baskin Robbins who can do an ice cream cake so you can definately be paying customers.

Be aware that because it is summer, some kids just won't be able to come because they're not there. Perhaps the smaller planned party would be better. And I would also advise you to have back-up; see if you can rope in some adults from your friends and family in case you end up with a very small RSVP list.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:46 AM on May 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's kind of strange to want to change the activity based on the number of people who RSVP, not least of which because what the activity is will dictate to some extent whether people will RSVP. Some kids will be able to make a couple of hours of bowling but not an entire day at the water park, for example. Some parents might not approve your choice of movie, but would be fine with you taking the kids bowling. (Other people will simply be so mercenary that they'll not see it worth it to send their kid with a gift to a cheap park picnic but would if it was an expensive water park day, but presumably you don't care about making those people happy.)
posted by jacquilynne at 6:56 AM on May 7, 2008

2. My oldest son has a summer birthday, and it's a tough time because so many families go on vacation at that time. We have found the best way for him to communicate with his friends was to get their phone numbers and emails in the last couple weeks of school, so that he could keep in contact with them via gmail (he doesn't do the MySpace thing, but a lot of teen and tween girls do). Then, about ten days before the party, the kids start calling each other, and you can nail down the details. Realistically, people won't be able to commit to a date in July this early, but you can certainly sound them out as to which weekend--before or after her birthday--is the best for them (lots of families also have sports and activities during the summer, and games fall on the weekends). You can make invitations on your computer and both email and mail them out for best results, or email and then call the parents to make sure they got them. Some older kids don't even do the formal invitations any more, it is all phone and email RSVPing.

I would not suggest doing a cake in the food court. That's not going to go well. Lots of movies have areas for cake, or they offer kids a "snack pack" with popcorn and drinks, and your niece may be fine with doing that for the party, and having her cake with just you guys. Otherwise, you may have to come home for cake with the girls you've invited.

A water park will run you higher than your budget (I think your budget is reasonable, by the way), and will be exhausting for everyone. You will have to keep track of all the kids at all times, so if you go this route, I would suggest only a small group of girls, maybe 4 or 5.

The only time I had any problems with "uninvited guests" was when my very social youngest son, though given invitations to pass out to the friends he said he wanted to invite, decided he had forgotten some people and basically told everybody about the party and to come on over any time! We had given out 8 invites, and even though some of them couldn't come, 14 kids showed up! Just let your niece know you are limited to the people you agree together to invite and you will be fine.
posted by misha at 7:15 AM on May 7, 2008

Yeah, you decide how many people you want to invite, then decide on the activity that fits your budget for that many people. Not the other way around. Assuming your niece has a decent core group of friends, you can probably plan that about 75% of the people you invite will attend.

If you pick the activity that works for 25 people, but only 10 say they can come, you can always add bonuses (pizza AND cake, or nicer stuff in the goodie bags) to the party you had already planned.

Keeping in touch after school is over is not that hard--I don't see why you can't go with the traditional route of mailing invitations, which can go out 3-4 weeks before the date of the party. Set the RSVP date 7-10 days before the party, and don't be afraid to call or email people who don't respond either way.
posted by CiaoMela at 7:31 AM on May 7, 2008

Regarding unexpected guests - there isn't a nice way to word it, so don't bother. Most normal people will assume that only the invitee will be paid for anyway. And unless it's a very protective group of parents, most will be only too happy to drop off their hellspawn tween for someone else to deal with for a few hours. (I say this as the mother of a hellspawn tween.)

Goody bags are still done to an extent in my daughter's crowd, but more often it's just one larger (but cheap) thing as a souvenir. She seems to go to a lot of parties where they make something - a tie-dye t-shirt, or some jewelry - and that item is their keepsake. But she doesn't generally expect a goody bag or a souvenir. Maybe just some candy or something. Yellowcandy's idea of a balloon and Flickr address sounds perfect.

Movies are a toughie when it comes to parties, unless the theater has a party room. You have to have some place to open gifts and have cake, and the food court probably won't cut it. (Won't your niece be mortified to have all that hubbub happening out in public where everybody walking by can WATCH? My daughter would be. [Insert maternal eye-rolling here.])

You could have a movie night or weekend afternoon at your house instead of a theater. Show the "High School Musical" movies, have karaoke or dancing to music from the Disney stable*, serve snacks or pizza, soda and cake, and you're done. The good thing about this is it doesn't matter if any kids show up unexpectedly.

*Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus, AJ & Aly (sp?), Corbin Blue, etc. You can get compilation CDs, or record some stuff off Disney satellite radio.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:44 AM on May 7, 2008

There are alternatives to goody bags. For my daughter's tenth, we had a luau-themed party in the back yard, and gave the kids tacky plastic tiki cups, complete with crazy straws. They used them at the party (filled with Hawaiian Punch, natch), then took them home. It was a hit. We set a $100 budget, and mostly kept to it, though there was some nickel-and-diming here and there.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:59 AM on May 7, 2008

Goody bags are fine, but not required. And all of your party ideas sound like fun (although the water park sounds like the hardest to manage and most exhausting).

The hardest part is that it's a summer birthday, and that she is new in school. My oldest daughter's birthday is in August, and it's a challenge to get very many kids to come. Uninvited guests are way less of a problem than hardly anyone showing up. Fortunately, my daughter prefers a more intimate set-up, so three or four kids are fine for her.

Your niece can spread the word about the date now in school, and send out invitations later. Most of the kids won't have a clue if they can make it or not yet. But, definitely get email addresses and make sure she keeps in touch with the kids she wants at the party. Then you can send out mailed and emailed invitations a few weeks before asking for RSVP.

Your budget seems generous, and I recommend just picking your favorite activity and then dealing with the rest as it comes.
posted by rintj at 8:53 AM on May 7, 2008

When you said preteen, I was thinking nine-year-old. I don't think many 12-year-old girls expect goodie bags, but it depends on your community. (Where I live, I have been attending $200-$500 parties for three year old kids and I'm probably considered cheap for spending $100 tops.)
posted by acoutu at 1:44 PM on May 7, 2008

Follow Up from the OP: We made "save the date" bookmarks (cut from pieces of foam from a craft store) before school ended, which helpfully coincided with discussion about summer reading lists in class. My niece passed around an address book asking for people's addresses during the last week of school.

We sent out invitations two weeks prior to the party with a one-week RSVP. My niece called everyone we hadn't heard from to see if they were going. Most RSVPs were to cancel; if we didn't hear from them, it was because they were coming.

We had the party at the bowling alley, where we paid based on the number of kids that showed (this was an awesome deal). Because there were lots of kids at the bowling alley, we handed out glow bracelets to the kids at the party so I could identify them. We brought in the cake and ice cream. The bowling alley provided a party planner (who was fantastic. We made sure to tip her) and I enlisted a couple of friends to help keep an eye on things. The kids got video game tokens as part of the event, so no goody bags were needed. We splurged and bought a refurbished, personalized, bowling pin for everyone at the party to sign. The party was scheduled to last 2.5 hours, which was the perfect length of time for kids to bowl for an hour, have pizza/soda, open presents, have cake/ice cream, and play their $7 in video games.

The cost was $175 for the party (not including birthday presents and cake/ice cream). The party expenses seemed a little on the cheap side, when compared to what others were saying, but everyone had fun and it was still reasonable for a kids' party.

Next year, it's going to be a sleepover with a movie/other fun event beforehand, I think.
posted by parilous at 1:13 PM on July 31, 2008

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