How to host a child’s party without breaking the bank or your kitchen

Invitations for all? Must we have goody bags? And what do we put in them? A guide to party etiquette

We’re nearly three months into the school year and the birthday party season is in full swing when, for many children aged 12 and under, hardly a weekend passes without at least one party to go to.

Although most of the excessive celebrations of boom-time Ireland deflated like a punctured balloon, nobody wanted to deprive their child of a party. So for a time they tended to be smaller, more homely affairs.

Holding joint parties, where two or three children from the same class have birthdays around the same time, also started to become very popular, says Karina Cotter, the founder of Having set up the website six years ago, and with four children aged from 10 months to 10 years, as well as working in a preschool, she is well positioned to see trends.

“What I have been noticing now is not as many people having parties in their houses: they are more inclined to have parties at venues or, if they are having entertainers, they are more inclined to be using parish halls or other places. That is probably a sign of things picking up.”

At the same time, prices per head have been creeping up at many venues. While they were once generally around the €10 mark, now you are looking at €15, she remarks. And for something unusual, probably more.

She agrees that children can get a bit jaded with all these parties, and harder to please. So parents of older children look for something slightly different “because you have already done everything by the time you reach eight or nine”.

Parents of children new to the party scene can find the etiquette a little perplexing, so here’s a potted guide.

At what age does the party circuit start?

It begins in preschool, usually from the age of three. However, Trish Connolly, a Dublin mother of two children aged two and 10, reckons it starts from the age of two, whether the child is in preschool or not.

Cotter says it definitely starts in preschool but she did notice during the recession that more parents seemed to be avoiding getting into an annual bash with friends until their children started “big school”. Now she sees this trend reversing, but there is no doubt it really kicks in once they start junior infants.

Do we have to invite the whole class?

Definitely not and don’t even think about it unless you have the money to do it comfortably – and the space, if you’re holding it at home. It is hard if other parents do, but you have to stick to what’s right for your family.

Where schools have a policy that invitations can be distributed through the classroom only if the whole class is invited, parents may think that’s implicit pressure to invite everyone.

However, that is about not causing upset in the classroom over something that is nothing to do with the school.

The chief executive of the National Parents’ Association (Primary), Áine Lynch, believes schools should steer clear of pronouncing on any issues relating to birthday parties, which are external events.

As regards the question of an invite for all, she says: “I don’t think parents should feel under pressure; I also don’t think children should feel under pressure. Having all the children in your class at a party can be quite daunting for young children, so I think it should come down to individual family situations.”

On the subject of invitations, even if children are not banned from handing them out at school, it would be common sense to avoid it, especially, as Lynch says, “it is very easy to distribute them outside the school area”.

“It is a shame that policies have to be made to ban that kind of thing,” she adds. “I think certainly if it is causing a problem within the school, the best thing is to take it out of the school. I think if it is not causing a problem in the school then leave it alone.”

How do we decide what friends to invite, then?

It can be tricky to decide who to leave out. You run the risk of upsetting some parents as much – or sometimes more – than the children.

However, schools and parents can only go so far in trying to protect children from the realities of life. Even where schools don’t allow invitations to be circulated in the classroom, they can’t silence the inevitable chatter about a party.

Far better for parents to try teach children from an early age that not everybody can be invited to every party.

“Learning to deal with rejection is very beneficial to a child, as this leads to psychological preparedness, which ultimately makes us happier later on in life,” says positive psychology expert Jolanta Burke. “Rejection sensitivity” is a trait that leads people to overreact to possible rejection, she explains, and can result in maladaptive behaviours such as withdrawing from relationships for fear of being rejected, depression or not sharing troubles.

“It is developed in childhood, and overparenting may be particularly bad for children who are sensitive to rejection,” she adds.

The most reliable and transparent cut-off for invites is by gender. If this is still too many, then you just have to pick closest friends but watch out for the exclusion of just one or two and tweak the number up or down accordingly. As children get older they are usually more accepting of going to some parties and missing others.

Aisling O’Meara, whose eldest child started junior infants last September, is new to all this. As her daughter’s fifth birthday fell early in the school year, before she knew how the friendships were forming, “I invited all of the girls and boys at her table,” she explains.

What’s the going rate to spend on a gift?

What anybody else is spending on gifts shouldn’t be a factor in deciding what is within your means. But since you ask, it seems to be about €10-€15 for younger children and that starts creeping up to €20 or more when vouchers and/or cash start making an appearance for older children.

Most parents shell out each time, even though privately they question the madness of children getting far too many presents. In other cases, parents try to do something about the excess collectively.

For example, Scoil Bhailenóra in Waterfall, Co Cork, has what it calls a Cárta system in place, whereby parents have agreed that they put just €5 into a card when their child is going to a birthday party. Introduced here more than five years ago, this not only reduces the financial burden on parents but also cuts down on the waste of gifts that are well-intentioned but maybe ultimately not wanted.

The principal of Scoil Bhailenóra, Mícheál Ó Draighneáin, says the system is widely observed and is a “win win” arrangement for all. Now that his own first child is of schoolgoing age, he appreciates it even more.

“Rightly or wrongly, nowadays children with birthdays will invite many of their classmates to a celebration and the cost of a present for each of these would be very prohibitive were it not for the Cárta system,” he says.

“Additionally, it saves parents the hassle of having to actually select a present, wrap it etc. And because the likes of my son has never known anything other than the Cárta system, he and his classmates have no expectation of receiving anything other than a card with €5 in it when birthday parties come round.

However, Lynch does not think it is an area that parents’ associations should get involved in because it is not a school policy issue. If parents want to make informal agreements with each other, that’s a separate matter, she adds.

When it’s a joint party, do you have to bring two presents? Ideally the hosting parents will indicate what’s expected on the invitation. Usually it is suggested that just one present be brought and these will then be divided equally between the two or more children, presuming they are of the same gender. Other times, two small presents are suggested as apt.

Parents of twins have added sensitivities to take into account when holding joint parties. Corinna Moore of Dalkey, Co Dublin, has twin boys, who are the eldest of her five children. Because they were in different classes at school, friends usually brought a present for whichever twin was in their class. But she switched gifts to even out the piles if necessary.

Twins expect to receive exactly the same as each other, says Cotter, who has twin girls, so she would put on invitations that if two presents were being brought, to keep them small. Now they are older, she is happy to suggest one present only.

The giving can also be problematic with twins, she adds. When her daughters were younger, she would always buy two small gifts so they each could bring one to a party.

Meanwhile, Oxfam Ireland ( has a “Pass the Present” scheme, whereby parents can suggest to a few of the guests’ parents that they contribute to the charity instead of buying a gift and in return the birthday child will receive a puzzle pack and certificate on behalf of those who made a donation.

Is it okay to serve non-PC food such as chips, sausages and lots of sweets?

The children will probably love you for it, if not all the parents. (And by their children, the disapproving parents will be known . . . those will be the little ones who are scoffing non-stop because they don’t get the chance at home.)

While it is good to have some healthier things, you will probably have leftover carrot sticks and sandwiches, when the sausages and chocolate fingers have long gone.

In Cotter’s experience, “food has become less of a big deal”. When she started her website, there was more emphasis on providing nutritious alternatives to party staples.

Now, “I think parents are less concerned about whether their children have had something ‘sensible’ to eat; I don’t know why, but I have noticed that in recent times.”

There are venues that don’t serve food, or just have a bowl of treats, and if it is just a two-hour party and not during lunchtime, it is probably plenty, she says. However, personally, she would always feel obliged to provide food at a party.

Do I need to ask about allergies?

No because you would presume that a parent of an invited child would tell you about allergies or dietary restrictions.

Try to cater for the request but, if you can’t, don’t hesitate to tell the parent what will be served and suggest or confirm that they bring something suitable for their child.

Do we have to give out goody bags?

It’s your party; you decide. However, be under no illusions – they are expected, at least among children whose age is still in single digits. And it’s quantity rather than quality that counts in the eyes of the juveniles, says Cotter who has overheard the withering verdict: “There’s only three things in this bag . . .”

Lisa, an Irish mother living in Austria, says she has seen goody bags only at ex-pat parties and she doesn't do them at her own children's parties, so as not to set a precedent.

Should we get our child to write thank-you notes afterwards?

Good luck with that one. But no, in what is another concession to the “entitled” generation, written thanks are not expected – except, perhaps, by ageing relatives. One text to all is the norm these days – or personalised ones if you have managed to list who gave your child what.

Celebrating Party tricks, from DIY ‘Star Wars’ to gaming in a van Home

Once children are beyond the stage of being happy with pass the parcel and musical chairs, entertaining them for two hours at home gets a little more challenging.

Ideas and materials for DIY themed and craft parties abound on the internet. For example, with Star Wars fever in the air ahead of the December 18th opening of the latest film in the franchise, the parties section of has a guide to organising for the Force to be with your little ones.

Clear the living room and put on music and disco ball lighting; buy a stack of plain T-shirts and hand out fabric markers for decorating them; cajole some teenage girls to run a “pampering party”; organise a “home cinema” experience.

However, entertainers of all descriptions are queuing up to do the hard work for you at home, from puppeteers and potters to boffins and beauticians. Try websites such as, and to track them down.

New on the block is the Gaming Party Van, which parks outside your house and into which up to 12 children can clamber to play on a range of consoles. Packages start from €225 for two hours. Also new is a mobile recording unit from the Sing Factory that comes to your house (see below).


Here's a sample of what's on offer: Hamleys in Dundrum Town Centre, Dublin runs themed parties at €20 a head (€30 with food) or, for the one to trump all others, you could book the 12-hour, Saturday night sleepover in the toy store at €230pp.

Squirrel's Scramble, a forest adventure park for all ages, in the Killruddery estate, Bray, Co Wicklow, is open for birthday parties at weekends and during holidays from March to the end of November. They have sheltered party picnic areas but don't provide food, although local pizza and crepe outlets do deliveries there. €10 pp for groups of 10-plus.

The Sing Factory is a recording studio on Dublin's Merrion Street where X-Factor wannabees can strut their stuff and get a recording of their vocal efforts. €20pp, minimum €150.

Magic Celebrations offers themed, girlie events from age five up to teens at Hollypark Studios in Blackrock, Co Dublin. €17pp, minimum of €250.

A glow of altruism envelops parties at ChildVision, the National Education Centre for Blind Children in Drumcondra, Dublin, where, says Aisling O’Meara ,who had her daughter’s fifth birthday party there, invitees get a tour of the petting farm, followed by a spell in the playground and then a slap-up feast of sausages, chips and ice-cream. Best of all, profits go to ChildVision; €14pp, minimum 10. 087-314 3020

Annual membership of Atlantaquaria for the birthday child is just one added bonus in the party packages at the national aquarium in Galway; from €12pp, minimum of eight.

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