We are currently in the US (California) and my son is soon going to turn three. He's somewhat grasping the idea of getting older, and I also think he's old enough to really enjoy having a party. We're planning on inviting some friends with small kids (6 in total, 7 months - 4 years old) to our place. Birthday practices vary widely across the globe and we are new to this continent, so I'd like to have some idea of what is typical here. Just imagine you received an invitation to a three-year-old's birthday party and you have to make a best guess at what time of day it will start, how long it will last, what activities are going to take place...

Specifically, I'd like to know the following:

  • Is there a time of day that is most typical of birthday parties for this age? For us 11 AM works best (the little guy has a long nap after lunch) but I'm thinking this might be strange.
  • Should we put an ending time for the party in the invitation? This is not an issue if people typically arrive around the invited beginning time, but maybe they don't?
  • How long does a typical birthday party last?
  • Is store-bought cake considered OK for such young kids? Or should we be looking for something special?
  • What sort of drinks are normally served? For the kids as well as adults.
  • Do guests get something from us? (e.g. a bag with a small toy per kid)
  • I know that candles and a birthday song are customary. Anything else? Hats?
  • Is it understood that we will have a plan for entertaining the kids, or is free play more standard?
  • Do presents get opened in front of everybody? Do they get opened all at once?
  • Any other detail you might think of.

Just for clarity, we're not trying to mimic the all-American party, I just want to avoid big surprises :)

edit: Maybe I should note that in my country of origin a (1st) birthday involves bbq, alcohol and cigarette smoke in a restaurant, and opening presents - which are mostly envelopes with money - when everyone has left. Later birthdays involve cooking a feast. I know not to do something similar here, but I'm still wary of making really big blunders and was hoping to get some quick advice.

  • This question appears to be off-topic because it is not actually about parenting And is likely to be specific to your area. If you want to know what is common in your area, ask at kids soft play centres, or ask other parents.
    – Rory Alsop
    Mar 2, 2014 at 19:23
  • @Rory Alsop - That's too bad, I was hoping it would be acceptable. Maybe I should note that in my country of origin a (1st) birthday involves bbq, alcohol and cigarette smoke in a restaurant, and opening presents - which are mostly envelopes with money - when everyone has left. I know not to do something similar here, but I'm still wary of making really big blunders and was hoping to get some quick advice.
    – Ana
    Mar 2, 2014 at 20:44
  • 6
    I disagree. It's very much about parenting. Healthy social relationships between children, between families, are on topic when the question is about bullying or relationships between grandparents and grandchildren.
    – Marc
    Mar 2, 2014 at 23:26
  • 2
    @Marc I agree with you that this question is not off topic; it's totally appropriate to seek advice here on how to host an age appropriate party where all the kids have fun, and where none of the parents get offended/made to feel uncomfortable (so that they will not forbid their children from socializing with the birthday boy/girl ever again.)
    – Jax
    Mar 3, 2014 at 0:04

3 Answers 3


All "keeping up with the Joneses" considerations aside, it really depends on your individual children. My daughter would be thrilled with her two friends from church playing princesses, and more than that would overwhelm her. My son could have a superbowl-sized event just for him and still ask for more.

Make it a nice event for your child, and don't try to impress other parents. There's nothing worse than spending a bunch of money only for your child to be overwhelmed or shy or ungrateful.

Chances are the time that works best for your child will work best for other kids his age. Same for duration. You know how long he can go without winding himself into a death spiral of hyperness.

As far as food and decorations, just do what you can afford comfortably. The only cake I remember from when I was a child was a homemade superman cake. It doesn't have to be custom professional or store bought, unless that's easier for you. The important thing to me was it fit my interests.

For opening presents, it depends on how gracious your son is able to be. If he has a hard time showing gratitude, or a hard time sharing, you might want to open presents after the guests leave. Make sure to send thank you notes in those cases, though.

Entertainment again is what you can afford. It's almost a cliche to hire a professional entertainer like a clown that the kids end up hating. Some of the most memorable parties have a simple theme that the kids can mostly play for themselves. My mom made simple capes for the guests of that Superman party, which I'm sure was time-consuming, but not elaborate. That's the party I still remember, not the ones where I got a goody bag of toys that lasted a day. For another example, my nephew had a "pirates and princesses" theme, where the girls got cheap tiaras and the boys got bandanas and wooden swords, and they had a few running-around games related to the theme.

In other words, don't worry about doing what everyone else does. If you make a party you and your son will enjoy, that enthusiasm will spread to the guests.

  • Thank you, some great ideas here! We certainly weren't planning to try to impress, it's too bad that the tone of the question came through that way. For example when I was asking how structured the activities should be, it's because I have the impression that people here are way more concerned with safety and parental supervision than the couple of European countries I lived in previously.
    – Ana
    Mar 3, 2014 at 6:30
  • Also, in the place my husband is from, it would be considered borderline negligent to buy a cake for kids that young (sugar, additives...), but since my PhD thesis submission deadline is a week after the birthday, if nobody cares, I'd rather buy than bake something.
    – Ana
    Mar 3, 2014 at 6:32

One rule of thumb I've heard is "No more guests than their age." That would mean three friends plus him. Of course, that would be assuming it's a kid party. After all, how many kids can a four year old actually play with at the same time? To much action, noise, etc., and the party-with-little-buddies gets lost.

If it's a "family" celebration with aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, neighbors, etc., all celebrating the family milestone, that's different but also worthy event. Still, you might try to set aside some space and time for the little guy and his best buddies from preschool, away from the crowd of olders and youngers.

What happens at an birthday party depends on lots of things, including your wealth, the wealth of your guests, what's become "traditional" in your neighborhood. Asking other parents might give you a few ideas, as will their parties when you take your son to them. Seems that cake and a party bag of worthless choking hazards from Party City (blech) for each guest was common when my kids were younger. I've seen present opening in front of the crowd and after the crowd leaves. I prefer the second method, as I hate to see a friend feel shamed when the gift they could afford was far smaller than others'.

"Later birthdays involve cooking a feast. I know not to do something similar here . . ."

Really? I don't know why you wouldn't want to do something similar if it's a larger family-and-neighbors celebration rather than a party just for the kids. Doesn't sound strange to me, and I don't see why your kid should grow up and leave his heritage behind. Toning down the alcohol and cigarettes would be a concession to American tastes, bit otherwise, host your own party.

  • Thanks a lot! By not cooking a feast, I really meant that I don't want his party to be mainly oriented towards adults, and that I prefer that it's a time of day when he's awake and cheerful, rather than the time of day when people normally have a big meal. But also, I think it's awkward when people overdo stuff, and in the country where I've been living the past six years, overspending is seen very negatively.
    – Ana
    Mar 3, 2014 at 0:35

Southern California is a bit of a different beast entirely to the other two states I have lived in as well as to where my sister lives and her experience now as a parent. While the other advice already offered is generally great advice I will add these two items which I have found to apply specifically to California (particularly if the party isn't just your very closest friends):

A bounce house seems standard and depending upon how far south you are, and your circle of friends a pinata might also be fairly standard.

If you don't put a time the party ends on the invitation, people will come very late and stay Way past the standard two-three hour party I experienced in other parts of the country (frankly, sometimes this will happen even if you do put an ending time).

Having Said That We have successfully never done what the "traditional standards" for Cali are, and thrown what many have later communicated to be the "best" parties because they are creative and unique. So if you do something that works for you and that your child will enjoy, it might take a few people by surprise at first, but if your party is thoughtfully planned, that thoughtfulness will come through and your guests will appreciate it. I suggest for this age group something that encourages play that can be fairly free and mobile (a bounce house does this simply because they can come and go from it as they please but it isn't the same thing they have access to all teh time and every day (Which is probably why it is so popular). Maybe a couple of play "stations" or games but don't be too organized about it - three year old kids really just want to run around together.

Regarding timing the party. I really do recommend against trying to squeeze it in before nap time. Nap is likely to be difficult no matter how you slice it for a party honoree of this age. Trying to have the nap after the festivities will be difficult because there are likely to be straggle guests anyway. I'd plan on some "quiet time" a little earlier than when nap usually happens and hope he sleeps, and then also plan on an earlier-than-usual bedtime. But then, I have a kid that has always been able to push through even when she was tired and not get too grumpy (except in the area of homework and chores - but you aren't there yet anyway wink, wink) so that advice may not apply if you have a child (like the one I babysit and love very much) that is monster when tired.

  • Thank you so much! Very useful advice as well. The nap happening is not so much of an issue for us as the kiddo sometimes even skips it these days, but when he does sleep, it's very unpredictable as to when it will happen, so we try to avoid planning afternoon events. And even when it doesn't happen he gets cranky, so it's never a good time for adding excitement.
    – Ana
    Mar 3, 2014 at 6:19

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