Etiquette For Parents To Cure Birthday Party Blues

Back to school means homework, sports, and often times, a barrage of invitations to birthday parties and bar mitzvahs. Guest host Celeste Headlee talks about how parents can best handle sticky social situations from gifts to guest lists. She speaks with moms Karen Grigsby Bates, Leslie Morgan Steiner, Dani Tucker and Aracely Panameno.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Each week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice, and today we want to tap into both.

Kids are back in school now and they've probably started bringing home homework, but the new year also sometimes means a slew of invitations - birthday parties, bar mitzvahs, sleepovers. If you're thinking it's just about cake and paper hats, you may be surprised at how elaborate these parties can be and how quickly they can turn into awkward social situations.

We reached out to our NPR listeners on Facebook and received more than 500 comments and questions about parties and parenting etiquette at those parties. They range from how to celebrate twins to how much to spend on a gift. So, we've called on our parenting contributors to help answer your questions and share some of their own stories, as well.

I'm joined now by Karen Grigsby Bates. She's an NPR correspondent based in Los Angeles, mom of one. She is co-author of "Basic Black," a best-selling etiquette book. Leslie Morgan Steiner is mom of three and the editor of "Mommy Wars." Aracely Panameno is a mom of one and director at the Center for Responsible Lending. And Dani Tucker is a mom of two and an office administrator.

Welcome to all of you, moms.

DANI TUCKER: Thank you.

LESLIE MORGAN STEINER: Hello.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Hey.

ARACELY PANAMENO: Thank you.

HEADLEE: So, Karen, let me begin with you because there is a lot of etiquette advice out there for adults. Do you think it's more complicated when you involve the kids into these situations?

BATES: You know, older kids sometimes - and I'm thinking older, like old enough to be able to make rational decisions - sometimes like having some of the decision-making as part of them. I've gone to parties where the mom has been adamant about no presents, no presents, and if we're doing presents, we're contributing to nonprofits. And, sometimes, the child will decide, I want to send the money to the zoo. I want it to go to a children's shelter. I want to buy toys for kids who don't have any toys.

So, sometimes, it's good to involve them, but I think that needs to be done ahead of time. I mean, you don't need to do it while people are at the front door.

HEADLEE: The decision made in advance. Leslie Morgan Steiner, though, you say it gets more complicated as the kids age. What do you mean?

STEINER: Well, I think what happens is that a lot of parents just forget what it's like to be a kid and I'd say, before doing any birthday party planning, remember what it was like to be 8 or 10 or 15. And I think it does get more complicated as kids get older, mostly because the lessons that you want to teach your kids become more complicated and I think exclusivity becomes a very big issue.

You know, it's not quite as appropriate when your child is 15 to have the entire class invited to a party and that is where I think you get into a lot of trouble where the opportunity is to celebrate the birthday, but also have your kid learn something about including everyone and having it be a celebration for everybody.

HEADLEE: Well, we're going to talk about how many people to invite in just a moment, but one of the biggest issues that we heard about from parents is the expense, how much you spend on a gift and how expensive the parties are. Here's a comment from NPR listener Jeremy Rudd(ph) in Epworth, Iowa.

JEREMY RUDD: A big concern for me is the cost associated with the whole birthday party issue. It's staggering to me. We have limited the party to cake and ice cream, the only things the kids wanted anyway, and tried to situate the time for fun between major mealtimes to try and stave off the cost of feeding a small army.

HEADLEE: So Aracely Panameno, is this something that you have seen yourself?

PANAMENO: Oh, absolutely. As a matter of fact, I often plan this, but this has, I think, for me, worked when my kid was in the younger years. And so I would actually do exactly what the person suggested. Put the activity in between major meals and so it was more about the activities and the games that were being played accompanied by cake and ice cream.

As my daughter grew a little bit older, I took her to particular places where she actually enjoyed a playground or Chuck E. Cheese or Laser Quest or something like that. But that also meant that I needed to think about how many people could be invited.

HEADLEE: Well, Dani Tucker, you've raised your kids as a single mom, one income. I mean, I have to assume that, at some point, some of these very elaborate parties - I don't know if your kids have been invited to them - that can sometimes become a real issue.

TUCKER: Oh, a big issue. Both of them have not really gone to the elaborate parties because I didn't want them to feel bad when they couldn't give an elaborate gift.

HEADLEE: You mean, they got invited and you didn't allow them to go?

TUCKER: Well, I let it be their choice, but they mostly didn't want to go anyway if - you know, because, again, if they couldn't really give a gift on the caliber of the other kids, they were like, well - you know, I just encouraged them to do something for them another way. You know, that's your friend. Give them a gift, you know, at school or give them a gift separately or, you know, you guys go to lunch. Or just encourage them to do something that - within their budget, within their allowance, within whatever money that they had so they didn't have to feel bad. You know, I'm like, don't feel obligated to go to the elaborate party because it's your friend if you can't afford to go or if you feel out of place, you know.

But, fortunately, they haven't really had that because a lot of their friends have been on their level, so they choose to do things - I mean, granted, sometimes, like I actually - Yvonne is going to one on Friday at Maggiano's, I think it is. So she's like, Mom, we've got this? I'm, like, yeah, we got this, you can go, you know. But at first she was like OK, let me see. What's your budget, you know? So I mean, they're real practical with it. They don't get upset.

HEADLEE: Let's talk a little bit more about this. Leslie Morgan Steiner, I'm told that one of your kids got a cashmere sweater at a...

(LAUGHTER)

STEINER: Yes.

HEADLEE: You're laughing. Is that true?

STEINER: It is true. This was when she was probably 7 or 8, and there was a very wealthy friend of hers. And the mother gave my daughter a beautiful cashmere sweater. And I think in exchange we had given her child a Barbie doll that probably cost $6 or $7. And I have to tell you, I didn't feel awkward or embarrassed about it at all. I thought it was wonderful that the friend was so generous. I got the feeling that that's what she gave to every child. It wasn't that she was singling out my daughter. And I just think that, you know, people give from their hearts, not necessarily to impress anybody else, and I just took it as a gift freely given. And I tell you, my daughter really got a lot of good wear out of that sweater.

HEADLEE: I'd bet she did. But Karen Grigsby Bates, let me go to the etiquette of this because I wish everyone thought that gifts were given straight from the heart, but I don't think that's always the case. I think that sometimes when parents bring an expensive gift to a party they assume that when you come in to their child's party they are going to get an equal or almost equal gift.

BATES: I think that's probably true in some big cities, including L.A. Happily, it's not always true and that's been very rare in my experience. And my philosophy was kind of like the Leslie's. It's, like, just don't spaz out about it. You know, you give what you can afford what you think the child would like. Now, if what the child would like is a battery-operated mini Mercedes, oh well, you know, maybe wealthy grandpa is going to do that for her.

(LAUGHTER)

BATES: But you, sir, are going to get Mighty Morphin Power Rangers because that's something that, you know, it speaks their cultural common language. And, you know, boys - luckily, I have a boy for a long time didn't really care about that stuff. They cared about things that were foldable and smashable, things that made a lot of noise and a lot of light, you know, things basically that drives a mom who likes a little bit of order crazy. Girls are harder I think because they didn't pay attention to fashion and fashion is cyclical and so you know when you're wearing last year's or two years ago - whatever.

But I think Leslie is exactly right. It's like you give what you can afford, you give what you think that your friend would like and if they give something that's wildly expensive, you know, good for them. They've got the income that can do that. You know, maybe cashmere sweaters for her was the equivalent of a Barbie doll. You know, maybe there's something that's even more expensive that she gives cousins or something else. But I think if you start to think about if I give this then they should get that, or I should get that when it's my kid's birthday, that way lies madness.

HEADLEE: If you're joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Our Moms roundtable is talking about parenting etiquette and birthday parties. I'm joined by NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates, who you just heard and regular contributors Dani Tucker, Aracely Panameno and Leslie Morgan Steiner.

Let's get to another question from an NPR listener who wrote in at our Facebook page. Here's Lynette Freitas of Gilroy, California.

LYNETTE FREITAS: At what age is it appropriate to leave my child at a birthday party? My child is very independent, well-behaved at other people's homes. I don't have a problem just dropping him off and letting him play. But for the parties that I thrown for my children, several parents stayed for the whole party, which for me feels really uncomfortable.

HEADLEE: And I should mention, her child is 6 years old. And, you know, this comes up, I am surprised at how often this comes up. Let me take this to you Leslie, and how you've handle this, because it is amazing the difference of opinion on this. The parents will literally stand there like a statue in your house for hours watching and those that just literally throw the kids out of the car as they drive by. What do you think, Leslie?

STEINER: I think that it's appropriate about age 8 to leave a child. But I tell you, we have pool parties for our fifth grader and I love it when parents stay for that because we need as many people as possible. But now it's become really comical because we also have a 15-year-old, and I tell you there are no parents who want to come to a party for teenagers.

HEADLEE: Do you blame them?

(LAUGHTER)

STEINER: I don't blame them at all, especially a pool party? Because you've got girls in bikinis and the dancing and, you know, they feel sorry for me at that point. So, you know, I think it's really hard to navigate. It's also really hard to tell somebody, I need you to stay, or I need you to go. That's where it becomes awkward between the parents, I think, and that's kind of hard to navigate.

HEADLEE: Yeah. Asking someone to leave? That's tough.

STEINER: Yes.

HEADLEE: Aracely...

BATES: But not if you do it ahead of time, I don't think.

STEINER: Oh, really?

BATES: This is Karen. I'm sorry. I mean I have gone to parties where, you know, you get the invitation at evite or whatever and they will say on the invitation, parents, please come and plan to stay with your child. Now, if you do that that means you have twice as many people as you planned and so you've got to have twice as much cake or twice as much peanut butter and jelly - whatever it is that you are, you know, that you are serving. But some parents really feel - the party-giving parents really feel as if, look, you know, I've got my hands full and I can't also, you know, look after 30 kids all by myself. Lots of times moms will get good friends and say, you know, we had five of us, we've taken care of it, you can drop your kid off. But I don't think people can automatically assume that it's OK to drop the kid off, and I think that it's on the inviting parent to sort of say whether you want people dropped off or whether you want them to stay ahead of time. And if I'm a parent and I go, then I'm not one to just sit against the wall and expect to be entertained. What do you need me to do?

HEADLEE: OK. Well, let's go to another question. It was actually asked by a number of people. But this comment comes from Shannon Tucker of Fruithurst, Alabama, talking about schools that mandate you invite an entire class if you're going to have a party. Take a listen.

SHANNON TUCKER: We ended up with 14 - 9- to 11-year-old girls, and it was a disaster. Girls that swore they were besties with everyone, ended up starting a huge fight and splitting the girls into four groups that refused to speak to each other at all.

HEADLEE: So Aracely, let's hear from you on this. Is this something, I mean, do you have to invite in a whole class? And when do you think of it?

ARACELY PANAMENO: So I actually never have to face that. My daughter actually went to a school that was starting in our district because she went to a particular educational program. She always applied for a specific program so this was not an issue for us. And she always, in the earlier years, I actually brought the party, I asked permission from the administration and I brought the party to the school. So it was sort of like during recess, if you will. I brought cupcakes or something that I baked and I always asked in advance about food allergies and things of that nature.

As she got a little older, she actually became more selective and the exclusivity issue entered into the picture and we invited as, you know, she selected her friends. But no, I never actually faced the issue where the school actually required me to invite the entire class.

I would want to go to the point where I would advise people not to ever compete with the Joneses. I think that it is very, it's a blessing if you have the financial ability to give as much as you want to give, but I never felt compelled to actually reciprocate if it wasn't within my means. I also raised my daughter as a single mom. And then finally I think the invitation, - and you mentioned it - the invitation is key. The invitation, always when I hosted a party, I always gave specific instructions to parents as to, you know, what to do about gifts, how long the party was going to be, etcetera. And then if I was doing a pool party, which I heard has been hosted, and those can be quite challenging, I actually also recruited in advance a number of parents. So I worked with them and I said, please stay, help me out, and I gave people specific roles. So that was very important.

And then I think finally, the other thing that I always made sure I had was phone numbers, because if something went wrong, whether it was an accident or a food allergy that I wasn't aware of, I needed to make sure that I could call parents and get somebody to come and pick up a child or take care of a child.

HEADLEE: Well, that sounds like what you're saying through all of that is you have to really plan carefully in advance. Dani Tucker, what advice do you give to parents out there who are facing some of these issues?

TUCKER: Well, first thing I give them is calm down, it's a birthday party.

(LAUGHTER)

TUCKER: It's not, you know, their wedding.

STEINER: Thank you.

TUCKER: And it's not, you know...

STEINER: Thank you.

TUCKER: ...them having their wisdom teeth pulled. Sometimes we can make a single, you know, a small issue become a big issue when we don't to be...

HEADLEE: Yeah. One listener talked about the tyranny of the goody bag.

TUCKER: Yeah. Let's relax, people. Let's relax.

HEADLEE: Yeah.

TUCKER: The dollar store is still a great place to shop. But I'm kind of with Aracely. I did the cupcake thing. I was in - because I'm not inviting the class. I don't care what you mandated. What I do at my house is my business.

(LAUGHTER)

TUCKER: I mean, you know, if you mandated at school we're not going to have the party at school. But what I do at my house, you can't mandate. But, you know, I sent the cupcakes to school, that was my thing. And if the children did it I try to make, you know, I always ask the kids, hey, who doesn't eat the cupcakes and, you know, cookies or whatever. But when I had the party that's what I plan. I normally invited people on my page. And, you know, and that's my advice to you, invite people on your page. If they're not on your page don't invite them and you won't have the conflict. And you know who I'm talking about. You know the people that come because you always have those that goes, oh, should I invite them? Their children are bad. If you know their kids are bad, don't invite them. It's as simple as that.

(LAUGHTER)

TUCKER: Just don't do it. You know, you don't have to make this hard, OK? You don't have to make it hard. You don't have to sweat it. It's OK. There's going to be another one in 365 days.

HEADLEE: We have about a minute left. Leslie, your piece of advice?

STEINER: Well, I'd say my pet peeve is when the invitation says no presents because that just breaks my heart. It goes back to when I was, you know, 6 or 7 and the thought of having no presents on my birthday would just be, just be terrible. So I say - the latest party my daughter insisted on saying presents optional. And that worked really well because she got some presents but then nobody felt badly if they didn't bring something.

HEADLEE: Yeah. Well, that's a good piece of advice. Why don't you wrap it up for us, Karen Grigsby Bates? What do parents need to remember?

BATES: They need to remember that this is just the beginning of a really long slog. And my little kid is now...

(LAUGHTER)

HEADLEE: Great.

BATES: ...20 years old...

HEADLEE: Thank you.

BATES: ...which really puts things in perspective. But, you know, there will come a point when actually they won't want a birthday party. They will want to go off with two or three of your friends...

HEADLEE: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

BATES: ...to the movies or believe it or not, they'll want to go to dinner with a couple of family members and just celebrate quietly because they're just not into all the fuss anymore.

HEADLEE: Right.

BATES: So there is light at the end of the tunnel.

HEADLEE: That's Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR correspondent based in Los Angeles. That's where she joined us from our studios at NPR West. Aracely Panameno is the mom of one, works at the Center for Responsible Lending. She joined us from San Francisco. Dani Tucker is here in studio with me in Washington, D.C. She's the mom of two and an office administrator. And Leslie Morgan Steiner is a mom of three, author of the books "Mommy Wars" and "Crazy Love." She joined us from Manchester, New Hampshire this week.

Thank you so much, moms.

TUCKER: Thank you.

STEINER: Thank you, everyone.

BATES: Thank you.

PANAMENO: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HEADLEE: And that's our program for today. I'm Celeste Headlee. You've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We'll talk more on tomorrow.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

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